Thursday, 24 February 2011

Down by the Sea

Went to Saltburn again today. Had to take the car to Middlesborough to be serviced. It's only a few miles further on to Saltburn, so it was a chance not to be missed. It was a bright, if a little crisp, afternoon. We bought ourselves a couple of baked potatoes and sat eating them in the car, overlooking the sea. Then we drove down to the front and went for a walk along the pier. There were a lot of people about, walking their dogs or eating fish and chips on the beach. One or two people were daring to paddle. Before we left I gave in to an urge to run down the beach, take my shoes and socks off and go for one myself. Very nice it was too.

While we were there I noticed a curiosity which I'd not noticed before. You find all sorts of things on the front in English seaside towns: amusement arcades, joke shops, whelk stalls, candy floss sellers; but how many English seaside fronts boast their own mortuary? It's there, beside a pub a few yards from the pier. The date on the plaque says 1881. I took a photo of it.

Back home, I googled it. Apparently it was in use right up to the sixties. Prevailing currents mean that bodies frequently wash up here, and they needed somewhere to put them. It's a Grade 2 listed building to boot.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Buckden Pike

Climbed Buckden Pike this afternoon. It's a hill in the upper part of Wharfedale and it rises up to its 702m summit from behind the village of -unsurprisingly- Buckden. It's almost as steep as the car parking charge in the village car park but, thankfully, the path to the summit takes a more leisurely, zigzag route. It's one of those hills which the English fondly call mountains, which anyone who lives in a country the boasts really whopping hills that really are mountains will probably find amusing.

It's been a drizzly, overcast day. The bigger hills (like the Pike) still have snow on their upper slopes and, what with the low cloud, the snowy slopes have merged into the clouds in an indistinct haze.

When I got out the car and shouldered my rucksack I realised how long it had been since I went for a walk like this. For the past year, getting close to nature has meant swimming in lakes and rivers. The year before that, the time I would have spent walking was spent road running.

I set off up the track, which is almost level at first. It runs through a small wood. It's a sparse affair: for the most part the trees are growing in scree. Quite a few of them are dead. It would be quite photogenic on the right day. I had a camera with me (as you've probably realised by now) but it would be good to come back when the conditions were right. Today, with its meagre, diffuse light was a classic, bad-for-taking-photographs day.

Above the wood, the track ascends across fields to an almost-level area of moorland, which I didn't remember noticing from below. (It's one of the things I like about climbing hills: what looks like a big lump from the bottom hides all sorts of detail which you only discover when you climb up).

On the moor I passed a line of "shake holes" and took a photo of one. For anyone who doesn't know, I'll try to explain what a shake hole is. Limestone dissolves easily and so the rock beneath limestone landscapes are full of holes (hence to preponderance of famous potholes and caves in the Dales). If the hole isn't very big, the earth on top of the rock trickles in and chokes it. The effect is rather like the dimple you get in the surface of the sand in a running egg-timer.

The path steepened again and I soon found myself on a second shelf of moorland. I was lost in thought by now. I was thinking of something I'd read recently, by Emerson:
OUR age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?
I decided that whoever said that was definitely a man for our times.

I soon found myself at the foot of an outcrop that ran around this part of the hill like a contour-line: the path steepened again. Once at the top of the outcrop I found myself in a different world: there was more snow on the ground and the cloud had closed in. If this was a sacred mountain, I felt, then I'd just entered an inner sanctum. The ground was steeper and after a few minutes I realised I was on a steep, continuous slope that disappeared into the cloud on all sides. I felt as if it could go on forever. The air felt lighter: it's a feeling I've often felt as I approached a summit and I've never worked out why it should be so.

I took a break at the summit: just long enough to eat a banana and take a few more photographs. As is usual for high, windy places in winter, the wind had blown the ice into curious shapes. I was particularly struck by an accumulation of ice on a pole that stands by the summit.

Banana eaten, I set off down. I took a different route: I'd ascended by the "tourist path", but descended by a path that leads to the head of Buckden Beck: a stream that runs down the hill, back to the village.

The descent was more of an adventure. The path was well-defined at first, but later it became more like the ghost of a path. I'd find it for a while, then it would disappear. I came across the spoil heaps of a disused mine, but could find no tunnels. Perhaps it was just as well. Old mines are dangerous. I had a torch and am always tempted to explore places. I carried on, and soon found myself standing on an edge overlooking the village. The hillside steepened considerably at this point and I found myself descending a scree-slope. I found myself in the wood I'd walked through at the start. Sadly, the tea shop in the village was shut. It had just gone 5 o'clock and it is February after all.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Julius Eastman

It snowed today. Not a lot. Just enough for me to look out the window and wonder what we were in for - would it be a drab, wet weekend, or would we find ourselves stuck in a few feet of the white stuff? Six hours later, it looks like it's the drab, wet option. And there's not even anything decent on TV.

Researching my recent post about Charles Ives, I made what was, for me, a new discovery. Ives was perhaps the first of many highly individualistic American composers who were not in the least afraid to do things "their way": John Cage and Harry Partch spring to mind as examples, and I'm sure there are many others. They have always intrigued me. The gay African-American composer Julius Eastman (1940-1990) was one I wasn't familiar with.

Eastman was both a composer and a singer. He also played the piano and turned his hand to choreography. He pursued what seemed to be developing into successful career (he sang the title part on on the 1973 Grammy-nominated Nonesuch recording of Peter Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King). However, after 1983 his life began to fall apart. He became dependent on alcohol. By the time he died of a heart attack in 1990 he'd faded into obscurity. It was eight months before anyone wrote an obituary and what was left of his music has been difficult to piece together (but not impossible, thanks to the hard work of his admirers). This piece, Evil Nigger(1979), with its minimalist texture and provocative title, is one of his better-known works.

I've recently started a new blog -well, sort of a blog- which I've called The Mousehole.

I say sort of a blog, as it's just a "no frills" list of things I've come across on the internet that I feel are worth noting. It's a sort of online bookmarks, a place for things I probably won't get round to writing longer posts about. So far it's mostly music - but I doubt it'll stay that way. I'm almost not bothered if nobody visits it but me - but it's there, if anybody wants to delve into it.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


A short story

Dr Tallis Deveraux took a leaf from the plastic sample-bag and laid it on the desk in front of her. Out of the sunlight, exposed to the -to it- alien atmosphere of the orbital station, faint blue streaks had begun to appear on its surface. Its smooth, creamy skin had begun to wrinkle.

Magra. The staple diet of Species 9. To an earth-human it had a sweet, slightly metallic smell. Like all the life on N-52, human scientists had invented it almost two centuries ago. Part of the Project, as it was known, with a capital P: to create a human mind in a body that could survive in an alien environment, along with whatever other life was needed to sustain it. As it said at the entrance to the Project's matrix-node: creating a template for a technology to colonise the galaxy. The first-born of the Species had been created in a laboratory on earth with the aid of human genetic material. It breathed carbon dioxide and could withstand the radiation levels of a planet with a thin atmosphere: precisely the conditions found on N-52.

She took a scalpel from an open box to her left and cut a thin, two-millimetre strip from the edge of the leaf. She then made two short cross-cuts to create a two millimetre square. She contemplated the minute tile for a moment. It contained nothing that was poisonous in small quantities: but then it contained nothing particularly nutritious, either. She had not heard of anyone ever attempting to eat a magra leaf before.

So why her, now? Curiosity. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but she had seen members of the Species on the planet’s surface, from a distance, grazing on the magra. It was considered essential to the scientific integrity of the Project to avoid all contact, physical or social: it had to go on working long after both the earth and its inhabitants had ceased to exist. A minute glitch in the present could spell catastrophe in the future and there would be no-one there to fix it. Eating a magra leaf was as close as she could get.

She put down the scalpel, picked up the tile with the tip of her index finger and placed it on her tongue. An unpleasant, burning sensation quickly spread to her nose and eyes. In the lab she had smelt, though never tasted kerosene, and this was what she imagined it to taste like.

Water. She desperately wanted to wash her mouth out. She should’ve thought of that: a glass of water. She tried to lift her head, but it felt three times heavier than usual. The more she tried, the more it lolled uncontrollably. She tried to hold it up with her hands, but it kept slipping out.

She tried to get up, but it was as if the strings that controlled her arms and legs had been cut. Instead, she tumbled sideways to the floor...

She opened her eyes. Time had passed, although whether it was seconds, minutes or even hours she had no idea. Her cheek was pressed against a hard surface that she could see stretching away into a blurred middle-distance. Things slowly began to make sense. The floor. The legs of the chair and the side of the desk slowly came into focus. She felt strangely happy. She wondered why. She cast her mind back and forth, searching for a reason. Only one thought intensified the feeling: tomorrow they were returning to the planet.


The midday sun beat down relentlessly on N-52. The suit's environmental controls maintained a comfortable temperature but you could see by the turbulent heat haze and the sharpened outlines of the landscape (as seen through the tinted visor) just how formidable an environment it created. It was not without reason that Species 9 were nocturnal.
They had landed in the north eastern region of the third continent, on the edge of the mountains, the northern edge of the magra fields. The Northern Apennines it said on the map. She wondered what the Species called them, if they gave names to mountains. They gave a name to themselves: the copra. They were largely nomadic: in the summer they moved north, to avoid the fierce heat of the south. As they traveled they collected and dried enough magra to see them through the summer months, as magra was scarce in the north. Once Tallis' team had come across a deserted camp: she had seen for herself the drying leaves hanging from the ceilings of the tents like a colony of blue, wizened bats.
It was one thing to cultivate magra on earth for a few years, in an artificial environment. It was quite another to establish it on another planet and leave it to grow for an indefinite period. How would it cope in less than ideal conditions? It was Tallis' job to monitor this. How did it respond to extremes of weather? Was it resistant to disease? Since leaving the cube that morning she had been collecting samples from the patches of magra that were growing here and there in a wide corrie: they reminded her of patches of snow on mountains she'd climbed on earth. The surface was red and rock-strewn. High cliffs rose on either side.
She had finished collected her samples. She was climbing a little further up the corrie than she intended to but then, she thought, why not? The mountains were beautiful. She had a few minutes to spare. Part of her felt uneasy about this: but it was a very small part of her, too small to do anything about it. It was almost as if that part of herself was outside of itself, watching another Tallis Deveraux making decisions and acting on impulses that were not her own.
A few minutes later she noticed she was still walking. She'd walked further than she intended. But then, why not? They allowed themselves wide margins. She was usually the first back. She smiled to herself. Patrick was usually last: it wouldn't hurt him to be left hanging about for a change.
She stopped climbing for a moment and turned to admire the view. Below her the southern plain stretched as far as she could see. Close to the mountains, the red surface was streaked with fields of magra. In the distance, in the turbulent haze, the streaks merged into a single mass. As she watched, that small part of her that felt as if it were
looking in on herself from the outside seemed to shrink to a helpless thought at the back of her mind. She was seized with an urge to lift her visor, to feel the air of the planet on her face. The pressure was not so different from that of the suit. The intense sunlight was a different problem. She noticed that the sun was no longer directly overhead: the cliffs to her right had begun to cast a shadow. If she made her way to the foot of the cliffs, into the shade...


Lucas' voice. She tried to speak. She moaned. The mother of all headaches was pounding at the centre of her forehead.
She felt her eyes begin to open. She was aware of the soft bluish light of the station. The ceiling.
'Are you OK?'
She nodded. A head, bending over her. Grey, receding hair. Lucas' head.
'What happened?'
This time she succeeded. She was rapidly regaining control. She lied. 'I don't know,' she said.
'I can't remember.'
'Your visor was off. The planet's contaminated.'
She said nothing.
'Did you see anyone? Anything?'
'I don't know.'
'Were you attacked?'
The question struck her as bizarre. 'No,' she said. 'At least not...' She frowned. She felt suddenly weak. She had forgotten what it was she was trying to say.
'Not what?'
'It's nothing. Who would attack me? Out here?'
It was typical of Lucas to think like that. He had reason on his side, in a way. It all went back to Perez, the twenty-second century geneticist who started it all. He began by inventing a rodent that could live on Mars and worked up. The leaders of the Sects at the time said it was a crime against God. Perez maintained that even if it was, then to do nothing, to allow the only intelligent life we knew about at the time to be destroyed along with the earth, was a greater crime. Perez himself survived three assassination attempts before they got him. Things quietened down after that, but the problem never went away completely.
A thought occurred to her. She didn't take it seriously, but she thought it would do Lucas good to consider it.
'What if they did it?' she said.
'The Species.'
'Impossible. They don't even know we're here.'
'Of course,' she said. Fortunately she was still unable to speak loud enough to convey the intended note of sarcasm.
Lucas smiled down at her and put his hand on her shoulder.
'Get some rest. I'll drop by later.'
'Thanks. Bye,' she said. While he had been speaking it had occurred to her exactly what she should do. The whole idea seemed obvious from the moment she thought of it: why had she not thought of it before? It so took her by surprise that she felt sure every last detail of it must've been written all over her face. She smiled with as much sincerity as she could muster: it was essential that he should have not the slightest inkling.


The research area was never busy in the evening. Patrick was there as usual, bent over a magnifier, testing insect specimens. No-one else. He mumbled a greeting without looking up.
At least she could do what she was about to do without arousing his curiosity. Her work often involved the use of nanobots and so it was not unusual for her to program the computer to create a batch. Her fingers ran deftly over the touch-screen.
'I thought you were on the sick,' said Patrick.
'Yea, well. You know what it's like.'
An oblong drawer-front lit up to the left of the screen.
'Sick of staring at the ceiling,' she went on. 'Thought I'd catch up on a bit of light research.'
She touched the drawer-front and it opened to reveal a phial of nanobots. She glanced at Patrick. He was still engrossed in his work. She took an injector from the rack and carefully inserted the phial into it. She then slipped the injector into her overalls pocket.
Creating nanobots was a restricted operation liable to scrutiny. Security routinely monitored computer operations. From now on she'd have to move fast. There was a chance no-one had noticed yet, so she closed the drawer and quickly deleted the program.
It was a two minute walk to the cube lock. She had to force herself not to look over her shoulder. At one point she met a security officer coming the other way but he just smiled and walked past her. The cube lock was deserted. The green cube sat dimly illuminated in the dark space of the lock, almost as if it were suspended in space itself. She finally allowed herself to look over her shoulder. There was nobody there.
The thought crossed her mind that there might be somebody inside the cube already. If so, she'd have some explaining to do. She typed quickly on the barely visible touch pad on the cube's smooth, matt surface. The door opened. A wedge of light flooded over her. She stepped inside. The cube was empty. The door closed.
'Surface,' she said. The journey would take about thirty seconds. The nanobots or, to give them their full name, the Species 9.1 effectors, took about that long to act. She pulled out the injector and fired it into her arm. There was still a chance she'd be found out and the ship brought back. When she opened the door she might find herself still in the lock, facing a team of security officers. If so, she'd be dead: she'd collapse and suffocate at their feet.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Black Swan

We went to see the film Black Swan the other night. I'd seen it mentioned in the media often enough to be curious, but hadn't paid sufficient attention to what I'd seen to know much about it. I'd seen the same striking photo of Natalie Portman in her black swan get-up as everyone else, so I knew it was about ballet, but that was about all. Probably a bit like Billy Elliot...

Nina is an ambitious ballerina driven to the limit by the pushy mum-from-hell. She wins the part of the Swan in Swan Lake. The part requires the dancer to play two characters: the White Swan and the Black Swan. She is ideally suited to the role of the White Swan but as she comes to terms with that of her evil sister, the Black Swan, her mental health deteriorates.

Nina's startling hallucinations make for watchable cinema. The ballet was well done on the whole: although use was made of doubles, it's obviously no mean feat for actors to pretend to be dancers. On reflection, though, I had reservations. It played up for all it was worth to commonplace ballet stereotypes: the pushy mum, the bitchiness and the megalomanic, sexually abusive ballet master. It also played on the popular misconception regarding artists in general: that artists live what they're making when they're not actually in the act of making it or, to put it the other way round, make work based on what they're feeling at the time. Wordsworth famously talked of poetry being "emotion recollected in tranquility" rather than an outpouring of what he was feeling at a particular moment. Beethoven wrote some of his most cheerful tunes when he was feeling miserable and vice versa. Nina's Swan turns out to be a great success but in real life, contrary to what the film suggests, this would be despite rather than because of the fact that she had lost control of a life which had been totally taken over by the role.

Perhaps I'm being too critical. Perhaps, because there is so much about the film that is so good, it leads one to expect it to be deeper. As a thriller, it worked well. It was worth the six quid. Whenever we go to the cinema, I come out wishing I went more often. In this case, the wish is coming true: we're off to see The King's Speech tonight.

On a humorous note, Duncan Hall posted a link to Dan and Dan on Facebook. Perhaps everyone else knows this guy/these guys and I'm years behind. Anyway, they/he are new to me. I've just spent an hilarious hour of a sleepless night watching his/their Youtube channel. It was such fun I couldn't resist going over the top and embedding three of his/their videos....

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Essays Before A Sonata

Charles Ives in 1913

I feel a bit diffident writing about something I know little about. However, recent posts on Transit Notes and Turnstone got me thinking about the Transcendentalists. Emerson and Thoreau have always been there on a sort of mental must-read list, but I've never got round to them. I may, now.

This post is more-or-less an extended comment on these series of posts and, if Walden Pond and all that is not your thing, please feel free to go to my very recent previous post if you've not read it, about strange goings-on in Yorkshire!

What I do know, a little, is Charles Ives' piano work, the Concord Sonata and the "Essays Before A Sonata" which Ives wrote to accompany it. It occurred to me that anyone who had read (or written) the above-mentioned blog-posts might be interested in these - if, indeed, they didn't know about them already. They may well know more than me: as I said, I don't know a great deal. As a result, what follows reads more as a series of notes than as a fully-fledged article.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was perhaps the first American composer to gain an international reputation (although he made his living working in insurance). His father, George Ives, had been a bandmaster who was prone to musical experiments such as sending different bands marching into the same square playing different tunes simply to experience the effect, or playing pieces simultaneously in different keys. His son aquired his taste for musical experimentation.

Ives evolved a style famous not only for its use of dissonance but also for its use of quotation - the classical flow of his music can suddenly find itself interrupted by snatches of "The Star Spangled Banner" or Sousa's "Washington Post". Anything can happen in a piece by Ives.

The Concord Sonata and the essays that accompany it reflect his interest in the Transcendentalists. He described the piece as an

"...impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago... undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne."

The Sonata is in four movements, all titled: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, Thoreau.

Of Emerson, he says:
Though a great poet and prophet, he is greater,
possibly, as an invader of the unknown,--America's deepest
explorer of the spiritual immensities,--a seer painting his
discoveries in masses and with any color that may lie at hand--
cosmic, religious, human, even sensuous; a recorder, freely
describing the inevitable struggle in the soul's uprise--
perceiving from this inward source alone, that every "ultimate
fact is only the first of a new series"; a discoverer, whose
heart knows, with Voltaire, "that man seriously reflects when
left alone," and would then discover, if he can, that "wondrous
chain which links the heavens with earth--the world of beings
subject to one law." In his reflections Emerson, unlike Plato, is
not afraid to ride Arion's Dolphin, and to go wherever he is
carried--to Parnassus or to "Musketaquid."

We see him standing on a summit, at the door of the infinite
where many men do not care to climb, peering into the mysteries
of life, contemplating the eternities, hurling back whatever he
discovers there,--now, thunderbolts for us to grasp, if we can,
and translate--now placing quietly, even tenderly, in our hands,
things that we may see without effort--if we won't see them, so
much the worse for us.

Of Thoreau:

Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but
because he did not have to go to Boston to hear "the Symphony."
The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine
his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the
enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony
of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission
to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of
simplicity--a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of
Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism
which teaches slavery.

The musical example I've chosen is not from the Emerson or Thoreau movements, though, but from The Alcotts (after Bronson and Louisa May Alcott). Not only is it the most approachable of the movements -the music has a warm, homely quality to it- but also a unique recording exists of Ives himself playing this movement.

Of The Alcotts Ives said:

We dare not attempt to follow the philosophic raptures of Bronson
Alcott--unless you will assume that his apotheosis will show how
"practical" his vision in this world would be in the next. And so
we won't try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with
much besides the memory of that home under the elms--the Scotch
songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each
day--though there may be an attempt to catch something of that
common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above)-a
strength of hope that never gives way to despair--a conviction in
the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done,
may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its

If you think you hear the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in this movement, you'd be right. Ives quotes it in every movement. Beethoven, along with the Transcendentalists, was a major figure among his personal influences. As he puts it, "the Concord bards... pound away at the immensities with a Beethoven-like sublimity".

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Believe it or not...

I thought I ought to sit down and string a few words together, since it's Saturday morning. It's nice to have a bit of time on my hands when I'm not feeling utterly worn out. I've had a cold for the last few days and this week has been a bit of an effort. What to write about? My head has been full of things musical for the last few weeks so definitely nothing to do with music (although I'm tempted to sound off about a Weather Report CD Karen kindly bought me).

A long time ago I came across a booklet in a second hand bookshop called Believe it or not, it happened in Yorkshire by Cyril Oxley. Oxley was an avid collector of Yorkshire trivia and oddities. He produced several similar pamphlets. I've often thought of posting about it, so here goes.

Did you know...

In 1878, a Miss Sykes walked 248 miles in Brighouse Town Hall? She started walking on a Monday evening and continued until the following Saturday. A huge crowd gathered to see her finish.

There seems to have been a lot of it about. In 1843, James Searle of Leeds became the first man known to have walked 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours on the stretch of road between the Shakespeare Inn, Meadow Lane and the New Peacock Inn, Holbeck. It seems -and Oxley doesn't mention this- that he has something of a celebrity in his day: his success was celebrated with a public ox-roast in Battersea, so presumably the walk was a high-profile event.

John Wesley thought that the people of Huddersfield were the wildest he'd ever seen. He added, however, that they were "tolerably quiet while I preached, only a few pieces of dirt were thrown".

At Hull, in 1654, a number of locals reported seeing a battle between phantom soldiers in the sky between 9 and 10 in the evening: "the rival combatants formed a red and a black army, the conflict being accompanied by the dread clash of arms, explosions and cries of the wounded." A similar phenomenon was reported in October 1658, the sound of which, it was said, could be heard forty miles away.

In 1818, in a Wakefield mine, a five-inch long reptile was discovered in a solid block of coal. Apparently, "upon being exposed to the air the creature died immediately." However, call me stupid, but I don't see how anyone could know it was alive before being exposed to the air as it was inside a lump of coal at the time.

At Northallerton in 1798, a Mrs Metalf's cook discovered a gold wedding ring that had been lost twelve years previously inside a turnip. That was a turnip for the books, if you ask me.

The shortest river in England in the River Bain in Wensleydale. Cyril Oxley reckons it's only a mile long. Wikipedia offers two and a half. Don't ask me why it's called a river and not a stream, or why other streams couldn't be called rivers.