Sunday, 29 January 2012

Would you believe it, Lisa?

Lisa Gerhardini could have had no idea, when she sat for Leonardo that, 500 years later, her face would end up staring out of a jigsaw on a polished table in an English living-room, at a farmer and his wife assembling it by electric light.

Whoever it was first played GF#GGGDCBDGF#G and thought it might make a merry tune to dance to could not have conceived that hundreds of years later people would still whistle the tune and associate it with the sea.

Archimedes, if he ever did jump into the bath and cry eureka! may have thought he had discovered something people would think about for a long time afterwards but was unlikely to have realised he had given rise to the expression "eureka moment".

Delibes could have had no idea that his Flower Duet from Lakme would be disseminated to the masses via digital media to advertise flying machines, or Bach (here I show my age) that the Air from his 3rd Orchestral Suite would be used to advertise cigars.

In one way, the most interesting of these examples, because its creator is the least famous, is that of the Hornpipe. We have no idea who thought it up, anymore than he or she  had that we would still be whistling it. I'm thinking, I suppose, of the "butterfly effect". We usually think of it in relation to time travel - to going back in time and changing history. I'm thinking though, of the butterfly effects that have happened in the past and happen in the present, without the help of time machines, how what we say or do effects not only the moment in which we say or do it but the future as well.

Whistle a new tune and if it's catchy you might have invented a cultural virus that'll knock around for centuries.

Or - I have heard it said that a joke told in a playground in London will be told within 40 minutes in Newcastle. Try and think up as good a joke as you can. Tell it to someone. 40 years from now it might still be being told. Come to think of it, it doesn't have to be a joke - just a novel expression or use of a word. Even better.

Or don't. As Lisa Gerhardini would know, were she still alive, sometimes all you need to do is to sit still.

 The whole of the Sailor's Hornpipe, with guitar tab, can be found here, on my other blog.

Friday, 27 January 2012

So that was a week...

So it's Friday. I never cease to be amazed how quickly weeks can pass by without one noticing. The ways we percieve and reflect on time present, past and future are endlessly fascinating. Viewed from Friday, a week may seem to have flown by, even if days during the week seemed to drag at the time.

It's also sometimes difficult at the end of a week to cast one's mind back to exactly what happened. Of course, there was all the work - but to access that I'd have to click on an icon in my brain that gets given a wide birth on Friday evening.  At lunchtime I dropped into The Station (a local coffee shop-cum-art gallery-cum-cinema) as usual for 20 minutes with a coffee and the Guardian. I read an article in it about the Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs. I forgot to put the bin out this morning. I was alerted to the fact by the sound of the bin lorry making off down the road. I could have set off after it, just, in my dressing-gown and wellingtons, dragging our rubbish behind me, but dignity prevented me.  Yesterday we bought a Chinese takeaway.

Wednesday we went out to Henderson's Bistro (up the Dale), not for meal, but because Karen has just sold one of her photographs there - a really nice one of Aysgarth Falls when it froze a while back. Tuesday evening I popped in to see my step-son and wish him a happy birthday. Unlike us, he has an open fire, so I sat down and found it hard to get up again...

Early in the week I finished reading Middlemarch. I'd found it heavy going in the middle but for the last third it was quite a page-turner, I thought. It has certainly found a place on my mental list of  books I really enjoyed reading. Yesterday I started to read a book my daughter gave me for Christmas:  The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. (After that it's going to be An Unofficial Rose by Iris Murdoch). In-car listening for the week has been Radiohead's Kid A.

How much of that -even the more significant events- would I have remembered had I not written it all down? Perhaps I should keep a diary - a more systematic record of events than a blog, where I just post things I want to share, or that occur to me. I probably haven't got time to do that - although I probably won't remember what I did in the time I would have spent writing it. The point I'm making is not that I'm concerned for the state of my memory -I'm not- but that even when we're fully functioning, day-to-day events get forgotten (what was I doing first thing Thursday morning, three weeks ago?).

Monday, 23 January 2012

Time to Defrag?

The other day I set the old PC to defragment itself. For the totally uninitiated  I'll quickly explain the rough idea I have of how it works (and it is a rough idea: apologies to any IT minded people reading this who really do understand it). Fragmentation is what happens to a hard drive when it gets used in a computer. Files get left all over the place on it, as the computer tries to carry out its operations as quickly as possible. Like an over-busy, distracted human being, it puts things down wherever it is at the time without any thought of putting them away. Result: chaos. There's a hairbrush on the mantlepiece and the bedside table bristles with dirty coffee mugs. Where the car keys are is anybody's guess. Defragmentation is the computer's equivalent of tidying up. Once its disk is defragmented, it doesn't need to rush around it looking for what it needs.

So much for spring cleaning. I was struck with the wider analogies to life in general, too. We up sticks to go to college, take work where we can find it (I've moved around a lot myself. My children find themselves having to do the same thing. Personal choice comes into it, but it goes beyond personal choice, too. Decisions beget choices, more decisions...). If families split up, the fragments can find themselves heading off in opposite directions. The results fill up the trains and motorways every morning. Hours are spent travelling and hours are spent earning the money needed to travel. Fossil fuels, carbon emissions... (Travel used to be far more fun. Same with computers. In older versions of Windows a pretty pattern of brightly-coloured bricks filled the screen and methodically rearranged themselves when the computer defragged. The effect was hypnotic - certainly more pleasant to watch than your average soap, if you ask me. Sadly, the defragmenter in more recent versions is a boring affair: you click on the mouse and it just gets on with the job). 

I often find myself trying to think up a list of "things we would do if we really took global warming seriously". One of the things I'd put close to the top of this list is: defrag. But how?

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A Cautionary Tale

A cold, clear blue-sky day  here yesterday. I decided to go for a run over Pen Hill.

When I parked up, the thermometer read -2. At least it wouldn't be boggy on the top. I set off across the hard, icy fields and soon reached the edge of the moor at the Eastern top of the hill. I'd set off 15 minutes before sunset and as I ran across the plateau the last light of the sun shone across the moorland grass and heather, lending it a bronze tint. I found my way to the trig point then ran for some way along the cliff top which runs along the northern edge of the hill. The view over Wensleydale from here is quite something - especially when enjoyed in the light-headed, almost ecstatic state running can engender.

A mile or so later I realised I had to stop for a pee. I took off my gloves and held them under my chin. I had come to a stop in a glorious place overlooking the hills of Coverdale which, in the cold, clear air looked particularly bleak and magnificent. I spent a moment admiring the view.

I set off again. I'd only been running for a minute or two when I realised my hands were getting cold. My gloves! Of course, I'd been holding them under my chin. I must have dropped them somewhere in the heather.

I retraced my steps. I finally found them, still wet and steaming, where I'd stopped to admire the view. Be warned: it's impossible to admire a view and hold your gloves under your chin at the same time.

I took these photos of Pen Hill on a warmer day a while ago:

Pen Hill: Southern Edge

Cotton Grass: Pen Hill Plateau

Pen Hill: cairn overlooking Coverdale

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Barrier

A story

Diane's tone sounded worried, almost interrogative. John was driving just a little too fast, in her opinion, and not slowing up anything like as much as he should as he approached the bends.

“Take it easy...” she said.
John turned to her momentarily. His face seemed unreadable to her, almost unfamiliar. She thought he was about to say something. But he didn't.
“Whatever's the matter?” she said.

John said nothing. He could think of nothing to say in reply to her question. In fact, he couldn't think of anything to say about anything. He felt so confused he didn't know where to start. Whenever there's an earthquake you see pictures on TV of buildings teetering on the brink of collapse: move one brick, the wrong brick, and the whole lot will come crashing down. He felt his whole sense of himself similarly poised on the brink of something terrible. He found himself walking around it, on the outside. Pull out the wrong brick, utter one word, and if it were the wrong one it might all fall to pieces. He didn't want to take the risk.

However, he just couldn’t bring himself to carry on as if nothing was wrong.

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” he said.

Diane frowned, unconvinced. She needed an explanation of this inconsistency between John's actions and his words. They had been together for ten years, ever since they were both in their teens, in fact. They had known each other even longer than that. Their parents had been friendly with one another. Although never in the same class (John was a year older) she and John had attended the same school. John had been her first boyfriend. When they first got together, John's parents had been a little unsure about the relationship. When they had been together for a while and showed no signs of falling out they let it be known that they thought John should “get a little more experience” of life before getting involved further. Diane -perhaps uncharitably, perhaps not- always felt that, at that time, they wanted John to “do better” for himself. He had ambitions to be an architect and she thought they probably liked the idea of him forming a relationship with another well-paid professional. If so, they were far too civilised to actually say so outright. Neither did they ever do anything to positively thwart the relationship. Instead they pursued an almost Gandhi-like campaign of passive resistance to acknowledging the young couple's feelings for one another. Diane's parents, on the other hand, had always accepted the easy inevitability of the situation.

The first major test had come when they both left school. John had gone to study architecture in London. Diane had attended a teacher training college in the Midlands. Once it became clear that their relationship had survived this ordeal by separation, John's parents began to relax a little, to the point that when they announced that they planned to get married, John's mother seemed positively pleased.

As for the present, Diane simply wanted the open, honest interaction that had existed between them for so long to be restored. She wasn't quite sure how long the present terrible state of affairs had gone on for – the onset had been gradual. Was it weeks, or months? Whatever it was, nothing she said or did seemed to have any effect. For hours on end there would be a dreadful, barren gulf between them: straightforward conversation was impossible. The expressions on John's face would suddenly seem alien to her: looking at it it had sometimes crossed her mind that, had she been looking at a passport photograph and not a real face, she would not have recognised it.

In the not-too-distant past when things were good and they talked, John had told her stories, probably myths she now realised, of failed early space missions during which space capsules had failed to achieve orbit, instead carrying on into deep space -potentially for ever- with a payload of frozen, suffocated human remains. These stories apparently originated from radio enthusiasts who claimed to have listened in to the last words of these asphyxiating cosmonauts on the frequencies used by Roscosmos. Ever since, whenever she thought about them, she found it difficult to get the images out of her head: frozen, space-suited corpses, each strapped to seat, drifting through the darkness, slowly diverging. She could see them now.

Neither of them said anything for a while. Diane thought John seemed a little calmer than he had been before she spoke out. He'd turned off the motorway. They had just passed a sign for Sheffield. They were driving down a steep-sided valley, through an avenue of trees. She opened the map, hoping to locate the place: she felt comforted, absorbing herself in something so normal. She soon found the road on the map: a red line heading towards a strip of blue, a lake between hills. Once they got into the hills they hadn’t got a lot further to go to get to the house. What would they do when they arrived? She craved normality: talking to friends about books, music, films, politics. She was looking forward to the mysterious pleasure one can feel inhabiting an unfamiliar place. The usual associations with the immediate past are temporarily erased. It seems, temporarily, as if the future might be different.

The end of the blue strip appeared ahead of them. She glanced at the map again.
“Turn left,” she said.
They found themselves driving down a road squeezed between a pine forest and the lake. Every mile or so, lay-bys were set between the road and the water's edge where tourists could pull in to admire the view. John abruptly steered the campervan across the road, into one of them. He turned off the ignition and looked around, his elbows resting on the steering-wheel.

“Isn't it beautiful?” he said.
“Yes it is,” Diane said, gratefully.
“I'll do my best,” he said.
“I know,” she said. She rested her hand on his thigh. “I think it'll do you good.”
“I hope so,” he said. “Shall we take a walk?”
“We said we'd be there by 8.”
“Just for a few minutes? We've plenty of time.”

They opened the doors of the van and stepped out. There was a strong smell of pine resin from the woods behind them. It was a bright, clear day, but you could tell it was early evening by the slight lengthening of the shadows. There was a hint of a warm breeze. The lake shore had been reinforced with gently-sloping stone blocks. The water was lapping against them with short, sucking sounds.

They walked down to the water's edge and began to make their way along the stone bank.
“We should do this more often,” said Diane.
“Yes,” said John.
“We spend too much time with our heads down, getting on with it,” said Diane. “We should look up sometimes.”
“Get out of the rat race,” said John.
“Yes – well, sometimes,” said Diane.
“When you're somewhere like this, you begin to notice what you are,” said John, slowing his pace and sniffing the air. “You begin to feel how you're supposed to feel. Don't you agree?”
“Yes,” said Diane. She was pleased to hear him say the things he was saying. Getting out into the country seemed to be having a good effect on him.
“But what if we feel so good we don't want to go back?”
“We're big girls and boys now. We have to go back.”
“Because that's the way it is.”
John made an expression of almost comic resignation and shrugged.
“We have responsibilities...” she said.

They walked along in silence for a while. They came to an iron grating set in the stonework. Some sort of overflow, perhaps? The grating covered a deep shaft. It was thrilling to look down it.
“We could bring those responsibilities with us, I suppose,” said Diane.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean apply for jobs. Find work down here. Get out of the city.”
A shadow of doubt seemed to pass over John's face. “But how much of this is real?” he said.
“This isn't a lake, it's a reservoir. When they built these places, they flooded whole villages. When there's a drought you can see the tops of the church towers sticking out of the water.”
“Well – I suppose it's as real as it gets. As you said yourself, you begin to feel how your supposed to feel here.”
“And when you do, perhaps you begin to see what you're looking at more clearly. Those hills – those moors over there, they used to be forests. We cut them all down to make charcoal. You can still find ancient treeroots buried in the peat.” He stopped walking. He breathed deeply. He smiled. “But it's good to be out here, all the same.”

The sun was catching the surface of the water in such a way that it appeared indistinct, unreal. John looked out to the middle, where the light intensified into a bright mass. It was like -indeed was, in a very real, physical way- a barrier between himself and the reality of what used to be, rippling with light over farms, roads and villages that no longer existed. He felt a sudden urge to swim. He started to take off his clothes.

“What on earth are you doing?” said Diane.
“Going for a swim!” said John, smiling boyishly.
“Don't be ridiculous!”
“There's nothing ridiculous about going for a swim.”
“John! We're supposed to be at the house by 8! We'll be late as it is!”
“It won't take long.”
“Didn't you see the sign in the layby? You're not allowed!”
“It'll be fine.”
“You'll be soaking wet!”
“That's a point! We packed a towel didn't we? Would you be an angel and run up to the car and get it?”
He was by then stark naked, his clothes in an untidy heap beside him on the stones. He would have liked to take a running jump into the water but for all he knew he might land in a tangle of rusty submerged barbed wire. And as for running, it took a moment or two to get used to walking barefoot on the rough stones. He walked straight in.
“Thanks!” he said.

Icy braclets enclosed first his ankles, then his knees. The cold struck his groin with a shock but he kept going. Soon he was up to his neck and gasping for breath. Within moments he became aware of the fact that the water felt quite warm. He began to swim. The indistinct, twinkling barrier filled his eyes. It was as if he had morphed into a different creature entirely, one that could fly through the thick atmosphere of the reservoir, pushing the medium aside with its limbs. He quickly became aware of a feeling of deep water beneath him. He felt like a character he thought he'd seen in a Chagal painting, flying over fields, churches, villages, like an angel.

He rolled over onto his back and continued to propel himself with the palms of his hands. The whole depth of the sky swung into view. He lifted his head slightly. He could see Diane stood on the shore. She looked a surprisingly long way away. From her stance she looked exasperated.

“Don't worry, I'm fine. It'll be fine. I'll be back in a minute. Please... If you could fetch me the towel.”

The figure on the bank made a sharp, downward gesture with its hands and jogged off towards the car.

He rolled back and swam on. Without really thinking about what he was doing or what he intended to do, he took a deep breath and dived under. It was a long while since he'd last been swimming. He'd forgotten how hard in was to stay underwater – his body's bouyancy and the the air in his lungs fought with him, tried to drag him to the surface. He fought back, digging into the water with his cupped hands. He opened his eyes. They smarted at the contact with the cold water and he could not see very far. He was surrounded by a green glow that faded into darkness. He forced himself down, deeper. He turned, and swam back towards the shore. Soon, from out of the darkness below him, he saw the hillside, now the bed of the reservoir, rising to meet him – mud, scoured of any distinctive traces of its former existence. He began to feel an overwhelming need to breathe. He thrust himself upwards then relaxed, allowing his natural bouyancy to carry him the rest of the way to the surface. A moment later he broke through the barrier again, back into the air and the light. He was close to the shore now. Diane was walking back from the van, the large brown towel thrown over her shoulder. He swam towards her. The water turned suddenly shallow. He staggered to his feet. He brushed his mane of hair back off his face, combing it with his fingers.

“You ass! You had me frightened then,” said Diane. Her annoyance had dissipated. In its place she felt a familiar mood of semi-comic resignation. John: gentle, sometimes unfathomable, always untamable. If something decent and harmless could be done he simply couldn’t see why it shouldn’t be done. He had no respect for convention for its own sake.
“You should have gone in yourself. The water was lovely. Thanks,” he said, taking the towel. He started to rub himself down vigorously, starting with his head.
And why not, she wondered? Because she was not impulsive. Because she had a respect for rules that she did not like to admit to and which annoyed her: a respect borne of fear. Part of her would have loved to jump in with him. Another, bigger part, told her that the moment she did so, a Water Board van would pull up in the layby. Men in uniforms would come and tell them off, or worse. She envied John his careless sense of freedom.
“You didn’t see any houses, villages, church towers?”
“No,” he said, pulling on his trousers. “Just green light. And mud. Like going to Mars. You know, how they used to think there were canals and all that and now they think there’s probably nothing there?”
She picked up his shirt and held it out to him. He took it.
“Thanks,” he said. He struggled to pull it over his cold, still damp arms. Then he tried to do up the buttons. His fingers were obviously numb. He looked up at Diane with an expression of comic resignation. “Would you?... Please?...”
She started to fasten the buttons up the front of his shirt. So like a child, she thought. This is what it would be like if they had a child, dressing it. She looked up at his face. If they had a child, would it look like him, or like her? Perhaps a bit of both? If so, which bits, she wondered? There was still a triumphant, ecstatic look in his eyes. He’d swum. He’d proved he was a free man and buzzed with the satisfaction of someone who has simply been able to put his thoughts into immediate action. He’d broken through the barrier, even if he’d found nothing on the other side but unbreathable water and a green darkness.
“We better be getting on,” she said.
“So we had,” he said, looking round at the forest and the hill. “So we had.”

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Poetry of Margery Clute (18)

If you missed the first installment, which provided some background information regarding Margery Clute's poetry, you can read it here.

Written on A Frosty Morning

‘Tis frozen all around:
The pond is turned to glass.
    The world stands still
As if e'en Time itself
    Has ceased to pass.

Poised in a silent moment
For an Eternity –
    What cause will break
This silent spell, what dread

I know my boots are frozen.
My nose is turning red.
    ‘Tis warm beneath
This woolen quilt. I think
    I’ll stay in bed.

Margery Clute (1824-76)

The Sky at Night

The rising sun restores the sky
To a bright, azure dome.
‘Tis time, they say, to rouse ourselves
And in the world to roam;

And yet, at night, ‘tis such a sight
When constellations glow
Like jewels upon a mighty breast
Upon the world below!

See there, the Pliads, like a lamp
That twinkles in the East
And there the Plough, poised o’er the hill –
‘Tis such a nightly feast!

O how I long to sleep all day
And wander all the night
Perhaps I should, I could – and yet
It doesn’t seem quite right.

But should such thoughts deter me?
Why do as others do?
Perhaps I should defy the world
And to myself be true.

Margery Clute (1824-76)

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Herdsmen of the Sun

I'm not a film buff, but Werner Herzog is the one director who has made a deep impression on me as a director. When I was in my 20s, a cinema near where we lived in North London often screened his films. My favourite from back then was The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. It's still my favourite film.

Recently, my daughter sent me a link to another film by Herzog - Herdsmen of the Sun. I'd not seen it before. Made in 1989, it's a documentary about the Wodaabe tribe, who live along the Southern edge of the Sahara. It focusses on their Gerewol celebration, during which young men take part in a beauty contest, each hoping to attract the attention of one of the young women. Near the beginning we hear Gounod's "Ave Maria" recorded in 1901 by the last castrato to sing in the Vatican. I found the whole thing deeply moving. It's nearly 50 minutes long but if like most people you haven't got that long to spare, take a look at the first few minutes. You might want to come back and watch it all...

Monday, 2 January 2012

Chopping Little Bits Off (One At A Time)

Happy New Year! I wrote this song a couple of years ago. I recorded it the other week, when I still had a cold. I'd only just got my voice back and I quite liked the idea of singing it with a rough/gruff voice...

Little Bits by Dominic Rivron

Just coming to the end of a great couple of weeks. Our family members are dotted all over England and somehow we managed to spend some time with a significant number of them.