Thursday, 31 July 2008

Tanka: Hawaiian Summer Shirt

I can't help it if
I'm too sexy for my shirt.
Some people are too
polite to comment on it.
Others laugh. See if I care.

With apologies to Right Said Fred

For those who don't know, the Tanka is a Japanese poetic form not unlike the Haiku. A Tanka has five lines with the syllable pattern 5-7-5-7-7.

(c)Dominic Rivron 2008

OK Mozart

The trivial pleasure of making a Wordle (see below) has got me thinking of Mozart, who wrote a "Musical Dice Game". Players of the game construct a convincing-sounding Minuet by selecting pre-composed bars with the throw of a dice. A computerised version has been available on the internet for years. There may be earlier examples, but we're looking at a whole genre here: works of art (or artifice) in which the creator creates a process, rather than a finished product. We, the consumer, play the game. We feel we've created something. We are pleasantly surprised.

Many composers in the 20th Century created pieces which were not unlike Mozart's Minuet. Mozart will have created that for fun, or money (though sadly for him he died before it was published). The 20th Century examples are more serious, exploring the idea of music that is free to change shape. The most radical (and famous) example is John Cage's 4'33", in which process is simply to do nothing and let it happen.

In a sense the highest form of this genre is the computer program. Since the last forty years have seen the arrival of computers in just about every household in the world that can afford one, the role of most of the artists in the 21st Century (i.e., the designers of computer programs) is to create systems which enable others to "be creative". Photoeditor programs make crude attempts to turn photos into “charcoal drawings” and the like. Computer games have blurred the boundaries between art and play. The wordle-maker software has made artists of everyone who uses it. What constitutes “the arts” is changing: the 21st Century audience for the arts doesn't dress up, sit still and listen. It sits in its bedroom and interacts.

The best thing about all these developments is that they are fun! (John Cage, incidentally, was very hot on fun). However, they have a dark side too. One of the interesting things about Wordles is how our eyes graze on their content not unlike the way our eyes graze on a web-page that may or may not interest us. We activate a subconscious search engine that enables us to scan the page without knowing what we're looking for until we find it. The words we find and the associations we make between them please us. Do internet search engines already have this facility? Yes: but it's focussed less on the individual, and more on his or her commercial potential. It chooses adverts, it tries to guess what you might want if only you knew about it. It is conceivable that in the future my computer will be so well informed as to my interests and enthusiasms that I would be able to research and create interesting lists of links and blogs to visit for this page with the literal blink of an eye (OK, so by then blogs and links might be cumbersome things of the past). I, like you, might eye them with curiosity, wondering what I'll find if I explore them.

I freely admit that I'm in danger of getting out of my depth here, but at what point does the computer cease to be a tool and start to be a kind of "exo-cortex"? The short answer is that it has already. The longer one is probably this: when a computer can intuit for its operator. It's a commonplace to say that computers only contain what people put into them: but their systems are becoming so connective that they are already beginning to make connections we are used to thinking of as individualistic and personal - even if at the moment all it leads to is an ad placement.

Moore's Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a processor chip is increasing exponentially. If that wasn't enough, the structure of computers will change, and new technologies are developing that could make electronics as we know it obsolete. Since, I presume (and it is only a presumption), we will still be needed to put the information in, what will we become? In a world in which we are all consumers, we need to ask not what place will we find for computers in our lives in the future but, rather, what place will computers find for us? I'm not thinking of a crude, science fiction fantasy world ruled by power-crazed machines. Rather, I'm thinking of something subtly different: a world in which we might view allowing a significant part of our inner lives to be lived in a machine as a convenience: especially if it would make us "fitter, happier [and] more productive" of course. Now that's the scary thing.

NOTE: Since writing the above post last week, I've discovered the highly informative "new-born Meta-Cortex of Derek Harter", Blogging the Noosphere.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Turn On, Log In - and Drop Out?

I recently watched the short Academy Award-nominated film I met the Walrus, an animation based on a 14-year-old Jerry Levitan's audio-taped interview with John Lennon. Lennon was holding a bed-in at the time, and Levitan blagged his way all the way to the great man's bedside. It got me wondering what the sixties would have been like if the internet had been around then. Levitan's encounter with Lennon (videoed, surely) would've been on YouTube the same day.

OK, so the sexual revolution failed to address sexism and consumerism dressed itself up as radicalism, but imagine Andy Warhol's website (The Factory webcam), Jerry Rubin's (it exists, but it seems to be nothing to do with the late Rubin), YouTube videos of Paris in 1968... Timothy Leary... John Lennon in bed, or in a bag... Daniel Cohn-Bendit's website...

Perhaps the internet is as alive now as it would have been forty years ago – only what seemed sensational now no longer appears to be so. If people were “thinking outside the box” then, then perhaps, as a result, the box has just got bigger. Is that a good thing? Yes, on the whole: but boxes wall you in. Perhaps they just doubled the size of the exercise yard?

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Words, words, words

Not long ago I was reading about word clouds, or "Wordles", on another blog I read, The Truth about Lies. I couldn't resist having a go myself, using texts from my earlier posts. Click on the image if you want a closer look at it. If you feel so inspired, you can always make your own.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Crossing the Field

I found myself seeing
through impossible eyes
a time when to remember
was a thing of the past

when there were only stones
- no grass - and a depression
where the stream once ran.

I can offer you no reassurance
except to say the sky
still touches everything.

(c)Dominic Rivron 2008

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

The 365 Days Project

The 365 Days Project describes itself as a collection of “cool and strange and often obscure audio selections”. The brainchild of Otis Fodder, the Project is archived at WFMU, the freeform radio station based in Jersey City, and UBUWEB.

There are many fantastic (in both senses of the word) things to be found in the archives of the Project. There's a bin liner full of old audio cassettes produced by the Henry Dargers of the musical world (and, to digress for a moment, if you've not heard of Henry, he's well worth a google. He was a big influence on the Turner Prize-winning potter, Grayson Perry). There's outdated religious and political propaganda and music from long-forgotten commercials. There is much else besides: all kinds of curiosities which are still worth listening to and which would otherwise be consigned to musical oblivion.

It's fascinating: find a track which appeals to you and you can't help but trawl through the files looking for another. It's ruthless: listen to some tracks and you are left in no doubt as to just how ridiculous our preoccupations can seem to others when we're on the inside looking out. It's addictive: I was going to list my favourite tracks: I decided not to. It would spoil the adventure. It's often very funny. It's a celebration: of all the things people think other people want to listen to but probably don't. Or do they? Who could resist?

The 365 Days Project

Monday, 21 July 2008


I wrote this poem a while ago. The Bridestones are a gritstone outcrop in the South Pennines, close to Todmorden.


From one angle
it looked
like the head
of a man.

I climbed up.
The grit slashed
the pale skin
on my knuckles.

I held on-
to the nose-bridge,
pressed down
onto the cheekbone,

rested my hands
on the forehead,
looked at the sky
reflected in the rain-

-pool worn
into the rough pate
of the stone.
I rested there,

a temporary statue,
relishing the touch
of a dark moon,
newly inhabited.

(c)Dominic Rivron 2000

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Angel of the North – Angel of the New?

Thinking a lot about my previous post about Arthur Ransome (To the Summit of Kanchenjunga – see below) and the ways his experiences and his feelings about them might have informed his fiction reminded me of The Angel of the North.

I regularly find myself making trips to the Newcastle and Gateshead area for one reason or another: one of my daughters, the Baltic art gallery and the Sage concert hall are all based there. I invariably pass the Angel of the North on my way and it's difficult not to be impressed by its imposing presence, brooding as it does over the A1 on its hilltop on the edge of Gateshead.

At first I always used to stop to admire it. I think it's an awesome work of art and one of the few in the whole world that merits its own ice-cream van. These days, I must admit, my homage is usually reduced to a passing, if thoughtful glance.

I have always been impressed by the uselessness of its wings. The wings are set on their side, taking the full force of the wind. They're fixed where the Angel's arms ought to be. The Angel is helpless: it has neither arms nor hands and it could never fly. It couldn't even walk through a doorway. It is an imposing monument to our impotence: we are incapable of making an angel.

Having enjoyed a few ice creams at the foot of the Angel, I was intrigued to discover Walter Benjamin's comments on another Angel, Paul Klee's Angelus Novus, the “Angel of the New”. I quote it in full, because it's interesting:

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”(1)

Klee's and Gormley's angels are very different in many ways, but there are resonances. Klee's is supernatural, and its wings are pinned back by "a storm...from Paradise". Gormley's is man-made and its wings simply won't work. What they share, if what is said here is valid, is powerlessness. Given the events of the 2oth century it is hardly surprising that artists should portray angels in this way. Interestingly, though, what Antony Gormley says about his Angel could not be more different:

Is it possible to make a work with purpose in a time that demands doubt? I wanted to make an object that would be a focus of hope at a painful time of transition for the people of the north-east, abandoned in the gap between the industrial and the information ages.”(2)

The general discussion that is going on behind all this is a commonplace one. All I'm saying is that a good work of art is almost as diverse and interesting as the human mind itself. Both ways of seeing the Angel are valid: one would expect it to have a dark side and a hopeful side. This doesn't mean, as people often say, that a work of art can mean “whatever you want it to”. It just means that the highest forms of human expression are, by their nature, complex.

Are creative artists in a position to say what their works are about? Up to a point perhaps. Perhaps not at all. Like our facial expressions, things we create can betray feelings we were unaware of expressing. We leave things lying about in them that we are unaware of. The same goes for the viewer, the reader or the listener: they too bring their own mental baggage with them.

  1. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History

  2. Artist's statement at

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

To the Summit of Kanchenjunga

I can't remember which came first: was I trying to recreate something that made a deep impression on me as a child, or had I been reading about Arthur Ransome's activities at the time of the Russian Revolution? Either way, not so long ago I found myself re-reading Swallows and Amazons.

Yes, it has its shortcomings. The characters can be wooden: Titty dreams, while Susan builds fires. Roger pulls everyone's leg, while John (perhaps the most fallible and the least wooden) broods on his ability to fulfil his parents' expectations.

The formula has quite a lot going for it: the quartet of children who are the main characters in CS Lewis' Narnia stories (written after Swallows and Amazons) bear an uncanny resemblance to the Swallows. And perhaps I'm guilty of judging the stories by a yardstick they were never intended to be judged by. They do their job. The characters may have a tendency to be wooden, but once you've read about their adventures it's hard to stand on the banks of Coniston Water, overlooking Peel Island, without imagining the Swallows camping in its dense woodland, or the Amazons moored in the secret harbour which actually exists among the rocks at the southern end.

I've touched here on a quality the stories share with those other famous works of “good bad” fiction, the Sherlock Holmes stories. Both lead the imagination of their readers to entwine fiction and reality, albeit in slightly different ways. Fans of Conan Doyle are famous for searching the texts for clues about the “real life” of Holmes and Watson. Fans of Ransome are drawn to his locations, which are sometimes real and sometimes composite creations based on his haunts in the Lake District and Norfolk. The fact that he based the children (whatever he said later) on members of the non-fictional Alhounian family and often inspired (and was inspired by) the adventurousness of the children he knew also fuels speculation as to who inspired his characters. If, like me, you live quite close to the Lake District, it is easy to get caught up in it.

For example, it is quite possible that Ransome based the tearaway Captain Nancy and her sister Peggy at least partly on two children he knew: the sisters Pauline and Georgina Rawdon-Smith (1). Not long ago I read George Melly's three volumes of autobiography, Owning Up. I was interested to see that one of his wartime London friends was also a Pauline Rawden-Smith. Were both Paulines one and the same? I've no evidence either way, but I like to think so. If one were to write a fictional account of Captain Nancy's adult life it would be hard to improve on her living it up in the dives of wartime London with the adventurous, anarchic surrealist. [A 2010 update: yes, the two Paulines were one and the same].

I finished Swallows and Amazons raring to have a go at the sequel, Swallowdale. This, it turned out, is quite a book. It is hard to think of any moment in any other books in the series to match its epiphanic climax. In case you haven't read it, I won't go into it. Needless to say, I went on to the other books and followed the children's fortunes through their expedition to the North Pole (in Winter Holiday - more of this later), their efforts at gold mining and their hair-raising voyage to Holland – not to mention their perilous encounters with the Great Aunt.

Great Aunt Maria, more commonly referred to as “the G.A.,” is one of a group of adult characters who are, in a way, more interesting than the central children. Nancy and Peggy are children of a single-parent family. Their father, Bob Blackett, is dead. They live with their mother, Molly Blackett, who shares a house with her brother, Uncle Jim (aka Captain Flint). We see, through the eyes of the children, the obvious problems faced by adults coping in such a situation. Mrs Blackett is caught between the thoughtfully laissez faire, charismatic Jim (with whom her natural sympathies lie) and the strict Victorian values of the G.A., who considers it her duty to come and stay from time to time to advise Jim and Molly on the girls' upbringing. Terrible arguments about the way the girls are raised take place off-stage and Mrs Blackett is often visibly upset. The books' allusions to this unseen, ongoing drama is one of Ransome's strengths.

Jim understands children better than most. Although he lives with his sister, he frequently travels abroad or retreats to his houseboat on the lake. On one occasion he returns from his travels to find his houseboat taken over by the children, who have made it the base for their Polar Expedition, renamed it the Fram (after Nansen's ship) and eaten all his provisions! He immediately realises that they have simply followed where their imaginations have led them, and so falls in with their plans. He clearly sees the difference between “bad” behaviour and behaviour that seems reasonable to children living in a child's world. (It should be said he also has a motive for so doing, as he cares deeply for the well-being of his nieces and is aware of the importance of good friends to the larger-than-life though potentially vulnerable Nancy).

In the end I re-read all the books, except Missee Lee and Peter Duck. These are stories within stories, fantasies invented by the children, and as such never appealed to me. Nowhere in the books I read did I seem to find any hint of Ransome's elusive politics. There was an all-pervasive humanism. There is a lot about values, decency, the love of nature and the spirit of fantasy and adventure. I don't remember there being any reference to religion: the nearest we get, as I remember, are the draconian strictures of the G.A. as to appropriate behaviour on a Sunday. All the ritual in the stories (and there is quite a lot) is carried out away from the adult gaze and usually involves a reversion to the primitive. Ransome's most sympathetic characters value the decencies of civilisation while remaining in touch with their “inner savages”.

His children often refer to the adults as “natives” (in the first book they even invent a stupid pretend language to communicate with them, which Ransome subsequently -and sensibly- dropped). The children are the “explorers”,and though they often invent games which mimic the likes of Nansen, they are not extending the boundaries of civilisation and civilised knowledge as the "natives" understand it. Rather, they are literally redrawing the maps of the world around them, rediscovering and renaming things the "natives" around them, who consider themselves to be civilised, take for granted. The term "friendly natives" is reserved for those adults who recognise the limits of this civilisation. For the child explorers, exploration is an act of rediscovery and renewal - and this, surely, touches on the political, in the broadest sense.

Perhaps any political theme to the stories is so over-arching that it is almost impossible to see. And yet, who makes the audacious plans? Who is frequently credited with drawing the maps in the books? Who adopts a pseudonym (her real name is Ruth)? Who, to return again specifically to Winter Holiday, announces the start of the Polar Expedition (albeit unwittingly) by raising a scarlet flag? If we need to look for real life models for the character of Captain Nancy we should perhaps look not only to children known to Ransome but also at his earlier friend, VI Lenin (real name Ulyanov). One could even compare Nancy's late arrival at the North Pole having been prevented from leaving Beckfoot by the mumps with Lenin being delayed in Europe before finally arriving at the Finland Station (2). If all this sounds fanciful, it is only because being a friend of Lenin in itself sounds fanciful. If any other less famous or controversial friend of Ransome's had been a born charismatic leader who lived under a pseudonym, raised a red flag and been delayed from taking part in a plan he had played a major role in shaping, his biographers would have rooted him out long ago.

I'm not suggesting that the stories abound in allegory, any more than the maps in the books are actual representations of the Lake District. However, they do seem to contain interesting allusions and themes relating to Ransome's experience of the Russian Revolution, his feelings about it and the people involved in it. He would be a very unusual writer if they didn't. Was he aware of them? Possibly. Surely, in the case of Winter Holiday. Did he want people to see them? He was shrewd enough, surely, never to let us know directly. What we do know is that he wrote (and wanted children to read) dramatic stories about young explorers who set out to remap the world. And that, I think, speaks for itself.

(1) Hardyment, Christina, Arthur Ransome: Captain Flint's Trunk, Francis Lincoln Ltd 2006

(2) These are not the only possible allusions. Take, for example, Nancy's and the explorers' determined efforts to communicate during her illness and isolation. Winter Holiday is a book about the enforced exile of a leader.

Friday, 11 July 2008

For Now

At night I lie and rest
to say I sleep would be
to exaggerate, although
low voices on the radio
are just a sound
that means no more, no less
than the rise and fall
of her breath
or the birdsong
now the sun is rising

and I find myself thinking
(as if for the first time)
a time machine
would be a terrible thing

(c)Dominic Rivron 2008