Saturday, 19 December 2009

Snow on snow...

Here are some more pictures I took as I went out to dice with the chance of a broken hip this morning, Cambridge's pavements being a mass of transparent, inch-thick, mirror-smooth ice.

(A bit of King's.)

(The classic Cambridge Christmas view: King's College Chapel.)

(Part of the main court of my college, as I went to collect my mail.)

(Senate House.)

(Old Court, 'Porterhouse'.)

(The gardens, 'Porterhouse'.)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Cruise control

It took me several seconds to realise that this is a small child, and not a woman with primordial dwarfism. Suri Cruise is three and a half years old.

Monday, 7 December 2009


(Harold Bloom)

Thoroughly enjoying Harold Bloom's Omens of Millennium: the great literary critic is so much more enjoyable when not doing his tired 'Ain't it awful?' number, that is, when not writing about literature.

The book has his usual faults: it reads as though Bloom actually wrote a 50,000 word long essay and then left his put-upon research assistants to pad it out to book length. It is full of repetetion, often telling us the same thing twice in the course of five pages: that Elijah became the angel Sandalphon, for example, or that when the next 'authentic' American prophet comes to follow Joseph Smith, 'we will not recognise her (at least at first).' It has Bloom's bad habit of adding '-ism' to words to create unclear abstract nouns---'angelicism', for example----or using technical terms in non-technical ways; Nietzsche's 'perspectivism' is pressed into service to mean something like 'a vertiginous evocation of soaring height and plunging depth', and 'vitalism' is used to mean 'irrepressable vitality'. It has irritating tics like his dislike of Jung's thought ('a reductive cult'), which he clearly doesn't understand at all, and his ironic fondness for Mormonism. There is a strange sequence of pages in Chapter II ('DREAMS') in which the prose suddenly ceases to make sense, Bloom going incomprehensibly off on one for about 3,000 words. As I read it, I assumed I was failing to understand a word because I was drunk, before realising that I was, in fact, perfectly sober.

For all that, it's an enjoyable book, if you like delving into Kabbala, Sufism, Swedenborg and the like; full of incidental hermetic joys, its main interest for me was in listening to Bloom telling us a little about himself and his own ironic, neo-Gnostic religious sense, rather than talking his usual old bollocks about 'self-overhearing' in Shakespeare.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


The view over the Scholars' Garden from my office window at 8.45am.

Monday, 12 October 2009


This is my grandad's obituary from The Guardian.

* * *

The psychiatrist Arthur Hyatt Williams, who has died aged 94 after a long illness, was a pioneer in treating criminals psychoanalytically. Widely known as Hyatt, he was a warm, energetic and optimistic person, both boyish and paternal. He believed strongly that even the most hardened criminals, including murderers for whom there was no chance of direct reparation, could be helped to work on their sense of guilt and modify their destructive tendencies, and he would put himself out to a great degree in order to treat them.

This belief was one source of his enthusiastic campaigning, along with Leo Abse and others, for the abolition of the death penalty, which came in 1965. Hyatt also did long-term work with people who might otherwise have become violent. It is hard to demonstrate the full value of such preventive work.

He was one of a relatively small group of prominent psychoanalysts who combined their high level of commitment to psychoanalysis with a passionate dedication to the public sector. Moreover, where tough work was to be done – with very disturbed adolescents, or psychotically depressed postnatal mothers, or couples involved in domestic violence, say – there Hyatt would be.

As a child brought up in a family of modest means on the Wirral, Cheshire, Hyatt developed a lifelong passion for all things living. At the age of 13 he was so fascinated by the butterflies on a visit to Liverpool Museum that the curator asked his mother if the young enthusiast could come each week and help. He first wanted to become a zoologist. Instead, partly as a result of winning a scholarship, he studied medicine at Liverpool University, later specialising as a psychiatrist, and going on to train as a psychoanalyst, qualifying in 1952.

His first analyst was Elizabeth Rosenberg (later Zetzel), till she returned to America after a year. Then he saw Eva Rosenfeld; she had helped Sigmund Freud and his family leave Vienna in 1938 before herself settling in London.

During the second world war, Hyatt did three years' service in military hospitals, followed by three years in military psychiatry, with Indian troops, in India and Burma, where he was mentioned in dispatches for his work in a forward area. He was also involved as a psychiatrist in the innovative War Office selection boards.

One of his stories from this vivid period concerned his calling a fellow officer a "moronic psychopath". The officer complained to the commander, who listened carefully and said: "This is a serious situation. I have known Dr Williams for a long time and have followed his work closely. I have never known him to be wrong in the diagnoses he makes."

After the war, Hyatt worked first in Maidstone, Kent, and then, during the 1950s, began a part-time involvement with criminals at Wormwood Scrubs prison, west London. This became the field of his most significant work. No doubt for personal reasons, but also to help him in dealing with the destructiveness of some of his patients, he went back into analysis, first with Melanie Klein – as one of her last two patients – then, after her death in 1960, with Hanna Segal.

In 1962, his work in prisons was complemented by his joining the staff of the Tavistock Clinic, in Hampstead, north London, as consultant psychiatrist and subsequently chair of the adolescent department (1969-78). He played a big role in the recognition of adolescence as a specific entity, rather than as merely an intermediate waiting period between childhood and adulthood. His psychoanalytic work included treatment of adolescents and adults presenting a full range of difficulties.

Hyatt's book 'Cruelty, Violence and Murder' (1998) outlines his concept of the "death constellation": the tilting of the balance between destructive and constructive elements in the personality, so that in some cases, for a combination of constitutional and environmental reasons, an imbalance arises. When this imbalance coalesces into a character trait the person has to kill off whatever is too painful. Through a relationship in which mourning and remorse become possible, people in this situation can be helped to find their more human potential. Hyatt stressed that mourning is indispensable for mental health in general, as well as in the processing of murderousness arising from the death constellation.

He was no stranger himself to loss and mourning. When his first two wives, both psychoanalysts, died relatively young, Hyatt was devastated, and characteristically not ashamed to show it and share it. In 1939, he married Lorna Bunting; in 1972, Shiona Tabor, nee White; and, in 1987, Gianna Henry, nee Polacco, a child psychotherapist and later a psychoanalyst.

Hyatt's love of nature led him to spend time in cottages in the country in Britain and Italy, and to do voluntary work on the protection of butterflies. He is remembered at the Cassell hospital, west London, where he also worked, for changing from his suit (and his challenging work with troubled families) into his gardening clothes, and producing lots of vegetables. He is said to have grown aubergines in pots on the sunny window-ledge of his office at the Tavistock – he was equally prolific with ideas. He loved literature, knowing by memory large chunks of Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge and writing beautiful papers on their work. He taught and lectured widely, not only in Britain but in Australia, the US, Italy and Spain.

From 1982 to 1985 he was director of the London Clinic of Psychoanalysis, where he was helpfully straightforward to colleagues and students alike. He was an excellent supervisor; I remember him speaking about a patient who had dreams of working for the charity War On Want. Hyatt's comments about her making war on her own wanting helped me to understand in a new way something about the death instinct. This was a typical intervention: bold, insightful, graphic and non-judgmental. It was characteristic, too, of his love of and respect for word play.

Hyatt recalled becoming the target of a lorry driver's rage while he was driving from treating a murderer in Pentonville. After Hyatt had managed to defuse the situation, the lorry driver said: "If you don't want to get into a fight you'd better not look like that" – which Hyatt took as a helpful warning to him to create more space in order to separate himself better from the impact of the murderer's personality.

After his official retirement from his NHS post in 1979, Hyatt continued to teach at the Tavistock and to co-chair a workshop in the adolescent department for at least another 20 years, well into his 80s. He also worked as a psychoanalyst up to the age of 88.

He is survived by Gianna, by four sons from his first marriage and by four stepdaughters.
• Arthur Hyatt Williams, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, born 23 September 1914; died 27 August 2009

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Nine Lives, the Barbican

As a promo for his new Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, William Dalrymple had arranged an evening of readings and music last night at the Barbican Centre. There were the wandering, God-intoxicated minstrels from Bengal, the bauls; then Pakistani sufis singing the rapturous poetry of the 18th century saint, Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit Shah; then dalit Theyyam dancers from Kerala; and then finally Anglo-Tamil singer Susheela Raman singing traditional and then reworked hymns from Chola-era Tamil Nadu. The fabulously talented Raman was, I suspect, the main draw for most of the westerners in the audience.

Dalrymple's book, which I currently have on the go, is an attempt to examine the current situation of the great spritual traditions of the subcontinent at this time of huge change and economic growth. (India's economy is set to overtake that of the US by 2050, completely reversing the last century's world order.) Dalrymple accordingly tells the stories of nine people---the 'Nine Lives' of the title---including a Buddhist monk, a Jain nun, a possession dancer from Kerala, a devadasa or sacred prostitute, and a tantric skull-feeder. The story of the latter is a striking instance of the cultural and economic changes which Dalrymple examines: from an American academic journal, he had heard of a Tantric adept in Bengal whose role was to take the skulls of restless suicides and wandering virgins and to calm them by feeding them rice and dhal, thus setting their unhappy spirits to rest. After much searching, Dalrymple found the skull-feeder, and interviewed him. Initially happily forthcoming about his mysterious and grisly calling, the skull-feeder eventually clammed up. When Dalrymple asked why, given that the tantric had spoken at length about his work to an American anthropologist twenty years previously, the adept replied sheepishly that both his two sons were both ophthalmologists in New Jersey, and had warned their father that talking about feeding skulls might be bad for business. Thus speaks the New India!

The audience were strikingly divided. In the main, the westerners were shabbily-dressed old hippies, the women in beads and faded, shapeless garments Fiona McKeown-style, the men in jeans and T-shirts. Those of Asian origin or extraction, on the other hand, were without exception beautifully dressed---I was sitting next to a man of about my age in a three-piece suit of herringbone tweed---with the women in particular showing that luminously graceful, well-draped elegance and ability to wear bright colour that only Indian and French women seem to possess. In the jeans and T-shirt brigade myself, I felt awkward, realising that this was potentially a rather formal and indeed classical evening for many of the Indians in the audience.

The bauls---which means 'madmen' in Bengali, and rhymes with 'cowls'---were wonderful. An eclectic group of wandering spiritual minstrels combining elements of many faiths, they were dressed in multicoloured, harlequin-like patchwork, their devotional songs haunting and energetic at the same time, with very long, microtonally ornamented vocal lines. There was some gender thing going on too---these middle-aged and elderly men stepping and prancing with subtly, sweetly feminine gestures of yearning. Two great bauls were present: Debdas Baul, and the blind minstrel Kanai Das Baul, who is described in this article in the Guardian. Both performed near the end of the bauls' set, sitting for the first part on a low raised platform, crosslegged, absolutely still. Here are some bauls:

The audience loved them, but like Colonel Gadaffi, they overran their session, meaning that the fakirs of Bhit Shah in souther Pakistan who followed them had to do a a shortened set of only two songs. (Dalrymple, visibly sweating with relief, announced that the fakirs had only received their visas the day before, and had arrived at the Barbican at 7.25 for a 7.30 concert.) As the bauls represented a kind of Hinduism blent with mystical Islam, so the Shah Jo Raag fakirs represented Muslim mysticism syncretised harmoniously with Hinduism. Sitting in a row, the five musicians each played a damboor, slapping the resonator and plucking the strings whilst singing the verses of the their revered saint, who died in 1752 and at whose tomb their order has sung every day and night ever since. Their sound was frankly difficult for western ears, with moments of enormous beauty but also an unexpected roughness; it was like a three-way cross between Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's ecstatic qawwali (without the French bistro-esque accordion), the massive, sinuously cumulative power of dhrupad chant, and the noise of tomcats fighting in an alleyway. Here's the late, great Nusrat sahib by the way:

After the interval, we had the theyyam dancers of north Malabar, and this is one of the few occasions where I really can say I've witnessed something absolutely incredible. Theyyam (from Skt. daivam, 'god') refers to a Keralan custom of spectacular trance-possession, in which dancers drawn from the lowest caste, the dalits, are dressed in astonishing costumes and masks; possessed by the divinities and drummed up into ecstasy by a trio of percussionists, they dance, and are worshipped as gods, even by the most bigoted of brahmins. For the period of the theyyam, the rules of caste are reversed, and position and power are miraculously tranferred to the powerless. The custom---which is extraordinarily similar to Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian possession practices---seems to be a rare local survival of pre-Indo-European, non-brahminical Dravidian religion, later absorbed into Hinduism. Here's a theyyam dancer:

Under the red stage lights, the vast masks and costumes were seriously weird and very powerful, the dancing really quite amazingly primordial and violent, with nothing of the fluid, precise courtly grace one associates with kathak, for example. At the end, the dancer incarnating the Mother Goddess (?) blessed us all (I think) by flicking his/her fingers at the audience. Wiser readers than I will have to tell me if this is right: my ability to analyse the symbolism of the masks was hampered both by my ignorance of the art-form and by having lost a contact lens on the tube.

Finally, as the theyyam dancers were helped off to a roar of applause, we had the magnificent Susheela Raman, slinky in a red dress, presenting her version of ancient thevaram hymns from Tamil Nadu. These are devotional songs written by Tamil saints during the great Hindu revival of the Chola period, famed also for its exquistely delicate and sensuous bronzes. After winning a Mercury Music prize nomination in 2001, Raman moved to Tamil Nadu and studied the Thevaram tradition with one of the last great masters. She has an extraordinary voice, gauzy and delicate in the higher registers, very deep and resonant in the lower; she is also highly trained in south Indian classical singing. Dalrymple was lucky to get her, as her high profile undoubtedly was a draw for many in the audience. However, I felt as I watched her that her inclusion might have been a mistake. I personally loved her set, ancient Thevaram hymns gradually being accompanied by electric guitar and inflected with a full-blooded rock sensibility: but this non-traditional---and loud!---reworking was too much for many of the middle-aged and older people in the audience, and I saw numerous people get up and leave in something like disgust, including the couples on either side and in front of me. (You can hear the song Raman began with, a hymn to the deity Murugan, here.) As I left, one of the aging hippes was remonstrating aggressively with the unfortunate Irish girl on the door. 'I wouldn't have gone to a pop concert in England, why would I go to one in India?' I heard her asking, obviously so addled on nagchampa and rough dope that she hadn't realised she was in fact in central London. I felt like telling the silly cow to get her head out of her asana.

To round off, there's a fabulous hymn to the tamil divinity Murugan here, in which the mystifying imagery---six babies appearing in a puff of smoke in six lotus blossoms?---can be explained by the wikipedia article on the deity here. (Who'd have guessed that the six women who collect the six lotus-babies are the Pleiades?!)

Sunday, 13 September 2009


Further to yesterday's post on Tori Amos, I must ask: what has she done to her dolly old eek?! She looks like a novelty candle of herself. I hope it's just duct-tape and butterfly-clips under that wig.

On that note, let me draw your attention to the work of the fabulously talented, but sadly late, Kevyn Aucoin, whose book Making Faces is one of the most gorgeous books about make-up ever written. Aucoin created a whole series of looks for Amos before his tragically early death at 40 from an undiagnosed pituitary tumour. Here's an Aucoined-Amos as Pocahontas---

---and as Simonetta Vespucci (is there any more beautiful name in the world?):

Aucoin was an expert at creating unnerving impersonations. Here's Callista Flockheart as Audrey Hepburn and Gwyneth Paltrow as James Dean (!)---

---followed by Winona Rider as Liz Taylor, with Gina Gershon as Sophia Loren:

Swooningly gorgeous. Reader, if I didn't spend my life sighing and saying, 'No, you've not translated the infixed pronoun', I'd have been a make up artist.* It's one of those things I just know instinctively I could do really well, unlike the much larger list of things I know I'd do really badly. For that matter, I want Lisa Eldridge's job: like, really, really want it. Look through her ravishing gallery of work here: old Naomi Wolf, whom (sorry Justine, I know you like her) I've always found a rather second-rate mind, can troll right off with her beauty myth. (Wolf is currently having a jolly old time defending the veiling of women in a fantastically dim piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.)

*Actually I'd probably have been a shrink or a garden designer, but never mind.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Tori Amos

From amongst Camille Paglia's peculiar mishmash of incisive, learned commentary and braggadocio-swollen drivel, I find one insight in particular to be profoundly useful: that continuity is more real than fracture, and that a sensually-alert holism makes for a more sophisticated hermeneutic than po-faced, atomising hand-wringing, to say nothing of the striking of fashionably careerist poses in shrinking and ever more specialised academic fiefdoms: I passionately believe that learning, like Love in 'Aristophanes'' speech in Plato's Symposium, is the pursuit of the whole. To put it more crudely, I believe art is primarily about pleasure, in the broadest sense, which includes intellectual pleasure. We can certainly interrogate our pleasures, expand them, and rank them in a hierarchy of values, but literary- and art-criticism which has lost sight of rapture and rich emotion---criticism, in other words, which thinks itself smugly superior to that which is criticised---isn't worth the name.

A corollary of this is Paglia's useful Frazer-meets-Freud belief that paganism never ended, but gorgeously continued in the high cultural tradition of the West, and that it now surges on, unabated, in our popular culture. (Note to pagans--this belief in continuity is not literal in a kind of ghastly Murray-ite way: it's a metaphor for competing aesthetic modes.) There are serious problems with this view, like, uh, the existence of the entire Middle Ages. But nevertheless I have thoroughly absorbed Paglia's habit of reading popular culture through the lens of the art and religion of the ancient world, a style of looking which, of course, also links with astrology--- another ancient discipline old Paggers and myself both love.

Which brings me by a roundabout route to Tori Amos, whom I saw live last on Thursday night at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Amos is a genius--an absolute 24 carat genius, like her older contemporary Kate Bush, whose rate of output she surpassed long ago. She has volcanic stage-presence, a molten rapport with the audience and their emotions that belies her hermetic, Mallarmé-like lyrics, which often sound as though they have been translated from another language by a computer program ('Deck the halls / I'm young again / I'm you again / Racing turtles / The grapefruit is winning...'), and would make more sense in the original Estonian. Writhing flame-haired between two facing pianos, often playing one with each hand in opposite directions, she creates vast, surging waves of feeling using rhythm and orchestration and that swooping, sweet-spectral voice. It's almost cinematic in the way it bypasses the brain and grabs hold of your heart. She reminded me forcibly of Homer's Circe, and even more of Virgil's, who has a gorgeous cameo at the start of Aeneid 7. This is the brilliantly Amos-esque passage:

Adspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
Luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.
Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae,
dives inaccessos ubi Solis filia lucos
adsiduo resonat cantu tectisque superbis
urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum,
arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas.
Hinc exaudiri gemitus iraeque leonum
vincla recusantum et sera sub nocte rudentum,
saetigerique sues atque in praesaepibus ursi
saevire ac formae magnorum ululare luporum,
quos hominum ex facie dea saeva potentibus herbis
induerat Circe in voltus ac terga ferarum.

Soft winds blew all that night and the white moon
lit their way, the sea phosphorescent beneath its glimmer.
Keeping close inshore, they skirted the land of Circe,
the rich daughter of the Sun. She makes the virgin woods
re-echo her unceasing song, and there she lightens the night-shadows
of her lofty palace with brands of fragrant cedarwood,
her shuttle flickering to-and-fro over the delicate weft.
From her island they could hear the angry roaring of lions,
fretting at their chains and growling long into the night,
with bristling boars and caged bears and the eerie howling
of beings trapped in the shape of huge wolves---
men whom the savage goddess had transformed with potent herbs
into creatures with the fur and faces of wild beasts.

(Aeneid 7.10ff, my trans)

I love this passage of the Aeneid: it's utterly typical of Virgil's brilliance. The images are visually imprecise, eluding the eye in a kind of shadowy half-light---moonlight, firelight---and along with Aeneas and his men we hear rather than see the island of the goddess, and wonderfully even smell it in the case of the cedarwood torches. The combination of Circe's siren-like endless singing against the roar of the howling enchanted animals strikes an uneasy, decadent note: it makes her sound almost like a self-pleasuring, amoral mechanism, singing over a backing chorus of agonised creatures. I'm reminded of a horrible story about Salvador Dalí, according to which the great artist used to drift restfully off to sleep to the howls of live cats he'd nailed to the ceiling.

God, Amos was working the Circe archetype hard on Thursday night. She struck exactly this note of savage delicacy and sublime, self-absorbed apartness. She rocked up and down the pianos like the Virgilian goddess at her loom, opalescent and witchlike, looping her vocals over the animal roar of the guitars and drums. For Amos in full Circean mode, watch this sadly unembeddable video of 'Rasperry Swirl', especially at 3.43--4.05: she burns, she blazes. Give Sandys' Morgan la Fee two opposing pianos and a drumkit and you have the idea:

Her persona as an artist isn't chill and lunar, despite the frosty associations of early songs like 'Icicle' and 'Winter': she's hot. In terms of ancient archetypes, she isn't the witch---usually a loathsome tomb-crawler and necromancer in the ancient world, splendidly apotheosised by Erichtho in Lucan's Pharsalia. No, Amos is channelling those amoral solar sorceresses, Circe and her niece, Medea; and like both of them, she is a descendent of the sun, not of the moon. The overwhelming impression she gives is of furnace-like power.

So as I watched her last night, kundalini racing up my spine, eyebuds on both palms burning, gays spraying tears and Smirnoff Ice everywhere, I reflected that the reason t'gheys love 'all them old women singers' is to do with this quality of potency, as concentrated in the voice. A good female voice can be like a weapon, a hugely forceful and muscular projection from a incongruously slight physical frame. The strong-voiced woman singer thus partakes of a kind of androgyny, because in vocal power the sexes are equal, and she can ply her vocal line like the amazon plies her sword. (In opera there's often a piquant contrast between this gender equality on the vocal level and the awful way the women characters are treated in the plot, a contrast which I think is key to the stunning emotional reach of the artform.)

As Amos rauchily gyrated sidesaddle on the piano-stool, I thought about the way that men often dismiss a certain type of artistic genius in women as mere kookiness, veiling any visceral sexuality safely out of sight under a gauze of elfin waftiness. It's a subtle disembodying tactic, perhaps---replace the woman who sings about being caught masturbating in her 'pumpkin p.j.'s' with a constructed nymph or queen of the fairies. (Compare the removal of the woman poet from the human order to the supernatural one implied by Sappho's ancient epithet, 'The Tenth Muse', brilliantly dissected by Greer in Slipshod Sibyls.)

(A very botoxed Tori singing 'Bouncing off Clouds')

Oh God, how I love her! Amos has---like many another woman artist---placed the manipulation of multiple personae at the heart of her work, breaking out a shifting and kaleidoscopic parade of masks. She's made this quite explicit at times, creating perplexingly different personalities for different songs---a fluid, feminine artistic mode alien to the male tendency to crystalise and make literal (Pessoa notwithstanding). Here's the cover for 2001's collection of covers, Strange Little Girls---

---and in 2007's American Doll Posse, Amos sang in five personae explicitly derived from Greek goddesses:

A facet of this characteristic elusiveness and indeterminacy is also seen in Amos's habitual word-slurrings and lyrics which teeter on the edge of total incomprehensibility:

Never was a cornflake girl
thought that was a good solution
hangin with the raisin girls
she's gone to the other side
givin us a yo heave ho

---as 'Cornflake Girl' starts, for example. 'My encyclopedia' comes out, in the same song, as 'Ma hencyclopuheedeeah!', and in the slinky, langourously despairing 'Iieee' the word 'chapel' is idiosyncratically pronounced 'chaypull'. Words loose final syllables or develop strange prosthetic consonants.

On Thursday she did a range of old and new material that played out these (ahem) sexual personae in gorgeous fullness. We heard the exquisite 'Icicle' from 1994 (many of Amos' early songs are relentlessly snowbound), which is very nearly an Emily Dickinson poem:

Icicle -- icicle --
Where are you going --
Where are you going --
I have a hiding place --

When spring marches in --
Will you keep watch for me --
I hear them calling --

Evoking an uncomfortable place on the edge of loss of innocence, both sexual and theological, this song has the haunting line 'greeting the monster in our Easter dresses', which has an peripubertal, Angela Carter feel of wolfishness, snow and willingly-threatened virginity. As with Dickinson, the influence of protestant hymnody is fundamental to the structuring of Amos' work, and many of her songs have strongly hymnlike patterns of rhyme and refrain. You can hear something of the same influence on 'Bells for her', the lyrics' solemn fatalism augmented by the use of the lovely gamelan-like tones of a prepared piano, matching Amos' own exquisite, Butoh-esque movements:

Phew. I could go on all afternoon, but I'll spare you. If you don't know Amos' work, hie thee hence to iTunes, or failing that YouTube. All I can say is that she's absolutely bloody blinding. I bow down!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


From A. S. Byatt, The Game, p. 18.

Like most mediaevalists she had chosen her subject out of an essentially Romantic preoccupation with the satisfactory remote violence of both the religious and the secular literature of the Middle Ages. She had come to Oxford hungry for the absolutely worked drama of Lancelot and Guenevere, Tristan and Iseult; she had slowly transmuted this into a passion for the symbolic possibilities of the Grail Legend. She combined the mediaevalist's love of the strange with the mediaevalist's passion for precision. The complexities of existence were the interrelations of roots and roses, strange beasts and fruits, in a walled garden, outside which a sea rose in formally dangerous peaks. She had elaborated, and believed, a network of symbols which made the outer world into a dazzling but comprehensible constellation of physical facts whose spiritual interrelations could be grasped and woven by the untiring intellect; suns, moons, stars, roses, cups, lances, lions and serpents, all had their place and also their meaning. This network was overlaid by another network interweaving other roots, footnotes, cross-references, bibliographical data, paleographical quirks. Somewhere, under the network, the truth shone; Cassandra had come, like many others looking for final Authority, logically to see it in the Church. This was a symbol, and also real; it was a guarantee. A passion for symbols is in some cases an automatic precursor of a passion for theology. Cassandra had embraced both.

But now and then, in certain moods, Cassandra remembered the root of this passion in the wash of romantic feeling with which she had first seen Oxford, having read indiscriminately in Walter Scott, Tennyson, Morris and Malory, looking for a life as brightly-coloured as books. She had not then had an interest in the conventions of the courtly love of the Roman de la Rose; she had cared about the feelings of Lancelot and Guenevere, disturbed in their blood-stained sheets. She had come, not from Ritual to Romance, but in the other direction, from romance to ritual. Her feeling for completeness had betrayed her to a way of live she had not quite chosen; the academic life had become almost accidentally a branch of the contemplative life. She had cultivated her walled-garden skills at the expense of any others she might have had. We become what we are, she told herself, by a series of involuntary half-choices; if this was not what she had meant, she did not know what else she could have done.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Three Ravens

Wonderfully eerie. Kindly recommended to me by the poet A. B. Jackson, whose excellent Fire Stations can be read in part here.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


These are some pictures of the oak trees and other bits and pieces on my parents' land, an environment which exerted a profound influence on me.

De Britannia Insula

From Atratinus’ De Britannia Insula, c. 70 BC: this is the earliest first-person travelogue from the ancient world, and the only classical text to give us a really detailed description of the beliefs of the ancient druids. It describes how Decimus Cominius Atratinus, an educated, well-off, if rather disaffected young man, travelled up through pre-Roman Celtic Britain to the region of the Votadinoi, in what is now south-eastern Scotland. His account of his alternately fascinating and hair-raising journey is, alas, incomplete.

* * *

DBI, III. ii. 17ff.

It was a great stroke of fortune that I found myself among the Corieltauvi at that very point when, according to their priests’ calculations, their most solemn sacrifices and most religious rituals were to be performed, an event which happens only once in nineteen years. To these reverent and august rites, which take three months to see through to the end, they give in their own language a title which means ‘The Recomposition of the World’. I was not to understand the full significance of this title until much later.

I first noticed that something unusual was happening thanks to a certain excitability among the younger druids; the house of the druid in the settlement seemed constantly thronged by obsequious visitors, and the younger druids were absolutely swollen with their own dignity at this time, affecting a very solemn manner whenever they approached the chief-druid himself. Indeed, it was my friend Togidubnos who, whilst always gawky and high-spirited like a young goat, seemed at this time positively beside himself with anticipation. (It was Togidubnos, you will remember, to whom the Britons had given the nickname Senuos, ‘old man’, because of his youthful appearance and lack of a beard. Such, I fear, passes for wit when you are at the ends of the earth.)

It was some time before I could persuade my young friend to explain why there was such a feverish scene of coming and going everyday at the chief-druid’s house. I found him sitting one afternoon by the river, plaiting osiers into a basket, a task which, for all his ungainliness, he did with a quick and practised hand. I sat down next to him, and asked him haltingly in the British language what on earth was going on. He seemed pleased to see me.

--Well, he said, replying in the sing-song, accented Latin to which I had grown accustomed and now no longer found absurd, it’s like this.

It takes, as you know, a very long time to train to be a druid. I began when I was seven winters old, and I completed the last rituals and tests of memory only last year. I am now twenty-six years of age. And whilst I am now a druid, in truth, the training is not considered quite complete until you have taken part in the ritual the preparations for which you see as we speak. A druid who has sat between the three sacred fires and chanted the hymns for the eighty-three nights which form the heart of this sacrifice, well, he has received a great honour in the eyes of both gods and men. He has participated in the creation of the world!---he said, closing his eyes reverently at the thought.

--What do you mean, friend Togidubnos? I asked, puzzled. The creation of the world?

He looked down at his half-finished basket, shifting position on the riverbank. There was a smell of mud and watermint.

--I will try to explain it clearly. The sacrifice that is about to be performed this summer recreates the world. The world, you know, is unstable; it totters on the edge of a great abyss of yawning water, an abyss threshing with a million terrible titans, Womorioi---unimaginable, hideous, misshapen beings with the heads of monsters, the tails of adders and the tusks of boars, who would tear the world asunder if they could. This whole universe could topple at any moment, and to ensure that it does not, the druids remake the whole world every nineteen years when the danger is at its greatest. Even the combined powers of the thirty-three gods are useless at this time, and it is only the continual prayers and sacrifices of the druids that maintain the world until the terrible danger passes. Imagine that! The whole world sifting through your fingers with the barley grains and the bowls of white curd, with the golden vessels, and the dishes of blood!

--So you yourself want to be present at this sacrifice? I said slowly, not really following.

--More than anything, Togidubnos breathed, his shoulders slumping and his eyes closing. More than anything.

Only nine druids in total, you see, can be present at the sacred nemeton, and only three at any one time. The rituals are kept up, without ceasing, for three times nine times three nights. The chanting of the hymns does not cease, the murmuring of the prayers over the fire does not cease, the constant sacrifices which keep the world alive and make it new, they do not cease, not for eighty-one nights. A druid who has served at the fire-pit for the rite of recreation is known ever afterwards in our language as a dumnonertaiyos, ‘one who has made strong the foundations of the world.’ While he is at the rites, Togidubnos added thoughtfully, he becomes a god.

--A god?! I said, startled. I had not thought hubris of this sort germane to the British character, which, whilst certainly hot-tempered and flighty, was nothing if not reverent towards the divine numen.

--For those terrible nights every nineteen years, the gods vanish from the world, said Togidubnos. Taranis leaves off spinning his wheel, and the sky falters and slows without his hands upon it. Lugos withdraws his shimmering intellect and the world begins to grow dull and tarnish, as though it were an iron sword left in a bucket of well-water. The All-Father ceases his flow of generation, and death begins to outstrip life; and even all-mothering Earth closes up her hollows and her secret places begin to parch. The triple-faced daughter of flame, Briganti—she, even she, is menaced by the carrion-sisters, the black-cloaked death-mothers, and her fires go out.

Togidubnos shuddered.

---So, for that time, those few weeks, it is we, the druids, we ourselves who preserve the universe. For these months, we take upon ourselves the duties of the very gods. Deep in meditation, the druids at the heart of the fire-pit use the primordial formulae of the divine hymns to repair and restore every single facet of creation. Each syllable chanted over the fire, each sacred gesture, every drop of sacrificial blood, keeps the world poised between continuing life and utter destruction.

I realised suddenly the awesomeness of the responsibility that this young man hoped to take on himself, even as my hard-headed Roman brain found the whole edifice quite remarkably absurd. I caught myself trying to imagine the current priest of Apollo on the Palatine, Gaius Flavius Hortensius, trying to take on himself the divine power to recreate anything: it was an unlikely scenario, unless the items desired were several amphorae of excellent Falernian and some mushrooms grilled with oil and garlic, to which I knew this waddling figure was particularly devoted.

Togidubnos was searching my face to see if I understood.

--Go on, I said.

--The hymns are the gods. The hymns are the gods. Everything that a god is is concentrated into the very syllables of his or her hymns. We sometimes say biwotutis deiwom bowes deiwom. Have you heard me say this proverb before? It means ‘The gods’ cows are their life’ in your language, though it is not so snappy in Latin. The cows are the syllables, which the druids are continually yoking together in the hymns and herding up to heaven by chanting the syllables over the fire-pit.

--The cows are the...I said, rather lost.

Togidubnos sighed, putting down his willow bundles and the knife with which he had been skinning off the bark. Not for the first time I felt a strange sense that I, who had had the best education possible in the law-courts of Rome and Athens, was a little slow on the uptake compared with the aphoristic and endless eloquence of this young British man whose library was contained wholly in his head.

--The words of the hymn embody the power of the god, he said. Each god has many hymns; Briganti has eighty nine of them, all different. I know them all, he said, tapping the side of his head with a slight, shy smile. But Diglandos for example, the sea-god, he has only seventeen.

The hymns have various metres: three syllables in a line, five, seven, nine, and ten, with many variations. We say that these syllables are like cows yoked shoulder-to-shoulder to plough the fields. That is why Ambactonos, the Farmer, is also one of the most important gods of the sacrifice. The ordinary people---well, to them Ambactonos is a kind of ruddy-faced hedge-uncle, the brambly, rain-soaked old man to whom they leave a bleeding piglet at the field’s edge and a bowl of buttermilk poured in the furrow at the Ambactonaia. We know better. To the druids, Ambactonos is the Yoker-of-Cows, Bouyugionos. So he knows too how to yoke the syllables together in the hymns, because the syllables are the cows of the gods, and embody their power, their wealth and their life; he is the master of metres. So it is to Ambactonos that we pray at the start of any sacrifice, so that we may fashion the metres correctly and recite the hymns without any flaw. For if a mistake were made---and in these rites more than any others---even a mistake of a single syllable over eighty-one nights, the world might be destroyed.

He turned to me, sitting on the river bank with one leg crossed under him.

--That’s why everyone wants to take part in the ritual. A druid who has remade the world has taken the role of a god, and after death, he will be assured of being reborn in the otherworld paradise of the gods, to dwell with them as of right. He will also be that much more powerful and respected in life, and more likely to be magnificently rewarded by kings and chieftains for his services; that, I am afraid, may be the primary motivation of a number of my brothers.

He smiled.

--There are twenty-three of them: many have waited for a decade or more for this opportunity, and know that they are unlikely to see another such ceremony come round again. Only nine can be chosen, and the archdruid wants the nine best who know the hymns most perfectly, who have studied the rituals of the Recomposition in the greatest detail, who will not make any mistakes, even if they have been chanting and sacrificing for hour after hour with little food or sleep. And also, he is searching for those who have nerves of steel; though the ceremonies involve the sacrifice of horses, cows, sheep, goats, fowl of all kinds, even insects, it may emerge in the course of the sacrifice that the situation this cycle is especially dire. In such circumstances, it is not unknown for the sacrifice of a man to become necessary.

Togidubnos saw my look of horror and disgust, and shrugged.

--It is rare, but it does happen. In my father’s time it happened. As the ceremony was reaching its height, just as the whole universe was most at peril, most at risk of utter disintegration, the third fire, the fire into which butter and curds are placed, fizzled and went out. The archdruid—that was Cunobarros then—knew that a man had to be sacrificed, immediately, to replicate again the primordial sacrifice of the god Cintugenatir, by which the universe was created .

--Who? I said, queasily.

--Cintugenatir. ‘The firstborn-father’ in your language. If you want to know, you will have to listen to a story.

I nodded.

---Well, Cintugenatir. He was the oldest of the gods, you see---far older than the thirty three deities. In fact, he was more than a god: to call him a god is neither accurate or sufficient. He was almost being itself.

But anyway, he was born, or appeared, or came to be, back in the time when there was only water. No gods, no earth existed: only a vast sea of water, black and featureless and bottomless. He floated on that freezing, blue-black sea for aeons, for unimaginable ages, concentrating the fire in his belly, focusing and refining it. He was the only warm thing in the whole universe, all alone, floating. For that reason, we sometimes call him Dubromapos, the Son of Waters, and Oinowiros, the Lonely, though he has lots of other names. He had three heads, you know.

My eyes widened at this: three heads? I thought of night-barking Hekate and felt a frisson of fear at this outlandish godling of the Britons. Sometimes, I reflected, these Celts seemed stark mad to me.

--What were they like, these heads? I asked.

--One was of a bull, said Togidubnos, confidently. The second was a serpent, though I believe the foolish druids of Gaul say an owl. And the third, in the centre, was the face of a man, or of a god.

--And? I asked.

--Cintugenatir knew both the past and the future. As the fire in his belly grew, he could see further and further in thought. Behind him, as he floated alone on the dark waste of waters, there was nothing. Nothing, extending back further than his superdivine mind could perceive. But in front of him, he knew---he saw---that there was the possibility that something could exist. Other beings, teeming generations of men and gods. Whole worlds of colour and form, of light and life instead of this endless roaring dark ocean and his solitude.

--So what did he do, this lonely old deity of yours? I asked, and Togidubnos shot me a look as if to check my levity.

--He emanated three other beings from himself. Gods can do that, you know. From the centre of each of his three foreheads, three beings erupted, bursting forth in an explosion of power. Cintugenatir writhed in the dark waters in agony as they fought themselves free, like hen-chicks hatching from three eggs. These were the Mapoi Atrigutous, the Sons of the Father’s Voice. They were the Dagodeiwos, the All-Father (he came from the human-looking forehead), and Wedionos, the divine Druid (he came from the serpent) and Taranis, the Thunderer---he came from the bull’s head.

Then Cintugenatir told his sons what they had to do. There were to take their knives and sacrifice him, their own father. Remember that: the first speech in the universe, in the whole of existence, was the instruction to perform sacrifice. Chanting the hymns which Wedionos would teach them---because as a god his knowledge was infinite, so he already knew them---they should sever his head and cut off his limbs. Then they should reach into the cavity of his belly and remove what they found there.

Bowing low to their father, because this was the first and last time they would meet him, the Sons of the Father’s Voice set to work, hacking and cutting. Cintugenatir’s body was vast---unimaginable millions of miles in length---and soon the sea was entirely black with his blood where it poured from the wounds in his lopped trunk.

Finally Taranis went to slit his father down the middle with his sacrificial knife. But Cintugenatir's skin was hard as rock, where he had been washed by the salt water for aeons without number. Taranis could not cut through the skin. So his brother the Dagodeiwos, who had better aim, took the knife and slammed it down into the thorax, splitting the skin and breaking the breastbone. (That, incidentally, is why we call the Dagodeiwos Sucellos, the 'Good Striker', and because he opened Cintugenatir's body like a bag, that primordial being is sometimes himself referred to as Bolgos Maros in our language, 'the Great Bag'.)

Then the Dagodeiwos reached inside the cavity in his father's body. As he did so, he suddenly roared in pain: he drew out the burning, blazing mass of the inner heat which Cintugenatir had been meditating on for an eternity. That was the first light and heat in the universe. As the fire scorched him, the Dagodeiwos hurled the burning mass, which shone infinitely brightly, like liquid gold in the furnace, as far as he could. It fell into the dark waters, and, as quick as thought, as quick as light itself, the waters began to harden and dry up. An island was emerging from the vast abyss of water.

The three brothers watched astonished as the land emerged under their feet, warmed by the primordial heat of their father’s inner fire.

‘Let us take our father’s limbs’, said Wedionos, ‘and fashion a world out of them.’ The others agreed. Taranis took their father’s human head, and knocked its eyeballs out. These he placed up above as the sun and the moon, and set them circling. From the dome of his father’s skull he fashioned the vault of heaven itself. ‘From now on’, said Taranis, ‘I will dwell in the heavens, because it is I who have made sun and moon and clouds, and framed the vault of heaven.’

Wedionos in turn drew forth from his father’s mutilated corpse the webwork of veins and blood vessels, holding his knife in his mouth as he worked skilfully and with concentration. Then he took the dripping spiderweb, and flung it over the land. It became the threads of rivers and streams, all leading to the ocean of Cintugenatir’s dark, pooled blood. Then he took his father’s teeth—-the bull teeth, serpent teeth, man teeth—-and scattered them. Instantly they became mountain ranges and rocks. Wedionos smiled at his handiwork.

Then the Dagodeiwos took his father’s skin. From the snake’s skin came the fish and the reptiles; from the bull’s skin he made all the warm animals of the earth; —

--Did he make human beings from the man-head? I asked.

--No, said Togidubnos coldly, clearly not pleased at having been interrupted. The man-head had already been used to make the heavens and the sun and moon, remember? Not to mention the teeth for the rocks.

He scowled, and I apologised.

--No. The Dagodeiwos took the organs of the body and fashioned them into people. The heart was the first bit he took—that became the kings, chieftains and warriors. The second bit he took was the stomach. That became the farmers and the peasants. The third bit, well, that was the brain. Who do you suppose that became? He smiled at me, smugly.

--The druids? I asked, also smiling at his evident pleasure in conceitedness.

--Quite so. The bards, the seers, and the druids. And that is why human beings are divided into druids, warriors and chieftains, and farmers and peasants, because of where we came from in the dismembered body of Cintugenatir by the wisdom of the All-Father, who got his name from that primal creative act.

--What happened then? I asked. It had grown rather chilly: a crow was croaking in the willow opposite us, and I pulled my cloak around me.

---Well, there were the three gods, surveying the new earth, with its rivers and oceans and mountains and animals and people and its sun and moon. And then, to their astonishment, they saw a figure approaching them. At first they were startled, for as far as they knew, they and their father had been the only divinities in the universe.

--Who was he, this figure?

--He was a she. A woman, naked, with red hair down to her waist and a divine effulgence about her. Like Cintugenatir, she had three heads, but all three were human in appearance. She was emanating a vast and crackling heat, so much so that the air seemed to swim and shimmer before her as she walked towards the brothers.

‘Who are you?’ asked Wedionos.
‘Who are you? asked Taranis.
‘Who are you?’ asked the Dagodeiwos.

She smiled, with all her faces, and pointed at the All-Father with all six of her arms.

‘I am Speech’, said one face.
‘I am Dawn’, said another.
‘I am Fire’, said the third, and she pointed again at the Dagodeiwos.

‘I am the heat of Cintugenatir which you flung into the ocean. And because you drew me out of my grandfather’s belly and released me, it is you who are my father.’ And she kissed him, and not how a daughter would normally kiss her father.

At this point, Togidubnos grew somewhat sheepish. From that incestuous kiss, I had an sudden intuition where the rest of the divinities of the Britons were going to come from.

--Anyway, the druid continued, you can see from this story that the world is built on the foundation of sacrifice. It was the sacrifice of Cintugenatir, the Primordial Man, which created this universe. And when it is threatened, that sacrifice needs to be repeated. That is why---and here he eyed me solemnly---sometimes the rite of the Recomposition of the World requires the sacrifice of a living man.

As I said, it is not common---amongst all the peoples of the Britons, perhaps it happens no more than three of four times each cycle. I believe the Gauls favour it rather more often, mainly because it is not uncommon for a people that has sacrificed a living man as part of their rites to especially prosper during the next nineteen years, compared to their neighbours.

I wondered how he could possibly think this made the unspeakable act acceptable.

--What happened when Cunobarros was performing the ceremonies? You said he had to find a victim in a hurry.

--Yes. He did. It was a terrible thing, terrible.

The sacrifice, you see, must be perfect: if he is not, then the victim’s flaws will be replicated on a universal scale as the sacrifice is accomplished and perhaps bring disaster on the next cycle of time. So the man must be young, tall, and in perfect health and strength. But that year, there had been raids in the borderlands all spring and summer, and the majority of the able-bodied and healthy men were away on the outer reaches of our land, defending it. Cunobarros needed a victim fast. I cannot emphasise enough how essential it is that the rites be completed in due time and due order. We believe---I myself believe---that the stability and continued existence not just of the Corieltauvi but of all Britain and Gaul and the whole world, the whole universe, depends on the correct performance of our rites here.

---Whom did he find? I asked, apprehensive.

--Cunobarros was elderly. He, almost uniquely, had already performed one such ceremony, nineteen years before. Because he was frail, his youngest son, Briocos, had stayed behind with him whilst his brothers were away at the edges of our territory, to look after him, as the rituals are a great strain. He was the only suitable victim who was near enough at hand. He came willingly, that was the terrible thing, accepting his father’s orders without complaint.

---What happened?

Togidubnos sighed, and plunged on quickly.

---Cunobarrus tied his son down, and then cut off his head, his arms, and his legs, and took out his organs one by one and burned them on the fire, while his druids chanted the hymns. Briocos only cried out at the very last second as the knife approached to cut his throat, my father heard. It broke Cunobarros’ heart: he died that winter.

Togidubnos and I sat side by side by the river in the gloom. I could tell how much my British friend wanted the honour of proving himself at the ritual, and how frightened he was that he himself could be called upon to do such a terrible, grotesque thing. I stood, and extending my hand, pulled the young druid to his feet. Picking up his half-finished osier baskets, we made our way back to the village.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Some pictures

Some pictures of life chez Bo.

These two are images of the work-in-progress 'Gnostic ikon' I proposed here--it's about half done, as you can see. (Follow the link for an explanation of its symbolism.)

This is my office--my students sit on the sofa, complete, as you can see, with medieval hunting-scene cushions. The greenish cupboard came from a garage in Delhi. (Necessary plug: if you are a sixth-former, and thinking of applying to Oxbridge for an arts subject, you will probably get taught in intensive hour-long sessions in a room much like this--books everywhere, a sofa, that kind of thing---either by yourself or with one other student. If you're thinking about where to apply, Oxford and Cambridge would welcome your application, especially if you are currently at a school which has little or no past history of sending pupils to Oxbridge. Plug over.)

This is a bit of my living room:

And here's an Russian-style ikon of the Mother of God I did a few years ago and am yet to finish....

and my lovely mid 17th-century oak chest....

and finally here's an ikon of St Brigit which I painted in one day when I was an undergraduate:

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Grauniad

After lamenting elsewhere that during my twenties I have gone from being a Guardian-reader to finding it unbearable, mainly for their horrible house-style and penchant for smuggery, I happened to come across this article today, courtesy of Fr. David Heron. In it, Stephen Bates, the Guardian's religion correspondent, says the following:

I was nervous of my lack of theological training, but at least I knew the British faith background and traditions and the Bible stories – I was quite shocked to discover that many of my colleagues on the paper did not have even a folk-memory of those. "What's a cardinal?" one senior desk editor asked as I attempted to explain a story. "Who was Noah?" an equally venerable colleague was asked when he told the desk about an archaeological dig at Mount Ararat.

I am going to be fiery and uncompromising about this. Not knowing what a cardinal is or who Noah was is not a sign of being an enlightened, liberal, post-religious British secularist. It's just a sign of being pig-ignorant and poorly-educated. These people aren't GSCE pupils in a sink Comprehensive in Slough, they're editors on a national bloody broadsheet. Mind you, this is a paper which regularly refers to 'astrologists' and 'theologists' instead of astrologers and theologians. They may well regard dictionaries as the work of an oppressive privately-educated 'elite', bent on preserving its power-base by squashing non-hegemonic views.

Oh God. I'm a left-wing type, you see. I agree with some of the Guardian's editorial stances, even though I find the general air of mimsy piety suffocating. But I just want to read a left-ish newspaper that's not so full of factual errors and misused words, all framed in an ugly typeface, that it makes me wince every time I open it. Is that so wrong?

That's why I now read the Independent, ignoring Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and that awful Hari boy, and then, having had my leftist fix, turn to the Times for Caitlin Moran.


I've been a bit silent of late, for which, apologies.

I've just reread Andrew Harvey's luminous, austere A Journey in Ladakh, my favourite Buddhist travelogue, and far better than his later, slightly creepy crypto-Oedipal Hidden Journey, his 'Mother Meera' book. (Meera is the monobrowed lady-guru Harvey later ditched for being a homophobe.) I prefer Harvey in his early All Souls Prize-Fellow mode to his later, flouncier histrionics: the writing is better, more sinewy and beautiful; there's more interest in the world around him and less campy going on about divine light emanating from his boyfriend's cock.

As he writes of the journey:

The journey itself is a rite of initiation. You pass from the lush green valley of Kashmir up the long winding granite sides of the mountains to Zoji-La; then at the heart of the Karakorams, you pass again through ring after ring of mountains, each more spectacular, tortured, brilliantly coloured than the last; then finally, when you are half-frightened and exhausted by the raids so much magnificence makes on your wonder, you move, by slow degrees, into the plateau of central Ladakh, edged and cradled by the Indus, and from that into the long, fertile valley of Leh and its surrounding villages and monasteries. It is an education in wilderness, this journey, a progress into a bareness that at the last moment breaks into the flame of wheat-fields and prayer flags; it is the penetration of an enormous Mandala with Kashmir for its lush and dangerous surround, the Karakorams for its walls, and Leh and its long valley for its inner room, the room in which the creator of the vision of his own inner making is seated in meditation and where the Gods can appear, shielded from cynical eyes, by walls of burning rock and snow.

Maybe I like A Journey in Ladakh best because it's a young man's book, full of searching intelligence and the ironies of the over-educated poseur. But it's also a very honest book, 'bleached' (as Martin Amis described it) 'by a higher light'.

* * *

A friend and I were reflecting the other day on the way that certain historical facts can be hard to focus on: they elude the mental eye, and don't square with our perception of the shape of history. (One of the jobs of the good historian is to keep breaking that imposed shell of expectation, reminding us continually of the unexpectedness of the past.) One of my favourites are the Cathars: who would have expected a full-scale eruption of Gnosticism at the heart of high medieval Christian Europe?! Similarly (and this is my second favourite) the first Catholic Archbishop of Peking was appointed in--wait for it--1307.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Part 1

Beth yw hynny yn dwad dros y bryn,
ai anghenfil, ai anghenfil?!

As The Automatic would have sung if they sang in Welsh.

One of the first phrases I learnt in the language, thanks to Gareth King's splendid, idiosyncratic grammar and dictionary, was mae angenfilod o'r gofod ar strydoedd y Bala!, 'There are space-monsters on the streets of Bala!' As a result, I'd got the vague unconscious impression that Bala was a rather racy and exciting place, perhaps full of strange goings on. So, when Rhian and I trolled off to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol this year, I was, let's be frank, kind of hoping to see a monster.

Well, we found one, in the form of the horrendous, flint-hearted termagant who runs the Backpackers in the town, and who deploys, in so doing, all the sunny, effortless charm of a Stasi officer in East Berlin around 1972. More of her anon.

Apart from this solitary anghenfil, was we did see was all Welsh-speaking Wales, distilled into a field: strapping farmboys loping around in packs, all clippered haircuts and nasal Gwynedd accents; lustrous cyfryngies (media-types) from Cardiff in long beads and maxidresses, set off with oversized shades; gaggles of stalwart little old ladies making their way from tea stand to cake stand to cerdd dant performance; harried young parents wheeling pushchairs over the bumpy paths, wiping the snot off little Manon's face while Rhys wails his head off; Twm Morys (again, still red of face); and, I think, Siân Phillips desperately legging it towards the allanfa.

* * *

Rhian and I started the week off on the Wednesday, heading up through Llangollen towards Betws and Capel Curig, where we were staying for two nights. My jaw dropped as I saw Eryri for the first time:

Ensconced in 'Dolgam', the delightful farm B&B Rhian had booked, we relaxed over a couple of pints and prepared for the ascent of Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa in Welsh, the next day. Reader, it is one of my proudest achievements that I got up the damn thing, and down again, without having a heart attack or having to be airlifted off, waving feebly. But I did, and what's more, it was damn good fun as well as being quite extraordinarily beautiful. With the lakes cupped in the folds of the mountain to our left, and the scrotum-tightening prospect of Crib Coch to the right, it really is an extraordinary place. I made up a little fantasy about the kind of pseudo-Celtic fug that Lewis Spence, the barking Scottish romantic and bullshitting author of The Mysteries of Britain: Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored, might have got himself in when faced with the prospect of Yr Wyddfa:

The lofty sight so impelled the soul of the ancient Cymry to the consideration of higher matters, that we are not to wonder that the profoundest mysteries of Bardo-Druidical theology did in part centre upon the mountain itself. Being the counterpart of the Hindoo's Mount Meru, that lofty point of contact between earth and heaven, the fastness of Snowdon was revered by the Druids of ancient Britain as the abode of the gods themselves, the Cymric Olympus. There, amid the eternal clouds and shifting fogs of rainbow light, dwelt Gwydion, greatest of the gods and the divine astronomer; there was Dôn, the Cymric Rhea, surrounded by laughing infants; there grave-faced Math ruled with his crystal wand outstretched in judgement, and with Llew his nephew by his side; there Olwen of the Luminous Teeth dispensed the nectar of the gods, a drink with the freshness of spring water and the sweetness of mountain honey; there also would come Manawydan, the son of Llŷr, albeit seldom, and ever drawing about him a grey-green shroud formed of the mist of the sea.

(Anyone who thinks this exaggerated is advised to purchase John Matthews' anthology From the Isles of Dream.)

There were no glittering palaces of snow and silver pearls at the summit: just a new cafe, Hafod Eryri, and lots of fellow tourists stolidly eating pasties. To my astonishment, people had hauled small children and dogs up the mountainside; but this was nothing to my slack-jawed depression when, as Rhian and I descended, aching all over, we were overtaken at a run by an ancient greybeard. Perhaps he needs to change his bag, I thought sourly, wishing I were a bit more lissom and elastic.

On the Friday we headed down to Bala and to the Eisteddfod. My Welsh had warmed up a bit by this stage, though I found the Gog accent remarkably difficult to understand after years of being used to Rhian's open Cwm Tawe vowels and friendly, rounded monophthongs (ma' for mae, sâm for saim, ôs for oes.) It took me several days to get used to the swallowed, nasal vowel-sounds of the north, which struck my ear with the muscular jaggedness of Scouse English. (I have regular comic encounters with people from Bangor, whose accent I find completely and utterly baffling and which reduces me to incomprehension, much like a Bavarian tourist faced with Geordie English.)

We then trolled the Maes, me buying the usual twenty-five secondhand books, and sank a few pints. I also had the marvellous experience of seeing the Chairing of the Bard, the highpoint of the massive cultural dingdong that forms the ceremonies of Gorsedd y Beirdd. Except that this year, as the chief poetry judge informed us in a detailed analysis of the three best submitted poems, none was of sufficient quality to merit the presentation of the Chair. (What a pleasure to listen to slow, formal Welsh of the kind I am used to reading, though I love yr iaith lafar too.) Nevertheless, the cermonies of the Gorsedd in the Pavilion were quite wonderful to watch, at once lofty and tongue-in-cheek. The crowned Archdruid processed in wearing cream and gold, accompanied by white, blue and green-robed druids, bards and ovates, all looking very splendid and preceeded by crimson-robed buglers and men carrying big crystals on gilded staffs. I reflected that if you switched the white robes for black, changed the three-rayed awen symbol to a barred cross, and swapped the crystal-staffs for ikons on poles, the ceremony would look deeply Russian Orthodox. Cymharwch:

We were led in Iolo Morgannwg's Druid Prayer by the Archdderwydd, which I knew in English but not in Welsh, so my mind was running ahead of me with each line, trying to anticipate the next bit. By the time we got to Duw a phob Daioni, 'God and all Goodness', I was feeling a bit frayed. Then we had a lovely dance by flower-bearing maidens, which consisted of about thirty little girls in green dresses carrying bunches of flowers and dancing in rings on the stage, stopping every few seconds to touch the earth rhythmically. It was rather like CBeebies doing The Rite of Spring. Finally, the Archdruid announced the singing of the national anthem, and to my horror I felt a John Redwood moment hurtling towards me, my knowledge of the words being like the proverbial curate's egg. Erg, arg, Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi, gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o gollasant eu wyf i'm gwlad (because that's on pound coins) i'r hen iaith barhau!! Phew.

More in Part 2, especially on the subject of yr hen wrach ffiaidd yn y Gwesty.*

*'The ghastly old witch in the hotel.'

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Anaïs Anaïs

Another update on 'Famous dead writers I have met in dreams': after W. B. Yeats last week, I had an intense encounter last night with, of all people, Anaïs Nin. She kept going on and on about her 'mount of assembly' and her 'cage of Venus', the latter of which seemed to be a very intricate piece of downstairs corsetry involving fine wire mesh.

I couldn't help feeling she'd dialled the wrong guy.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Po-Mo Medea

Mother kills and eats own baby, stabs self through throat

To paraphrase a line of V. S. Pritchett's about Dickens: 'Never forget---Seneca was a highly realistic dramatist.'

* * *

Talking of goatsongs, I loved this modern Medea by Bernard Safran:

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A Relaxed Day

So, the alarm went off at 7am, so that I might get up, pull my ecru-coloured hessian meditation robe about me, make some fresh lemon verbena tea and do half an hour of zazen before breakfast.

That was the plan. In fact, I went straight back to sleep, and I dreamed a dream. I was living in an alternate universe in which Shakespeare, rather than being a historical person living from 1564-1616, was a kind of ectoplasmic disembodied poetic cuckoo. He would appear through other poets over the centuries and use them to dictate his work. So imagine how surprised I was when---just as Yeats and I were really getting into discussing A Vision by the fire in Dublin---Antony and Cleopatra came through all unbidden, and poor old William Butler had to spend the next two hours in a trance, writing the damn thing out.

My dream was interrupted by the cleaner knocking on my bedroom door, having let herself into my flat. 'Ghaaurhhh!' screamed I, jolted awake and realising to my horror that it was 9.51am. (I had been up till after 2 last night, reading A Guide to Chaucer's Language, so I have some excuse.) I staggered out of bed, the nice Polish cleaning lady for her part got to work, and because I am obsessively tidy she was done before I'd drunk half of my breakfast tea. (Rooibos, as I like the taste.) More tea, then a brief round up of the blogosphere and email, until 10.45am--I'd normally be at this stage two hours earlier. I then read the proofs of an article of mine on late medieval Welsh poetry which comes out soon, and set to work writing a mini-lecture on the linguistic features of Middle English and multilingualism in medieval Britain. I've been taken on to teach the period 1300-1550 to the English second years next term, and, bugger me, I'm going to do it well if it kills me. I am engaged in a huge volume of reading to get my teaching up to scratch, and am determined to bring some Celtic knowledge to bear on the subject: for example, when writing on medieval drama I shall make sure my students are aware that there were miracle plays and dramatised saints' lives written in Cornish, which would look sophisticated in an exam.

Then I went to the college porters' lodge to check my post just after midday, wandering in through the college gardens. A copy of the late medieval Irish saga Cath Finntragha was waiting for me, as was a bottle of Tauer's extraordinary unisex fragrance L'Air du Desert Marocain. I'd bought the latter online, 'odour unsmelled' as it were, having read dozens of reviews, including a boundlessly impressed one from Tania Sanchez in the wonderful Perfumes: The Guide. I unscrewed the lid in the lodge, and my first feeling was instant rapture. It is exquisite: cedarwood, petitgrain, amber, vanilla, frankincense and styrax, with top notes of cumin. It's both warm and cold, clear and yet smoky. It's deeply sober and curiously uplifting, with a faint smell of a cool, austere old church in which incense has been recently burned. Wearing it, I feel like all my neurons are about to break out spontaneously into Spem in Alium.

I then opened a snotty letter from the bank (overdrawn by £20, slapped wrist for Bo) and wandered into town. I stopped by Galloway & Porter, where I bought Moby Dick and Don Quixote in the Oxford World's Classics series, along with Jan Morris' Europe, Notes from Underground and Between the Acts, plus John Felstiner's new, interesting-looking Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems. A sandwich and a coffee at Pret-a-Manger later, I went to the English Faculty to return a couple of books. Then at 2pm I went to a colleague's house to see my old PhD supervisor, who was in Cambridge for the day making maps for his forthcoming volume in the new OUP History of Wales series. The three of us had a delightful chat and catch-up for an hour or so, and I walked him to the train station. Then I came home, unpacked, catalogued and shelved my new volumes, made more Rooibos and did another two and a half hours' work on my (overdue) book. Then another spruce round the internet, more tea, and correspondence: I put a load of washing on, and then, dear reader, I sat down to write this. In a few minutes, I'm going to have a glass of wine and start dinner, having a DVD of Peter Hall's production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream to watch later over my pasta.

Tomorrow, up at 7am. For real, this time.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Collage 2

Each image is linked somehow to at least two others, but not in a rigidly schematic way.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Father David Heron

This is my favourite Anglican blog, that of the wonderful Maggie Ross aside. Fr David writes witheringly about a host of Anglican bogies and bugaboos, reserving his especial scorn for the bonkers Jensenites of the Sydney Diocese (above), amongst other targets. A damn good laugh, in other words, and the voice of a good man clinging on to sanity by the skin of his teeth.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Collage 1

In imitation of Guy Davenport's collages in A Balance of Quinces.
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