Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Bookends

Two poems I like to think of as Christmas bookends:

Thomas Hardy's, The Oxen,


T.S.Eliot's, A cold coming we had of it.

Why bookends is a little obvious I'm afraid - The Oxen is set on Christmas Eve - or rather, the moment BC turned to AD (to steal from U.A. Fanthorpe) - and the ‘Cold Coming’ is the Epiphany (12th Night, the time when 'Members of an obscure Persian sect' - Fanthorpe again - 'walked into history').

Both have become, like Holly, Christmas Evergreens associated in the minds of my generation of English Teacher - and consequently countless students - with the Christmas Carol Service - (which we still called it back then) - and regular recitations tucked somewhere between 'Away in a Manger' and 'We Three Kings'.

If you had a good, younger student, the Hardy could be given a lovely simpering twist; Eliot needed a teacher to deliver it well - bit of a grumpy ex-PE, now Geography teacher - or a slightly fading girl's heartthrob English staff junior member!

And therein lies the tragedy.

Both poems get stuck on the shelf for the rest of the year (dusted off sometimes for examination) to await another Resurection as a quick fix of emotion amongst the Plastic Glitter, Bugger-the-fire-regulations Candles and Coca-Cola Santas.

Both poems though, like Holly, have a bit more 'history' - and spikes which raise blood.

The first thing I notice, and which I think is frequently ignored, is the ‘quote’ at the start.

“Now they’re on their knees” – an elder said. When was it said? – When we were children.

As children we see the world in a hopeful way – optimistically.

It is a pastoral view – gentle shepherds, gentle oxen.

Good will out.

“ . . . meek mild creatures . . .” make up our world – and nature is dominant.

Hardy is remembering innocence.

It was beautiful; it was honourable: It is dead.

It is, ‘so fair a fancy’ – that few would now weave it. Only a fancy.

It is a time, “childhood used to know”.

In the Eliot, they had a cold coming.

He is quoting doubly – Launcelot Andrews and the old, near to death, Magi.

His memories are not so pleasant, but they are as ideal.

Like the child in Hardy, there is a yearning for that birth – for the glory and beauty of new life.

The reality though is “Hard and bitter agony”.

There is a suggestion of disillusionment.

But it is only a suggestion – there is tremendous hope.

It is the hope of the child, still in the man – “If someone said . . . I should go with him . . .hoping it might be so.”

For Eliot, “All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again.”

Once again, that core stone of hope, the ‘no regrets’ of the old man that is in both poems.

What chance I wonder have children of ever understanding these poems?

‘Birth or Death?’

Sunday, December 10, 2006


At 113 years old, Miss Treason, a witch, knows about the connection between age, beans, fresh fruit and 'letting out wind'!

Tiffany, only 13 years old, with a 'he's not my boyfriend!' (even if he does send her letters with SWALK on them), is learning witchcraft from Miss Treason. She discovers there is lot of hard work, cleaning around the cobwebs and polishing the skulls, chasing after the cheese - called Horace, a rather single-minded blue cheese - oh, and a strange tingling feeling behind the eyes when Miss Treason, who is blind, uses you as a mirror.

Like most teenage girls, Tiffany has a will of her own - and even if she was told to stay still and just watch, why can't she join in the dance - especially when there is an empty space just waiting for her?

Months latter, with the snow falling thick, burying the newborn lambs, with a young brother missing and with her father begging her to help, she understands why.

This is one of Terry Pratchett's books for 'all children, aged 12 and above' - meaning anyone who is or once was 12!

It has a thumping good story line - strong characters, awful jokes and moments of danger: Perfect for the Christmas stocking.

At the heart of it is Tiffany's growing sense of identity - she has to cope with establishing who she is in a world of strong personalities (none stronger than Granny Weatherwax - control freak leader of the witches - who don't have a leader), deal with Death - and loss (someone has to clean up after the funeral, and milk the goat, and hide the Boffo), and ward off the unwanted attentions of a love-struck adolescent elemental.

This might be Discworld - but the emotions and themes are of this world.

The clear lines of the plot, the straightforward language and the characters all make this an attractive read for younger teenagers - but straight forward doesn't mean without depth.

As with many of his other books, Pratchett taps into age-old myths - fictional expressions of the fears and hopes, the irrational explanations of what it is to be human.

Here we have the Persephony myth entangled with Morris Dancing; Orpheus and the 'Wee People' working together; Celtic Ironsmiths crossed with the Greek pantheon.

This gives the story much greater significance - it is for the proto-adult in the child as much as for the vestigial child in the adult.

Yes, I smile when I see Morris Dancers prancing around in the concrete shopping centres of our towns - but having read this book, I will now see a dance which touches on the very turning of the seasons.

It is a Carry On meets The Golden Bough sort of experience!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Climate Change?

At two this morning I was woken by a bird singing!

This is December - in central Europe.

There should be snow.

There should be birds freezing to the branches, noses going white and ears red.

Why is there a bird singing in the night?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Winter Music

With a High Pressure stuck firmly over the Ukraine pushing the incoming Atlantic weather systems 'up-and-over', we are having a spate of foggy mornings. The empty daytime skies allow the sun to raise ground temperature and then, with the fall of night, plunge it, in the early hours, into an icy bath.

Low flying crows punctuate the greyness with their coarse guttural utterances.

Warm milky tea, hot olive-oil-based-butter-substitute covered toast and 'Rip-the-sky's-corsets-off' (also known as Rimsky-Korsakov to the more effete) on the CD player.

I noticed a couple of days ago an urge - Russian 19th century symphonic - creeping up on me.


Strange I thought, how some national music styles fit so nicely with the seasons.

Winter is Russian.

Whether the snow and extremes of a Russian winter are reflected in the music, or, having spent many winter nights in the concert halls of Moscow, I associate the music with winter I couldn't say.

But one of those swirling, bum bum on the base drum, wind whistling first violins, sting-sting-woodwind tunes sends my imagination to -25 C, crunching through the snow near the 17th Century orthodox church in Bitsevski Park: Beard caked in ice, nose on the point of numbness, ears burning. Mad Russian pensioners in their underpants jumping through holes in the frozen surface of ponds. French and German soldiers, in retreat, freezing to death.

English music is summer.

It's a blue mis-remebered hills of childhood, wandering through empty green fields, playing in enchanted woodlands mixed with an adolescent, cold-white-wine-and-cheese-quiche, early-romance summer.

Once the Williams skylark ascends, or Elgar's enigma goes hunting - its 'Oh to be in England' open poetry season.

The French have a sort of summer - but they take it too seriously - its an urban-rush 'I'd prefer to be somewhere else' summer. They remember the little, unimportant things.

And once you are off into Spain - forget the seasons, hold on to your passions. Hot but sultry, immobile windmills to get angry at.

China does a wonderful autumn.

Like Chinese landscape painting Chinese music mixes an infinitesimal range of images moving quickly into focus - sometimes startlingly close up, then faintly distant. It's music that out-Picasoes Picaso - and did so centuries ago.

Rich autumn colours, fruitful, full of promise with that edge of death - the boy on the oxen has grown a long white beard and smiling, moves into the mists.

Spring I'm usually too busy to listen to music. And Russian springs are very short, English Springs too long.

(Now, which books go with the seasons?)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Gone Batty

As this is the week the 'revisionist' James Bond film, Casino Royale is released, it is fitting I picked up off the shelf of my local book shop, Batman Begins: Definitely Revisionist!

I was looking for something light (I have a couple of broken ribs, a gap left by a smashed tooth and creeping tetchiness!) and there was a row of Batman films on DVD on offer. One of those would while away some of time I am in the painkiller-induced haze my life seems to be at the moment.

But which one?

Originally I was attracted by the cast - nearly all British, is the first thing I noticed. And anything with Michael Caine and Gary Oldman is worth a nod. And Morgan Freeman, even though he’s American, ain’t bad.

I haven’t seen many of the earlier Batmen films – the joke-filled, too self-conscious lightness of the one or two I had watched made them less appealing to me than they might ordinarily be – and there were childhood memories of a black and white T.V. series. Did I really have a cape and try flying around the avenue?

There was a period of my life when I got hold of some pretty good ‘comic book’ Batmen – the sort of illustrated book that was trying to break from the sickly, ‘holier than thou’ supper hero for children. I particularly remember one ‘very dark’ story but couldn’t name it for you.

So, good cast, I’m in the mood for entertainment, and not expensive – duly bought.

And wasn’t it a good choice!

Batman Begins is an attempt to put into the film series enough realism to make the character and the stories connect to a maturing audience, to an audience (I am tempted to say post 9/11) which is less convinced by a black and white, good guy/bad guy vision of the world and where shades of darkness flick across even the brightest of lives.

Key to the concept is realism – and reason. Why did Batman become Batman? What made him take on this job, and what are the consequences of assuming the role of Revenge Artist?

I think it is one of those strange paradoxes that the closer to reality the fantasy is, the stronger the hold the fantasy has on the imagination: We need enough reality to construct our flights of fancy.

And the writers, actors, director and designers seem to have taken this to heart in this film.

Stunning sets, extremely realistic visual effects, three dimensional acting all in a sort of heightened realism create a sense of ‘This-could-happen’ in an, ‘If the world were like this – and in places it is’ location.

Gotham City is New York/Chicago/Any City. It is not the whole world – much of the story takes the proto-Batman out into a real world and expands the horizons not only of the character, but the movie.

Batman is vulnerable – emotionally, and physically. Bruce Wayne is presented as a human and when he dons the cape, he loses something of that, becoming stronger by cutting off his humanity. It isn’t a metamorphosis, it is a reduction – it is the animal inside all of us – and that is the connection frequently made (for me) by the film – not the super human flight I tried as a child, but instincts and drives lurking somewhere inside my subconscious.

Christian Bale manages the transformations of character exceptionally well – he starts as a young man with one set of thoughts and ideas, goes on a journey into the wilderness, encounters a mentor who he ultimately has to destroy, and returns to a city to take on the role of Batman – a crusader very much based on the real crusaders of old: The knights who were not opposed to a bit of immorality, dodgy reasoning and rape and pillage.

The rest of the cast is almost without exception, (and, as you would expect with the British connection) perfect.

If I make the film sound too ‘intellectual’ or uninteresting, I apologise – it isn’t either of those things – it is a very well made, high production values, action movie – maybe not for the younger children, but one teenagers and older-agers can enjoy with a couple of cans and a pizza.

Now, when is the next episode out?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Creationist Techniques 1: Straw Men

I propose taking a look at some of the 'revealed' techniques I find in the 'Awake!' special Issue for September 2006: Is There a CREATOR? (Published by the Jehovah's Witnesses - and with a claimed print-run of over 32 million!)

In fairness to the very charming young men who frequently attempt to engage me in conversation, I must say the first page does say: "Jehovah's Witnesses believe the creation account as recorded in the Bible book of Genesis. However, Jehovah's witnesses are not what you might think of as creationists."

With this in mind, I intend here to look at one of the techniques used by the leaflet to counter the accepted scientific explanation of Evolution. The first is:

The Creation of Straw Men:

Did God Use EVOLUTION to Create Life? (Title, pg. 9)


WHAT IS EVOLUTION? One definition of evolution is "A process of change in a certain direction." However, the term is used in several ways. For example, it is used to describe big changes in inanimate things - the development of the universe. In addition, the term is used to describe small changes in living things - the way plants and animals adapt to their environment. The word is most commonly used, though, to describe the theory that life arose from inanimate chemicals, formed into self-replicating cells, and slowly developed into more and more complex creatures, with man being the most intelligent of its productions. This third notion is what is meant by "evolution" as used in this article.
(Box at bottom, pg. 9)

A straw man argument is based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position (Wikipedia). It can be a successful way of persuading people, but is not actually very truthful – the argument has not been countered, people have simply been persuaded.

So where is the straw in the examples above?

It is packed around the definition of Evolution.

Evolution is:

"In the broadest sense, evolution is merely change, and so is all-pervasive; galaxies, languages, and political systems all evolve. Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions."
- Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986
(Quoted : )

Two things to notice:
1) There is no mention of the Origin of Life (or Creation if you take the religious view);
2) There is a clear distinction made between the Biological use of the word and other Scientific and everyday uses.

I suspect, judging from the first part of the ‘Awake’ definition, the writer of this argument is very aware of the slight of hand he (or she) is trying to perform here – No scientist would ever claim EVOLUTION created life – life, and its reproduction, needs to exist before evolution can take place.

I also suspect (but do not know enough to state more definitely) that those many members of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, as well as Muslims and Jews, who both believe in an act of creation by Divine Intervention and the theory of Evolution would be a little upset at the representation of their views in such a distorted way.

A second straw man is set up in the article: Is Evolution a FACT? (page 13)

The teaching of macroevolution rests on three main assumptions:
  1. Mutations provide the raw materials needed to create new species.

  2. Natural selection leads to the production of new species.

  3. The fossil record documents macro-evolutionary changes in plants and animals.

(The BOLD is in the original – and there is a note to point one, which I don’t reproduce.)

The biggest amount of straw here is in the third point.

The suggestion is that fossils, and only fossils, provide evidence for ‘macro-evolution’.

This is very far from the case.

Four major areas of evidence exist for evolution in general (including macro-evolution):

  • the Fossil Record

  • the chemical and anatomical similarities of related life forms

  • the geographical distribution of related species

  • the recorded genetic changes in living organisms over many generations.

(Quoted from: Evidence of Evolution).

By ignoring what is by far the larger amount of evidence, focusing on (what is perceived to be) the weaker and then challenging it, the article attempts to disprove, in the popular mind, evolution as a fact.

It is worth noting I think at this point that Darwin himself used the anatomical similarities between species as a major piece of evidence and to claim the argument for evolution doesn’t include anatomical similarities is downright misleading: But that is the point of a Straw Man – set him up, make sure he can’t fight back, then knock him down.

(Next time I want to look at the note from point one I refrained from quoting.)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Magic of the Moment.

The Magic of the Moment.

(Or Funeral Music)

This wall, which, like the one in the silent movie, descended, didn't have a window frame!

I spent several minutes flattened under the wood and mud-brick, weighty completeness of it - glasses thrown off; wet dribbling down my left arm.

I am "somewhat blind" with my glasses on - living in a haze of a world - and almost totally sightless without. Before anything else, I needed to see.

I managed to haul myself painfully out, crawled around the floor feeling and searching for a bit, then descend the hill and asked for some help finding my glasses - goodness knows what the poor American Evangelists who occupy a house on the edge of the nearby village saw or thought at my appearance - but two pairs of eyes, one adult, one child, accompanied me back up the hill.

Glasses found easily, I thanked my saviours, declined to join them at their next church meeting, saw them to the edge of our land, and hobbled back into the weather besieged ruin I call my home.

Then I became aware of the damage - not to the buildings, to me.

Complete 'babiness and pathetic response' occupy me at the slightest sniffle or ache: Broken bones, dislocations and anything serious bring out the 'idiotic-valiant'.

The blood on my arms (both) was soon wiped away; the crushed ribs were more intransigent to treatment.

Fast forward to the early hours of the morning - attempts to lie down proving impossible, I am sitting up listening to Romanian, middle-of-the-night, radio, waiting for death or exhaustion to close my eyes.

Winds of Change

I recognise it instantly - I have long held it in my consciousness, having lived in Moscow for a time, and spent several very happy nights in Gorky Park.

And a revelation - that is the music I want played as my atheistic body chuggers along in its casket through the purple curtains on its way to cremation.

It could be a pain-heightened response, or comatosness – but a wave of understanding crashed around the song that night.

Nights are short in Moscow in August – a few hours only - and the hot days drift into warm nights.

The Moskva, a river not of greatness but of significance, sweeps through the city in a few wide meanders, traffic rushing along its banks at breakneck speed, even under the walls of the Kremlin.

Cross from the Kremlin near the old British Embassy, go upstream, pass the chocolate factory, along the riverbank near the New Tretchekov Art Gallery and you come to Gorky Park.

Soviet-Disney I like to think of it as (but then I think St Basil’s is Tsarist-Disney).

Gorky Park has long been favourite with the Muscovites – it has a sub-Blackpool (and safety-conscious-less) funfair, long winding walks along the banks of the river, food sellers, drink sellers, and lovers strolling. In winter paths are flooded and freeze for the lovers to ice skate arm in arm; in summer the sides of the dry paths fill with the ‘fluff’ from many of the trees and young men bend down to set light to this and amuse their lady-friends with the resulting ribbon of burn which rushes away along the edges of the path.

Many of the young men are soldiers, on leave, still in uniform.

It is an atmosphere perfectly captured in the Scorpions’ song – Winds of Change.

I walked those paths with Fiona, the only woman I think I could ever marry, at a time when the world was changing: Yeltsin had assumed power, Russia was opening up: Communism had fallen in name if not control; an optimism lit the faces of those young men and women out walking.

It was a moment of magic – a glory night.

We would buy a bottle (or three) of Stalin’s favourite sweet, red, Georgian wine; get some lethal outside-burnt, inside-undercooked shashliky, and go and sit in the mock classical temple, watch the river flow and talk - sometimes deep, sometimes trivial - until it was time for the last metro to leave (not long before dawn, on those summer nights).

The goose droppings never bothered us – but the green stains were difficult to remove from light coloured trousers.

For me, both lyrics and music encapsulate not only a feeling of personal value, but get right (as few songs do) the feelings of a time and of a people.

More than that, they represent all those ‘moments of magic’ in my life – from playing with my Dinky cars in the long, back-garden grass at Ryeburn Ave. as a child (with Steven Smith?) to walking with Cris and Don, the dog, through the forest in Sistarovat only to be surprised by the first family of Wild Pigs we’d any of us ever seen.

They are the moments which sustain us when despair and pain are creeping up – and I can’t think of any other moments I’d like to take with me through that curtain into the flames of oblivion.

I managed to snooze away the rest of the night, and the following morning, well, that’s another story.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Past Three of the Clock . . .

on a decidedly cold and frosty morning.

(More reactions to E.M.Forster's, Howards End.)

Whether I can legitimately reduce it to the Findus Fish Provencal, the cheap Hungarian Merlot or the absurdity of life I do not know - but all three might have contributed to the waking in the early hours, the reading of a chapter of this infuriating book and the igniting of a brain that refuses to lie down and die.

Another meal.

Two little asides - one concerning a clergyman with the expressed opinion, "Their Emperor wants war; let him have it."

The other concerning the rich man's socialist - a construction to be knocked down easily - and other people's socialists, more robust.

In a book published in 1910, four years before the First World War and seven before the Russian Revolution?

The Kaiser (easy) and Lenin (harder)?

And off my brain went.

Forster is writing about a society he doesn't like, characters he has little sympathy for (although great empathy with) and beliefs he thinks groundless.

The authorial persona (whoops, bit of fish - or the calcified accretions of too much education?), the voice Forster adopts to tell the story, is distinctive: It worries some as too smarmy, too arrogant, too distanced - but I think it is a self defence mechanism.

Edwardian England - rich, prosperous and wealthy; Empire ridden, and undergoing a construction boom (incidentally, much better building work than the late Victorians - The suburbs still stand, Victorian terraces, Jerry built, foundation thin, fall quickly): An England smug and doubtful at the same time, enduring 'a peace', and predicting a war; rushing off for holidays in the country, but building ever higher in the cities where the money is made.

Rich men in their clubs, and at their dining tables, demonising a socialism they don't actually understand whilst Lenin and the revolutionaries sit in smoke filled, London cellars, around clothless tables, and plot the downfall of the capitalist (or the socialist's capitalist?) dictatorships.

At another table, poor old Edward Forster, pen in hand, trying to make some sense of it all.

He is no free spirit - he can't shoot off two barrels at the lot of them: He's a Humanist - and that carries a concern for all humanity - he has to care for his characters, all of them, irrespective of how muddle headed, cut throat, or plane daft.

So he tells his story with a, "One may as well . . .” The regal, distancing, 'One'.

If you force me to tell you . . . and a sigh.

Yes, I dislike the people in this story, but I am going to be as fair to them as I can be - but don't make the mistake of thinking I am like them.

My genuine thoughts and beliefs will be hidden away in the tale, but you'll have to search for them in the negatives of what is said and what is done. They’ll pop up in the half-formed asides of passer-bys and minor characters. The tragedy of the human situation will be delivered with a smile - you can get away with saying anything, if you smile when you say it.

If I sound condescending and smug, that's not a problem - after all, some of the characters you are defending against my condescension are just the same - so why defend them?

Dickens was lucky, he was dealing with a Victorian World, cruel, exploitative, crude - we are much more enlightened now, much more civilised, and we are spiralling ever downwards into the chaos of war and revolution.

Six of the clock, the church bell is banging away (yep, Saturday morning!) and I need a shower.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Muck with Pride

(Howard's End)

So, what's wrong with Manchester?

Less patrimonially aware may think I am nit-picking, but 'us Mancuniuns' wear our muck with pride!

Within the space of a couple of chapters Mr Forster mentions the Northern Metropolis in terms ambiguous at best.

The first is during the concert at Queens Hall of the Beethoven 5th Symphony.

Manchester's Free Trade Hall is no longer with us - but it was built out of civic pride for the use of the civics of Manchester.

Acoustically it was a disaster. Forster is right in that - and how quickly he sums it up - the brass sound racing ahead of the rest of the orchestra in some seats. I must admit I have sat uncomfortable through a performance that was all over the place, only to read in the Manchester Guardian the next morning what a great performance it was - initially I put it down to my ignorance - until one performance I changed seats with someone in the middle of a symphony and discovered the incredible change in sound sitting next to myself can make.

But so what? Why mention it during a performance in London? What is the man up to?

Then, a slight but insistent mention of the stagnating population numbers of the city of my birth - which I take to be true, although my own family experience denies to my very loins the assertion (my father, born 1913, was one of 13; my mother - better class of working - born the same year, one of three).

And, guilding the rotting lily with the proverb, 'What Manchester does today, London does tomorrow' our authorial persona, through one his characters reading a Sunday paper, goes on to suggest by 1960 the whole national population will have stopped expanding (strange to write this on the day the USA is expecting the birth of its 300 millionth citizen - in fact at 11.46 GMT - we are still fascinated by the numbers).

There is some purpose to all this I am sure.

Is it London snobbery predicting the end of the human race as a response to the sins of the industrial heartbeat of the Empire?

Or could it be the rose pink glasses viewing the outdated and moribund as value filled traditions standing squarely against a tide of brass and soot expanding on the far horizon?

Further reading needed and further posts expected in the event of another unwarranted attack.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Train Stations

In Howard's End there is an interesting comment about train stations

Forster takes us beyond the physical into our perceptions of the world: The great train stations are repositories of latent placeness!

Paddington has Cornwall within it; Euston Scotland. The World has become smaller: The world has become multi-dimensional.

And that strikes a very big chord with me. Much of my life has been spent on Continental Europe - and there the stations maintain this feeling. Most of my travelling is still, Victorian style, done on trains.

Moscow's Kiev station has a Ukrainian feel - and it is not just the wall mosaics and superficial decorations (although they do capture something) it is the people who swarm around it, the beggars, the business men. The early communist enthusiasm for celebrating regional cultural differences has stamped the whole rail transport network of Moscow with an individuality hard to find anywhere else in the world.

Pick your station in Budapest carefully - will it take you back West ? Or South into the Germanic, Austo- (semi-) Hungarian world? Or East into Balkan and Carpathian, once (and culturally, still) Turkish-dominated parts?

I think it is hard now to visualise in multi-ethnic England just how distinctive some of the regions of Eastern Europe are - how a combination of skin colour, nose shape, hair colour, neck length, choice of clothing, swagger of the hips, intangible but there features, mix to say where a person is from even before they open their mouth and pour out one of the many languages of the area. Which beer are they drinking - from a can or a bottle? Or is it wine? Or plum brandy? Maybe you will be wrong with an individual - but not often; get a group together, even if they are not with each other, and that subconscious placeness surrounds you: You might not know the place: You know there is a place though.

An airport doesn't have it. Nor does a motorway service station. Local bus stations are too local and international bus stations too international.

My most frequently used station, 'Timisoara North' in Romania, built at the hight of the Austro-Hungarian Industrial Expansion maintains this placeness.

Once the Orient Express stopped here on its way from Belgrade to Bucharest and further on into Bulgaria and ultimately Istanbul - and you still, sitting waiting for one of the few international trains that now pass though to move off, get the excitement of dangerous journeys.

Or is it the slower train taking the southern route - over the mountains the Romans fought the Dacians in and along the Danube - just in time for lunch in the resteraunt car as you pass the place Trajan bridged this mightiest of European rivers?

Maybe it is a local train - you'll catch it at a different platform, and so the character of the journey changes with the people. Don't be suprissed to find tired workmen sleeping off a night of drinking lying across the wooden benches of the second class carriages - for many of these subsidised trains are essential to people who can't afford petrol, let alone the car - and many trains don't bother with first class compartments.

Even in England something is left of this great cosmopolitanism.

Despite the 'upgrade' to Manchester Picadilly, I still feel when I enter it I am off to the hills of Derbyshire - to 'Buxton' the great Spa Town: or Blackpool, both from the Oxford Road side line. You have to cross the bridge and choose your side of the platform.

The central platforms drive an arrow of conciousness South.

How wonderful of E.M.Forster to grasp this and capture it is words.

Why did he do it though?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Wise Men (and Women)

The Noble Peace Prize for 2006 has just been announced and, much to my surprise, I am quite impressed by the choice.

Instead of the "big name" negotiators and actors, (nearly all of whom have contributed in some way to peace in this world) the name of a man and an institution most people in the world would not have heard of, and many people in the world have a lot to be grateful to, popped up.

If prevention is better than cure, then Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank have done far more for world peace than countless conflict resolvers. By providing a way of raising living standards and increasing 'happiness', especially amongst women; by giving people the chance for dignity and independence (from the state as much as of the state); and by fitting the solution to the needs of the individual rather than the masses, micro-credit has already done more for peace within the human race than sanctions and food-aid ever will.

There is little in this world I consider truly wise - but for once, an institution has managed to show wisdom and hinted at a path worth following, a path leading to lasting peace - a means to livelihood, freedom and happiness.

Well done those men (and, especially, women)!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Moorish Men 1

The trouble with England is it attempts to revive long dead traditions, like good beer and folk dancing.

To have experienced the real folk 'life' of a village hidden away in the foothills of Transilvania is to have seen a glimpse of what lies behind the "stick-your-finger-in-your-ear, drink-Camra-approved-beer-only, strap-bells-on-and-prance," folk revivals of modern day England.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with these revivalists (there is, but I'm not saying it - I am sure it keeps a lot of very dodgy characters off the street - or rather on the street but highly visible in white outfits waving red handkerchiefs about): But the one thing they are trying to revive, tradition, is the one thing that is dead.

You can't revive the dead. Reserection is not the same as revival.

Real folk dance has survived, and is doing well, in many places in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

It is the dance of the 'volk' - folk who live there: Ordinary, everyday folk - people who have lived in the village or town all their life, who's great-grandparents did the similar dances and sang similar songs, and their great grandparents did the same - not always in this village or town, but close-by, or if not close by, they carried similar traditions from longer distances and understood, when they moved here, what doing the local dances meant and quickly "assimilated".

They have been more or less unaffected by urbanisation - and mechanisation, and industrialisation.

Until the last 20 years or so (still, in many places), fields were ploughed behind a horse or ox, or dug by hand. The tractors of communism had little influence outside the communes: Fields are too small, people too old,money too tight.

Most farming is subsistence. Nationally of little importance for the GDP and so ignored - until you realise just how many older people are involved, and how many of their children and grandchildren get part of their food and a lot of their alcohol from the smallholdings.

Electricity has come recently too - great for cutting the wood you still fuel the cooker with, and put in the stove you heat your mud-brick or wooden house in winter with. Electric light too - but most people are in bed by 10 o'clock at night and up with the cows, which they milk by hand.

If you had a television - and you would be suprised how recently T.V. has come to many places, it was black and white, full of state propaganda - or folk music and dances.

Many places still have no cell-phone signal - including, thankfully, my house in Romania.

Folk music and dance is a way people have found to entertain themselves. It concerns their very real lives, and celebrates their concerns, needs, wishes.

It is sung when they harvest the crops - setting up a rhythm that helps make the tedium and back-braking work pass. The same songs are sung again at weddings.

This is not the lushly filmed, pretty picture BBC 'Historically-almost-right', glorious summer-afternoon, nostalgic, dramatisation of a 19th Century novel (written long after the coming of industry and machines); it is dirty, smelly, strong armed men and women getting in the harvest before the weather changes and ruins the hay, or the birds take too much of the crop.

They sing for inspiration and endurance.

When they dance, it is a celebration of community.

Young men dance together - male bonding long before the business psychologists got hold of it. The village/family needed people to co-operate with and trust one another. A ring dance, such as the Romanian Hora, requires concentration and co-ordination, enthusiasm and energy - all skills needed by the community if it was to thrive.

And that hora is still danced - in the strangest of places: My first encounter of the dance was at an 18th birthday party, when someone, in the middle of the loud, modern disco, put on a tape of traditional music, and up the 'boys' got, almost to a man, and danced the hora: Arm across shoulders, attention to the steps.

Young, frequently unmarried, women dance together too. Different dances - female bonding (why don't we hear of that as frequently as male bonding?). After all, the village women co-operate as much as the men.

And then there is the music making.

Again, it is local people who make the music - yes, there are (increasingly) specialists, but much of the original music was provided by local people who worked the day in the fields, just as everyone else did. They worked with old tunes rather than composed new; they were preservers and passers on, not in a stick it in the museum kind of way, but in, this is what is expected, this is what I will do - after all, we are here to enjoy ourselves, and help others do the same - kind of way.

I hear talk of modern 'pop' music being the contemporary folk - which is to miss the community generated, self owned, never the same twice, point. Music had to be "made" again and again - never recorded for re-use.

And it is a group activity. Musicians work together: Musicians work with the dancers: Dancers and Musicians work with the community, who sing along, join in, shout, laugh - together giving meaning to the activity.

Even when people go to watch a staged performance at a festival, that sense of joint ownership is still there. And the sense that this music captures something essential from the life of the people watching.

When I used to sing, 'John Barleycorn', it was a good tune, fun to sing: Since living a semi-self-sufficient existence, where what I grow is what I eat and drink, it means more - if I were part of the English community which ate and drank bread and beer made from its own grown barley, whose ancestors first coined the song, it would mean even more.

(To be continued?)

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Of Pigs, Business Men and Beauty

(Or in the eye of the beholder)

Sat at a table, in the intermittent sunshine of a day with, "Rain threatened latter," at the OMV cafe in Arad, sipping at one of those quite worthy, but not exactly perfect double-espresso-in-a-small-white-thick-Italianish-ceramic-cup and waiting for the two hours or so before my connecting train, I noticed the smoked salmon pink, short sleeved shirt stretched tight over the expansive back of the man 'doing business' at the table in front of me.

I thought of a healthy, adolescent pig, well on its way to becoming smoked ham, blood sausage and bacon - and plenty of it.

There are many ways to think about pigs I am sure (if you think of them at all, and most people, I suspect, don't), but to me they are quite an attractive creature. So, when I thought of pig, I wasn't thinking 'rude' - in fact, it was a moment of positive revelation.

I have always struggled to understand the attractiveness of the fuller flesh human - and the talk in literature, especially Middle Eastern literature, of the need for plenty of flesh in a beautiful woman or an attractive man.

On this visit to 'The Land' I had spent a little time hacking away at the overgrowth before the sun stretched itself and blasted the earth with fly spawning heat, and a lot of time reading in the closed shade of the one semi-decent room. I had finished 'The Cairo Trilogy', well over a thousand pages of life in a middle class, Muslim family in British oppressed Egypt. There there had been lots of flesh - men following women through the streets to watch there wide bottoms wobble, 'women of entertainment' admiring the size of a man's belly, and seeing attractiveness in the chubby faces of well fed, middle aged men. A pair of sisters, one sticking to the traditional put plenty of it on, the other aping Western women and going streamlined - needless to say, the thinner life was more tragic, and a lot less comfortable.

Cultural differences and shifts in fashion, I thought. A sign of wealth in poor times.

Something to do with the Ottoman Turks domination of the region for so long: Black tea drinking, leave your shoes at the door and obesity..

Which is how I used to account, and still partly do, for the number of business men in this part of Eastern Europe who are large and wear tight shirts which seem to emphasise their bulk.

Then I saw the back of this 'om de affacere', (Business man - with a hint of Black Market and influence) doing business, in the very Turkish atmosphere of the coffee house - or its modern equivalent, the petrol station cafe (McDonalds is a good substitute - as people who lived in Moscow a few years ago can confirm - a place to go and be seen, especially popular with black handbag toting Mafia toughs).

His hair was thick, black, moleskin-like, cut square and short.

Then there was that expanse of back - a slightly depressed spine with two ridges either side, good to grab and hold on to. And pink. True, a mature, male oinky pink - with a hint of the streamlined salmon - but still pink. (Sorry, the Dutch go in for that sort of colour, my working-class Mancunian background just can't make the leap needed to unthinkingly accept such display.)

The trousers were black and tight. Shoes hidden under the table.

I couldn't see if he was wearing a tie - quite possible - if he was working for one of the flood of "American" (for which read anywhere that speaks English - even if Italian owned) companies - or was choosing to be legitimate. Possibly he would be open necked - with a tangle black hair and very obvious gold chain. He did have the obligatory thick gold chain on his wrist. "Private Business", in that case.

Shaved, there would be a surround of some "expensive" (for which read obvious) aftershave: Fortunately, sat outside a petrol station cafe, next to a major road, I couldn't smell it.

He would play five-a-side late at night, at least once a week. A full size pitch would be too much, so he would get together with friends and colleagues to kick the ball around and make it a regular thing. Demand for indoor football pitches and basketball courts is so great that it is not unusual for a booking to start in the early hours of the morning - when there is the advantage of coolness in Summer, heating in Winter.

He would have strength under the flesh - possibly still working his parents land at weekend - and quite capable of tree-cutting and digging.

And that was the difference - Western Obesity has become loose flesh - flab, collapsing over aeroplane seat next to you; or a fluid wobble in some very unfit child pushing its way to buy the latest computer game.

His was the firm flesh of someone who cared about his fitness - but was going to enjoy the profits of his labour in this world. He had the body of someone who would work for those profits.

A healthy and attractive proposition for any prospective wife - and even employer.

What was it Shakespeare's Julius Caesar said?

"Let me have about me men who are fat, sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

For One, Brief Shining Moment

"Don't let it be forgot,

That once there was a spot,

For one brief, shining moment,

That was known as ...."

Camelot - a place that once must have been real, and is now firmly a myth. A dream of the once-upon-a-time future.

It was and will be a place of wonders: A Summer and Winter, Spring and Autumn Paradise - where the original "Beautiful Young" dwell - if not in harmony with each other, at least in touch with something deep within their individual natures: The real fight against ignorance and prejudice - the ignorance of worn out systems only present through inertia, and prejudice grown from poverty and lack of exposure to the opportunites so freely available, and so frequently abused, elsewhere.

Lic Shakespeare, Timisoara, Romania, 1993-96.

That was Camelot. A brief moment of time and located in a land besotted with myth.

Magic happened then, the magic brought by unrecognised freedom, in a system which had lost control and hadn't had time to regroup and rebind.

Ideals drove some people on - not just the young people, the older ones too, determined to make the world different.

Money drove on others - dollar signs in their eyes, but free at last to pursue that greatest of democratic treasures, private property and wealth.

Yet others were there for the ride, not knowing what they had entered, not particularly caring either - but the magic penetrated even their indifferent skins.

Like all magical moments, it was brief, intangible, incomprehensible and never to be repeated (until another time, another place).

In June, this year, a number of the survivors met. There were empty chairs around the round table.

Whether married and starting young families, swept away in the Romanian intellectual diaspora, well on the way to their first (US $) million or just making it good at home, a remarkable group of young people came together. A number of the elders were there too.

There was still magic there - but not the high energy, atmospheric fission - magic that had sedimented somewhere inside the people (I'll avoid using 'soul' - although the Romanian word conveys a sense of essence not really present in the English, it also sounds too much like souffle for my heathen taste).

No matter where these people go, what these people do, there was in their lives, that brief, shinning moment -

and to Arthur's bussom, they shall eventually return.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Agassi vs. The Thug

I am not a great fan of sport - which, to those who know me, is something of an understatement.

However, over the past few years, I have been bound to the television for much of my entertainment. Not only that, "foreign" television.

Whilst I enjoy film and theatre, intelligent debate and factual programmes, understanding is almost impossible when you barely have the capacity to order a beer in the local ex-pat bar, and can't get your hair cut for love nor money.

I have consequently drifted into viewing sport on the grounds it is at least something I can follow (although I deny vehamently any understanding).

In time, one becomes attached to individual faces - and certain events.

In fact, one longs for paticular events as some sort of reference point in the the ever shifting mindscape of international life.

Wimbledon is one such event, and Andre Agassi one of those 'old, familiar faces'.

Yesterday he played his last Wimbledon match and at the end, said an emotional farewell to the crowd and spectators (whilst crediting them with a degree of knowledge I doubt really exists).

Agassi (unlike poor old Pete when he bowed out) had been given Centre Court - even though he was playing the number 2 seed (normally sent off to exile in a lowlier court 'til later on in the tournament) Rafael Nadal.

The old man put up a fight for the first set - then fell to the inevitable power of the up and coming, just-out-of-teenage-er.

Nadal went for his habitual roar of triumph and then, remembering who he was playing and what he had just done, pulled up and stepped back out of the limelight.

The Centre Court paid its tribute to the defeated ex-champion and you knew some sort of ending had happened. There was dignity in it - and respect. The Coup-de-Grace had been delivered, a Young Lion had taken over the pride, the handing over completed. Agassi had been given given his triumph.

What a contrast latter on in the day when England fell to Portugal in the World Cup.

There was little dignity here, and a lot of bitterness. The action which most sits on my mind (much like an under-cooked suit pudding on the stomach, waiting to be vomited) is the stomping and brawling of England's prize thug, Rooney.

I don't doubt his ability with a ball - but what a lout he is - and what a representative of his country.

FIFA's 'Fair Play' is splattered all over the place as if printing it makes it a reality. There are few professional footballers one would think subscribes to it. The game doesn't matter, only beating the opponant does. Pretence and deceit are valued, as long as the other team loses.

And Portugal can't hold its head up either - a whinging Ronaldo trying to pursuade the referee to send off an opponant - what a spectacle.

What a contrast to Rafael Nadal.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

"Don't stand so close ... "

Just how close are we to each other?

Somewhere back in the UK (on Ruth's shelves I suspect) I have a book on numbers - and statistics.

In there it pointed out that if you sit next to someone on a plane who you don't know, then the probability is you have an acquaintance who has an acquaintance in common (4 or five steps away from each other).

In other words, if I wanted to pass a letter by hand between any two people on earth, it ought to be possible to do it in 5 or six steps.

Of course, we would need perfect knowledge of who knows who to achieve this - but it does suggest the world is a much smaller place than we imagine.

Over on Ron Schuler's Parlour Tricks I keep coming across connections - quite irritating I am sure for poor old Mr Schuler, but intriguing for me.

I suspect that age has something to do with it too - the longer I last, the greater the number of connections.

And the job - think of all those children and parents who pass through my world.

Add to that the globe trotting - China, Russia, Eastern Europe, Cyprus.

Strange though, most of the connections seem to pop up from earlier times.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Bartok and the Dream

Busy listening to Bela Bartok last night - and remembered where my love of his music came from.

Back in the early 70's I was involved in a school prodution of Shakespeare's, 'A Midsummer Nights Dream' .

Don Boyle and Elaine Stone directed it and I think they based their ideas on an RSC production.

The fairies were dream like, elemental and in body stockings (mine was for a very tall man - so it fitted me fine - the stomach pushed out rather than the head thrusting up).

Weird music was wanted - and Malcolm Berry, of all people, (club footed, mountain climbing Geography teacher with a skimpy beard - who ended up knocking off every schoolboy's dream mistress, Alison S.), came up with the goods: Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

Through the end period of rehearsal and every night of performance (5 - or only - 3?) the music blasted out - and has been ingrained ever since.

Strange how fate gets a hand - I am now living and working in the part of the world Bartok lived in - and regularly hear the folk music live he collected and put into his works.

Best bit in it has to be the sound of the "ass" he-hawing: Keith Reed, where are you?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Man stops Car!

Out for a walk yesterday when I first heard and then saw a rather delapidated car chugging along with a small dog running after it, yapping away (yes, that small a dog).

A man and a woman came round the corner, walking along on the opposite pavement towards the car.

Suddenly the car stopped.

Out jumped the driver, ran round the back of the car, went up to the woman, who, judging by the way she stood and looked at him, knew who he was.

He took a small spey from his pocket and carefully squirted her lapel twice.

Meanwhile, the passenger door opened and another man jumped out and also approached the woman.

Two more squirts.

A couple of very quick kisses and the men jumped back into the car. The engine started and the car chugged off, dog dutifully running and yapping behind.

Different societies celebrate Spring in different ways – here in Hungary the Monday after Easter Sunday is definitely different.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Danube

I went for a walk in Pest yesterday - I really wanted to get a glimpse of the Danube in full flood.

Years ago I learnt about bank full discharge and over bank full discharge - the 'idea' is a little different when you see something like the Danube only just being contained within the raised banking running along the side of the river, with the Hungarian Parliament building just waiting to be flooded and with a suddenly stretched view of the now distant Buda above which the old fortress manages to tower.

Restaurant boats in a fixed mooring are in danger of unfixing - the only thing holding them seems to be the gangplanks now perversely pushing into the sky, the boats floating way above the invisible entrance gates.

A Ticket Office roof intreguingly pokes through the grey speeding water.

Small groups of people wander along, inspecting and wondering - almost awed at the sheer dominating power flowing relentlessly beside them.

The sky threatens more rain.

Strange, no reports on the BBC. The media don't think this is important enough to give it air time. Politics of the Middle East and football are far more significant, the editors decide.

Not for those of us who have seen the ancient Danube flexing a little of its powerful muscle and giving a sign that it is quite capable of washing away the petty political institutions we are obsessed with.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

'Clive of India's' tortoise dies

I saw (heard?) the news of this on CNN last night.

Whether the tortoise was 250 year's old or only 150 is in debate: Still, it gives a perspective to our short four score and ten.

This could well have been the world's oldest living creature - living a life almost unknown.

Makes one think.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Milosovic and Martyrdom

I can't help thinking that the way we deal with "War Criminals" is not going well.

The BBC and CNN have spent an inordinate amount of time broadcasting images of Milosovic - next to no time showing the consequences of his actions.

Over half an hour yesterday was given to live pictures of his coffin at the airport.

Reports of his death and all the developing (more idiotic the better) conspiracy theories have saturated the airwaves: He is being turned from 'victim-maker' to Victim.

I am put in mind of Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar.

Brutus thinks he has right on his side and he can use his great powers of intellect and word craft to explain the truth - and a very good job he does too: But he is as impartial as the BBC: He has to let both sides of the arguement be presented.

Mark Antony stands up, knowing he can't beat Brutus with the truth, and makes an brilliant, emotional appeal to the gathered crowd - throws in a few well chosen, but believable (because it is what the crowd want) lies - distorts reality and sweeps away all the good work Brutus has done, sending Rome into a bloody civil war.

Slowly and surely Milosovic is being turned into a Martyr.

Romania had the good fortune to put a few bullets into the heads and bodies of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife - so ridding itself of any chance they could be martyred. A brutal and public act shown in all its sordidness.

Russia treats its enemies in Chechnya in a similar way. I make no point about the rightness of either sides view here - just the effectiveness of the technique.

I don't actually support the death penalty - but the total and instant removal from the public gaze of dictators and war criminals certainly proves a lot more effect in helping a country move on.

Sadam Hussain is running rings around his judges - and the media is reporting with glee every word they can get, in the name of fairness and even handedness. How much better for the world would it have been for his dead body to have been found?

Sad that the media is reducing the world to such a state.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Fall of the mighty

For the first time in my life, I advised a student to not watch the BBC, but use CNN, this week.

Since having access to BBC on cable ( BBC World and Prime) here in Hungary I have become steadily disenchanted and regularly annoyed.

The thing that has finally pushed me over the edge is the Winter Olympics - and the attrocious coverage on the BBC. It seems as though the BBC is too mean to fork out money to get the rights to show images from the games and so what coverage there has been has been imageless for the most part - Amazing, a TV station, image driven, trying to report on what has to be the biggest sporting event at this time, without pictures.

I suspect CNN is constrained by similar restrictions - but they have managed to get live reporters at the games and whenever they show a result illustrate it with still photographs. And what great photographs they have been on the whole.

In fact, the stills are far more illustrative of both the sport and the personalities than video would be.

Not only that, but the BBC persists on leading with football and other sports, principally male, first, before the Olympics. Why?

On complaining about the male-football dominance on what is supposed to be a report on "All the International Sport", the unanswer 'Editotial decision' came back: Exactly! What sort of Editor, driven by what factors and under what constraints?

Working in an internatinal situation, seeing the terrible sports coverage, and susspecting motives and motivations, has made me look again at the rest of the coverage: And the BBC is found wanting.

No report on the Russian film industry awards (editorial decision) and a report focussing on the anti-Iran complaints at the Beril Film Festival but nothing else (despite the festival's high standing and wide ranging programme - which I know from the DW televison channel - who incidentally frequently report in greater depth on the arts scene in the UK than the BBC ever does - a good report on the Brit Awards this week for example).

An obsession with events in the Middle East which, if it is not political certainly looks it: I hear the cry, it is what people want to hear about: I reply, no, it is all they know about because that is all you report about. I suspect political interference, but will concede it could just be money and resource limitations - the BBC can't afford to report seriously in anything other than a couple of areas, so pretend thesea re the important ones.

Inaccessibility is also I suppose the excuse for none-reporting many of the things that are happening in the world today - Having seen the devestation of the floods in Europe last year, where far more damage to people's livelihoods was done in Romania tha Austria, and far more images shown and reporting done of Austria, I only despare.

CNN is not perfect - but at least treats a wider range of issues, frequently in more depth, although not always with my point of view (which is a good thing). DW is a far more reliable source of information on what is actually happening here in Europe - and again, has great Arts coverage. It also does not pretend to be more than it is.

So, BBC, move over - my students will be told, from now on, to watch you only if there is something special on - like the Imagination programme, or the report on Med. Sans. Frontier.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Shallow Profundity and Deep Superficiality

21st Century Schizoid Man

Talk about my generation! Rather a lot of them will be dropping to their knees at this point and go into automatic Head Banging.

Oh, what fun Pip.

I bought the King Crimson cd yesterday, slipped it into the machine and the thoughts that came flooding back: Did I really do that? Down on the floor in the disco at school, long hair (had hair then) and rhythmic head banging.

How great the lyrics seemed, and what energy the music contained. I still have a residual fondness for it - which I suspect goes deeper into admiration. It is of my generation, and opened up a wider world to me - and some of my friends.

What is it about popular music? I suspect we are like a dandilion: our childhood is the flower, growing in the sun - then we enter adolescence, close up only to emerge as the great fluffy seed head - waiting to be blown by a strong enough gust of wind. Off into the world where our adult form has to develop and survive.

That wind will be of the moment - the music, fashions and ideas popular at the time.

It is as if we need something to hitch our emerging thoughts on to - ideas of independence, protest against the human condition, visions of human relationships.

Popular music provides the scaffolding we need - it is fertile ground: 'Poets Starve and Children Bleed' is what crystalized the crude emotions caused by the overdose of hormones surging through my blood.

To change metaphor, it was the first hacking through of a path through the jungle - a crude tool being essential - the fine scappel of 'art' music being irrelevant to the job.

And it had the necessary support of my immediate, emerging from childhood community.

It was ours. It had a novelty and it supplied thought patterns needed to comprehend our world.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The House where I was Born:

Sits at the end of the row, in Ryeburn Ave.

Here is a picture I have stolen from the Manchester Public Library service. The house is the one at the end, just being obscured by the lampost - complete with our Caravan.

This was taken in 1979, so my father was dead and the caravan waiting to be sold.

The avenue was a haven of safety when I was a child. Outside the circle at the top, danger, strange creatures, chaos: In the circle, a place of security. It is a time of pre-traffic - notice how few cars there are. And there is grass on the sides of the very narrow entrance.

A Garden City - social engineering from a Utopian view.

But the house where I was born, and the room I spent most of my childhood sleeping in, is visible in this black and white image. As are the houses of the Coley's and the Cockles - our neighbours.

Shiela Holgate's house is there too - the girl I shot in the ear with an arrow from a bow, so recently acquired at Blackpool Pleasure Beach so soon destroyed as punishement by the old cow, Daisy, Lady Ryeburn (my mother). It was, I must say, a magnificent shot. Later in life I toyed with the sport archery as a direct consequence of my certainty of a natural gift, based on the shot of Sheila's ear.

I notice the gates, jointly owned with the Coley's. He had an immacculate, lined lawn and cut the hedges with a pair of nail scissors (literally). Not the ideal neighbour for a growing child - but kind and considerate in many ways.

And Mr Cockle, the other side, he of the rampant blackburry bushes: Equal in Garden-ship, but of a very different nature - wild vicious utilitarian plants, and a warm welcome smile always on his face.

Fifty years ago today I was born into this world, in the house you see - in a back bedroom, not pictured. I presume it was the same bed i was conceived in. My time here ended not so long ago with the death of Lady Ryeburn, after around seventy years in the huse, I suspect her spirit still infects the place.

Et In Arcadia Ergo.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Houghton Legacy

I think it was Peter Houghton who introduced me to Emerson, Lake and Palmer: ELP.

I am certain it was his fault I started to listen to Yes.

Genesis, I think, came a different route.

With 50-up tomorrow, I have started to 'find' some of my old music. Pictures at an Exhibition, the ELP version, more than anything else I can conciously think of, sent me off on the road to 'serious (classical to all you heathens) music.

Yesterday I popped a cd of Brain Salad Surgery inot my new home cinema system (whatever hapened to record players?). Strange, I picked up that cd only a week ago in Timisoara, Romania.

It was 'interesting'. When I listened to it all those years ago I hadn't realised I was listening to so much classical inspired music: Or such fuzzy sound.

Mind you, then I had a small turntable with a single, limited power speaker and all the sound qualities of a dead cat. I would stretch out on the floor in front of the machine with my head as close as possible, turn up the volume and imagine I had stereo speakers.

Lady Ryeburn wasn't around - gone walkabout to Australia I think. But that is a lot of extra material to write about.

No, I owe Peter a lot. I am sure my love of music was filtered through the ELP experience.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Eyewitness Again

A series of programmes on BBC World, on 'Medicine San Frontier' (forgive the dodgy French Accent) set me off again on this perenial.

I realised by the end of the programme on Sudan, I had a stronger grasp of the situation in country after this brief programme than after years of news reports.

What was it that did this? I think it was because the programme was focused not on giving an artificial 'balance' to the political situation, or a reporter's interpretation of the events, but on the actions of people who were working for MSF.

We saw them working - not telling us. There was a militia leader who had brought in a relation to the hospital. They had to get him to sign it was OK to give the anesthetic - if he died it could set up a revenge killing against the hospital. The doctor talked to him - he said he had to go back to the fighting.

Instantly the whole 'reality' hits you - not some overblown documentary, some sensationalisation of the moment, just a statement of fact, a bemused looking Doctor who is concerned about preparing for more casualties.

There isn't the fancy camera work (only one camera?) or slick editing - the shot has to be wide to capture both Doctor and Militia man.

I have become the eye witness.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Is it Age or Insanity?

Busy watching the news and all the reports of the Hamas victory in the elections in Palastine.

I keep hearing people (dressing in the little brief authority of political power) saying they won't speak to Hamas unless they renounce violence.

Am I going crazy or isn't every one of the people insisting on peace using massive armed force? (Is Afganistan a little picnic party? Are there no troops in Iraq? Doesn't Israel regularly kill Palistinian civilians?)

Didn't the modern state of Israel rise from terrorist activity (Could have sworn that some of my relatives were out there under the British Mandate)? Didn't the USA arise from the same terrorist activity? And France have a revolution (or two)? Russia is not exactly and demi-Eden.

I think there is a major problem of understanding here: People take words said to them and use their knowledge, insight, intelligence to interpret them. No matter what is said to me, it is what I already know that I will use to understand what you have said.

As I get older, my "database" of knowledge and strategies is widening. The more I hear on Hamas, who have won a massive victory being supported by a far higher percentage of the population than any of the Western leaders complaining about them, the more worried I am about the sanity of the world I am living in.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Half Century Up

Fast approaching 50 and getting sentimental. I have been thinking over the first half century and it is strange to think I was once one of the group you see next door.

One or two of the people I have some contact with; most have left my sphere.


All three of the schools I have close connections with in the UK have been destroyed: Yewtree, Mansfield and now I hear Habergham is going too (after goodness knows how many centuries - refounded in 1553).

Strange indeed.

The music of my youth is also starting to feature. ELP, Yes, Rick Wakeman: Started to buy the cds which are a feature of the shelves here in Timisoara. What a very strange world indeed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sex or Gender?

The coming to power of the first elected African presedent, the first woman president in Chile and a debate going on over on a Shakespeare Message Board about men playing women's roles, has reactivated one of the bees in my bonnet.

A great deal of confused debate of the role of women comes, I believe (quite perversly some will say) from the misuse of the word sex.

Sex is a physical act, procreation/recreation.

To refer to a human being's sex, is going to reduce that being to a physical action: And define them by a very limited part of their activities (or their dangly bits).

Gender is the correct word for refering to a person's masculine or feminine identity. This is much more inclusive and incorperates aspects of personality which extend far beyond the physical.

More to be said on this I am sure.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Life, not livelihood

On the outbreak of Birdflu
in Turkey

One of the presenters on CNN dropped the comment that you could understand people hiding their poultry from slaughter during the epidemic as it was their livelihood.
Nice sentiment but I think he hadn't quite grasped the situation.

In rural communities all over the world, a similar fight is going on: Western Media reporting from an essentially urban point of view and failing to understand we are not talking about poultry as a way of earning a living, we are talking about the only source of meat and animal protein available to vast numbers of people.

If the birds are killed, people will not be able to buy meat. Most live in isolated communities where there are no shops selling meat even if the people were given money to buy meat with.
The birds are self replicating - you replace your stock using the eggs they lay. Where will the replacement stock come from if you slaughter the villages whole stock?

The chickens do a number of other jobs too: By rooting around food crops they drastically reduce the insect pest population so increase crop production; their dung fertilises the soil; their feathers are an essential tool in keeping warm in the bitter winters of turkey (forget the Med Coast holidays and try travelling up into the Highlands).

I noticed the same attitude when the bird-flu outbreak occured in the Danube: Our media's understanding goes so far only. I do not blame them, they are after all only the product of the society that employs them.

But surely it is time someone out there really went and researched the consequences of the slaughter?

What has happened in those Danube communities where the birds were slaughtered?

Friday, January 06, 2006

On Time

I woke from a bit of a odd dream this morning - to do with working in schools.
Strange, I thought, whenever I dream of a school, the physical setting is nearly always my old secondary school. Even though I have worked in schools all of my adult life (well over 20 years), in various places around the world, for various amounts of time, the pattern of school set in my head is Yew Tree.
Not only that, nine times out of ten (impression not statistics) it is the library I am in.
Next comes my junior school, but far less often.

It is as if one part of the mind is frozen in time.

We think of time as being liniar most of the time (Times Arrow). With the advent of Railways, time required hours and minutes. More modern technology has upped the anti (or downed the length) to the seeming impossibility of living without seconds and smaller units. And in the very short term it does seem as if we move forward.
But there is also the idea that time repeats itself (Times Cycle) in the dayly and seasonal and maybe longer repetions - what with Haley's comet popping up every seventy odd years, (or even the expansion and possible contractin of the whole universe).

We measure normal time it seems to me by the sun. So down on the farm I have calibrated the clock to that - but not precisely. (What have I to do with accursed minutes?)
I wake with the sun usually and, not having electricity, go to sleep with the sun too.

But the dream gives another perspective. Time is a Unity: Time as oneness. It might sound a bit mystical but what do you expect coming from a dream?

Everything I do in connection to education is reprocessed in my brain and associated into one time frame - my brain time. It is a little like mind maps (not the modern way of putting things down graphically, but the conceptual maps you really use to make decisions about where places are) - they have a connection to reality but it is certainly relative and personnal.

When I go forward, I am in fact not moving very far, and my subconcious is bouncing around all over the place (time /space) not going any time and every time.

So time is in fact a whole, not an arrow, not a cycle.

Time for a cup of tea: As every English man knows, it is always time for a cup of tea.

Monday, January 02, 2006

More Music

An uncomfortable set of ideas has been floating around in my head over the Christmas/New Year.

I happened to catch a Richard Attenborough (Blessed be his Blue Shirts) show soon after my last post - all about music and animals.

Certain very disturbing facts seemed to pop out:
  • Music could be much older biologically in us than language.
  • It developed as a way of marking and fighting for territory.
  • It became more complex as a sex/fitness link became attached.
  • Music is a Male domain.
  • In certain monkey species the male and females have different 'music'.
  • Chimps use it to form male hunting groups.

Could it be that the male of the species is biologically fitter to create music? Whether it be the very basic urges of the Great Tit, or the much more sophisticated singing Whales, it is the male at the forefront: Has this been translated into our own genetic make-up?

The territoriality, gender, fitness - we make a noise as a basic sign of who we are: I am moved by certain Christmas songs because they touch on the collective in me, they hint at belonging and place? But I have to sing - I am compelled to express my position too.

And what am I now to make of Black Eyed Peas? I watched, fascinated, their video, 'Humps'.

The absolute Maleness of the Music but the sexual allure of the Female - not passive, not delicate - very, very strong, but receptive. Not inferior, but different.

Could it be that there never will be a female Beethoven?

And are there so many males in the world of music precisely because of the music being a fundamental (genetic) sign of strength and sexually prowess? Does music make a man sexy?

Certainly the ultimate mate must be a conductor - they live for ever, don't they? And what about the sex drive of Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven?

I know from personal experience, there is a tremendous power in delivering a song to an audience: Even in Kareoke.

Oh, I think I better go and lie down . . .