Thursday, October 29, 2009

No more Dark Ages

Tuesday night found me back at the British Library attending another Beowulf session. The draw was Seamus Heaney, and the auditorium was fully packed. Poor Bob had to back out as he was still nursing a cold and wicked cough. No fever, so no flu, swine or bird, thank heavens. I sold my ticket to a nice young man who asked me at the door whether I had an extra ticket, and weren't we both surprised when I said, "why yes I do!"

The event began with Michael Wood, the brilliant TV presenter of history and travel shows. He is an Anglo-Saxon scholar, much of the audience tittered when he made quips with Anglo-Saxon punchlines, and he discussed what little is known of the tale and the surviving manuscript. The manuscript is about a 1000 years old, give or take a hundred years. It was probably looted from a monastery in the Fens, the marshy area, of East Anglia since it turned up in the collection of William Cecil, Lord Burleigh during the Tudor years, at his manor near the Fens. From there it went to the Cotton Manuscript Library whose heirs turned the collection over to the government as a gift to the new British Museum, and was later burned in the fire at Ashburnham House in London where the manuscripts were being stored. Between the fire and the 18th century restoration, a fifth of the manuscript's letters were lost. The tale of the heroic Beowulf is old, perhaps dating back to when the Saxons migrated to England, four or five hundred years before this manuscript was inked. Since the kings and tribes and action are Danish and Swedish, the legend was carried from the old homeland to the new.

Then Seamus Heaney read his translation of his favourite part of the legend, the dragon and Beowulf's death.  Benjamin Bagby was back again with his harp and performed a short piece from Grendel's attack on the mead hall. He discussed how there is no possible way to know how a medieval bard would have presented the poem, so he does whatever feels right for the cadence of the poetry. He addressed the issue of whether what he did was sing or speak Beowulf, and said that he believed the bardic tradition required a term somewhere in the middle — he quipped that today we call it musical theatre. Finally, Michael Morpurgo, Children's Laureate a few years ago, discussed his version for children age 5+, and read us the opening pages. What an extraordinary looking man with a comb-over and wearing a velour leisure suit and shirt the colour of ripe watermelon. He is wearing the same colour in his Wikipedia photo, so perhaps that is a trademark.  He had been the guest speaker in the afternoon for an audience of 150 children and their parents (it is half-term holiday week here in England). His version was pretty gruesome, but he said children are drawn to the story because half of contemporary children's literature involves monsters, so monsters can be pretty pedestrian to them, but the children understand that Grendel is a serious monster, one to be afraid of, and that it was good for children to learn to fear real monsters. Which does get back to the old question of whether fairy tales are good for children. And he really really hated Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother in the film (that I think no one saw) two years ago. He bemoaned the state of Hollywood film treatments of magical  stories such as Philip Pullman's Golden Compass. I have given up seeing films of good books, since they are almost always disappointing. On the other hand, the National Theatre's stage version of Pullman's trilogy was one of the best dramatic experiences ever produced. I'm not sure the books could even match the play now.

I have always loved history, and moving to England has been an overwhelming historical experience. I wish had moved here with a younger brain so that I could remember a greater portion of what is out there to see, read, learn. I find it amazing and thrilling that history is so alive and accessible here. I had never heard of the Cotton Library until this past spring when Bob and I went to see the Henry VIII commemorative exhibit at the British Library also. The exhibit was curated by the TV presenter and historian David Starkey who documented every moment of Henry's lengthy and busy life. Many of the documents were catalogued as from the Cotton Library. The most remarkable, to me, was a giant volume of Scripture with marginalia written in Henry's hand suggesting verses that would aid his lawyers in preparing the legal case for a divorce from Katharine of Aragon, his first wife. How cool is that!

When I finish my book pile, maybe I will make a new pile of all those history books on hand that I have never read from cover to cover. Of course for the Saxons there may be a new history by next year with the recent find of the biggest hoard of artifacts up in Staffordshire. I've seen photographs of some of the treasures. They were on display in Birmingham for a few weeks with huge waiting queues, but are now on their way to London and the British Museum for cataloguing. A job that Susan did not get several years ago was in the British Museum's Treasures Department. People who dig in soil — farmers, builders, metal detector hobbyists — are always finding things, so there is a national network to evaluate finds. First at the county level of official scrutiny, then if a possible treasure is suspected to the British Museum for an evaluation and a determination of whether it should be kept by the nation or returned to the finder. If the nation keeps it, the finder gets a fee; if it is returned, the finder can dispose of it as he or she wishes.  The last big find, Sutton Hoo in 1939, is housed at the British Museum. I read this new find will probably be distributed to various museums, mostly in the area where it was found in the northeast. I can't wait to have a chance to see it on display somewhere.

Remember the Dark Ages? When I was in school, we studied the Dark Ages for about 15 minutes because nothing happened for 600 years – from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the Crusades history was a blank page, except for the Sutton Hoo ships which existed, but for which there was no explanation.  And of course there was Charlemagne. I've seen the crown that Charlemagne crowned himself with, in Vienna's Hapsburg Treasure Room, but I haven't yet been to Aachen to see the church where it happened. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Friday night we went to see the new play Enron at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. Finance is the theme for this year's drama season and Enron is universally agreed to be the best of the bunch. The playwright, Lucy Prebble, is in her mid-20s with an amazing talent for mixing both humour and sober wisdom in telling this morality tale for the age we live in. I'm not sure whether I had ever heard of Enron before their collapse and the ensuing scandal. Living outside the US in the age of the internet means that you can easily keep up with the main news stories and with the stories that shouldn't be featured stories like Balloon Boy, but you start missing the under-stories, the nuances, the spins, the frequency of repeats that turn a story into "conventional wisdom." In 2001, I'm sure I was shocked not only by Enron's transgressions, but also shocked to learn how admired the company had been for its innovations in achieving success. Those innovations are carefully explained: mark to market accounting — why wait to enjoy a profit that could be spent before it exists; "off-balance sheet vehicles," the offloading of debt from the books by creating an infinite number of companies to hide the debt — played here as raptors who crawl around the stage chomping on a fodder of debt. Singing and dancing financial analysts break into song to celebrate, and Arthur Anderson — remember them — auditors are cowed into agreement as the party goes on and on.

The play connects the Enron debacle directly to the US and its culture of huckster marketing that is thought to be uniquely American, at least in England and more broadly in Europe. When we moved to London eleven years ago, I was struck by negative references to the States as a place where everything is for sale and only valued if it has a good price attached. Having always lived in the States, I had never thought the incessant marketing of everything was a strange custom. My ex-pat friend Martha is always wondering why there are never any T-shirts for sale at special events here because they could make a killing. Martha was really bummed this summer when she went to Hampton Court Palace for the celebration of Henry VIII's accession to the throne 500 years ago, and there were no commemorative T-shirts to buy! I think we can all agree, such an event would never be T-shirtless in the US. When we were in Massachusetts last June for ten days, I think Bob bought six T-shirts at various events and places. Except in the T-shirt arena, England is always trying to American-ise by choosing and emulating the worst of our cultural sins, but there is always a great deal of angst involved before the difficult decisions are finally reluctantly accepted as necessary. The most recent example I remember is a decision to allow "product placement" on TV shows. Whenever and whoever came up with this moneymaking idea in the US, never had a moment of moral qualm to disturb the dollars he was counting off in his dreams. This article from last month's Guardian gives a flavour of the counter arguments and the politics involved here in such a decision, despite the real bottom line issue being the independent TV stations need bailing out. The BBC stations of course still have no advertising ever which is wonderful (except when you need a bathroom break while watching a riveting show, and you go damn, this is on BBC . . .).

Enron, the play, has lots of Texas references and the Stars and Stripes waving to drive home the message that this is a born and bred American smash-up. There was a brief scene of the 2000 election night and the disputed Florida vote count that hit me like a gut punch. Fortunately it was a very brief scene, but for a moment my stomach heaved at being reminded of that awful time. Bob and I were in the States for Thanksgiving that year when the despicable decision had not yet been rendered by the Supreme Court. I still can't believe the Supreme Court created the nightmare of the Bush years — well they are only responsible for the first term — and the legacy that continues. As Enron moves to its final scenes, the ironic humour tails off and the morality tale takes over. The kicker is that there is no morality in the tale. The little people lose everything; the big guys cash in. The big kahuna dies, so conveniently for his wife who is apparently struggling on the $13 million she has left to live on, and some go to jail, ho hum, undoubtedly to emerge as lifestyle gurus to the masses.

Enron collapsed nearly ten years ago, and no lessons were learned. Earlier this year mark to market accounting was legitimised. Just go Google "off-balance sheet vehicles" to get a glimpse of how this strategy post-Enron helped create the current financial crisis, and more worryingly how it is still being used to hide the lurking toxic waste in the financial system. As the play ends, Enron CEO Jeff Skilling madly offers his tribute to The Market, the engine that moves the universe forward, the glue that binds us because self-interest allows us to, counter-intuitively, trust one another motives. Finally in front of a graph of the market's rise and fall, he points out that bubbles produced the railroads, the industrial revolution, the internet, and that future bubbles will be needed to save the environment, to save the world. All well and good if earlier bubbles produced the modern age of wealth and leisure, tragically, the recent bubbles have done nothing of the sort. Fortunes were amassed, although few remain intact since most were only balance sheets assets, but where were the investments in the future. Instead of wealth distribution, factories were shut down and jobs out-sourced; simultaneously cutting taxes and starting expensive wars depleted public coffers and limited public services; health, transport, and communication systems trail behind the rest of the developed world. As we all now know, Jeff Skilling was not the smartest guy in the room, and it's time to give up the fantasy that The Market will solve all problems.

On Sunday we moved on to a real hero of his time. The British Library is celebrating 1000 years of Beowulf — admittedly they don't make very clear what exactly happened in 1009 to make this birthday happen! The only existing manuscript is on display in the Treasures Gallery at the Library. Click on the link, and then click on the picture link to see a page. The link also explains how it was almost lost in an 18th century fire (and how you can buy related Beowulf items. I wonder if there is a T-shirt?).

Sunday afternoon we heard the phenomenal Benjamin Bagby recite the Grendel legend with his 6-string harp. Bagby specialises in very early medieval music. His group Sequentia, founded with the late Barbara Thornton, were the leaders in promoting the music of Hildegard of Bingen, who had a bit of a revival a few years ago after 900 years of obscurity. His website includes a clip of a performance, which he seems to do quite regularly. At the British Library auditorium, a blue screen behind him, ran the modern English lines, as he sang and played. Tonight he will be back with Seamus Heaney who will recite his version. Poor Bob is home from work today with a cold, so I'm afraid he won't be able to go.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another week in London

I see it is more than a week since I last posted. Some computer problems, a vision problem on the day I cried so hard finishing Stoner, days out, and lots of knitting have added up to my staying away from the computer for hours on end. Lord knows what I would do if I were even moderately technologically savvy. I can barely figure out how to use my mobile phone — which I have owned for less than a year and still have not used up the £50 of calls I paid for — and nearly all of the calls were made by visiting relations who needed a phone that worked on European networks. I have never addressed the possibility of texting. I know where my i-pod is, but I'm not sure I remember how to use it. Now there are i-phones in the future when their contracts become competitive in London next year. And perhaps I will have to learn to Twitter.

This morning I learned that my son-in-law's "team" is responsible for hooking Twitter into Bing — and thereby beating Google to the finish line. Megan, Bibs, and Bobs have been missing Daddy a lot in the last few weeks. It's nice to have a spouse who is around, but then again it's nice having a spouse with a job. I learned that lesson. When Megan and Susan were very young, Bob was an academic with flexible time or an unemployed academic with oodles of time.  Except for the no money and no health insurance, motherhood was easier, especially since we had no family help to rely on. Then when the Big Life Change came, Bob's forced career in finance and our forced move to New Jersey, the biggest change was weekday single parenting since Bob left at 6:00 a.m. and only rarely was home before 10:00 p.m. There was one night he was so tired, he didn't wake up until the train was down the line in Princeton. He had to wait for another train to take him back to New Brunswick, and by then it was midnight, and he was too exhausted to walk the mile home. I left the kids sleeping to pick him up in the car. I remember balancing driving fast to get there sooner with driving slow to make sure I didn't get caught in the sin. Murphy's Law did not kick in so maybe there is a God. There weren't even any "big bucks" in that crummy job — although we did have health insurance.

Tuesday morning I woke up cozy in bed — we finally got the radiators bled and the heat working on Sunday — and knew that I simply had to finish Stoner. The book had been languishing for almost a week, and I only had 70 or so pages left. What can you say about a book that is profoundly beautiful, but so depressingly sad, that at one point, vacuuming seemed a positive alternative to discovering what additional terrible afflictions Professor Stoner would face as his life played out to its end. After copiously weeping through the final 70 pages, my eyes were so red and swollen, I decided not to even try plunking myself at the computer for an additional dose of eyestrain. Leaving out eyestrainers like knitting, sewing, reading,  TV and daily puzzles, there was no option but cleaning the TV/sewing/computer room, especially since bleeding the radiators had required moving the many, many bags filled with unfinished or not-yet-begun knitting and sewing projects from the little niches and corners they had been stashed and hidden. Oh my, how have I gotten myself so knee deep in beautiful things that all require time and organisation to begin and to finish. I didn't have the heart to even look at the quilting projects. The knitting projects were enough to dishearten. Usually abandoned projects are ones with problems or have in some way generated visceral loathing — the so-called frogs — so it almost is worse that I like nearly all my projects; I have no easy recourse in the trash bin. Then there is the collection of beautiful yarns, some very old, some very new, waiting with a specific patterns in mind. Oh the lists we could make. I nearly did add one to the sidebar here. And of course the knitting website Ravelry can be nothing but lists that will shout their presence with a mere log-in.

Most of the unfinished knitting projects of course predate the grandchildren who are facing a cold New England winter unready for the assault of snow and ice and cold wind — or so Megan has been guilting me into believing! There isn't even a legacy collection for the under threes in the matter of cold weather clothing, since Megan's first three years were spent in the warmth of San Diego where a light quilted jacket sufficed in winter. I did love knitting for the girls, but when we were back East, I sometimes did feel pressured to keep up with the warm hats, mittens, and sweaters because I never felt the store-bought versions — rarely ever made with wool — were really warm enough. Nowadays there are so many more lovely washable wools and wool blends too. I finished and sent off to Bibs a ballerina wrap sweater with matching hat and socks.
My model here is Alice Vanderbear.

I am now working on a cardigan and hat for Bobs, both of which are almost finished because I spent much of yesterday watching the first six episodes of Dexter.  US shows come here in dribs on our Sky (Murdoch, boo hiss) digital service, often on strange channels and at odd times.  Except for the hyped hits — Lost or Desperate Housewives or Mad Men — we've rarely even heard of most of the shows that turn up. When I do hear of a show that might be interesting I order it from Love Film/Netflix which is how I ended up with 6 episodes of Dexter. What a strange plot premise, yet how compelling the story line. Who needs capital punishment when an avenging sociopath is on the case. I'm afraid our postal strike may prevent the next set of DVDs from arriving so Bobs's sweater may have to await a suitable viewing opportunity.

On Saturday we enjoyed a day of recreational walking. One of the great joys of England is the national love of walking — not hiking as it is called in the States — just simply walking. The opportunities for walking are endless: long distance paths, circular routes, pub walks, walking guides, ordinance survey maps, walking festivals, magazines, newspaper features. When we moved here, I thought we would participate in this national obsession because I have always liked walking, but we soon discovered that the English see a decent walk as eight to ten miles, a bit too much for us wussy Americans to take in a day. Eventually I found the series of guides for wimps, Short Walks in......., but somehow we seemed to always find ourselves in a muddy field wondering which was the correct hedgerow to follow and whether the lack of a stile, clearly described in the directions, meant we were in the wrong muddy field to begin with. You know those spousal arguments in cars over which way to turn according to the map? They can be carried out in muddy fields too. So the walking holidays diminished although never disappeared.

Last spring, an e-mail announcement came from The Ramblers, the UK's huge walking club/lobby/ organisation, on their Get Walking Keep Walking health initiative which was sponsoring a weekend of walks in London. So Bob and I did an enjoyable short walk in East London's Hackney, London Fields, and Victoria Park, an area we are not very familiar with. When I told Susan about our walk, she suggested we celebrate Father's Day in June with another healthy walk. She suggested we walk from London Bridge to Greenwich which is six miles along the Thames Path! Bob and I gulped, but we were not going to wimp out! We had a gorgeous day and a glorious walk that included all sorts of interesting sights —and by the time we were finally back home about one step away from collapse. The next day we felt surprisingly invigorated, and decided we should exhaust ourselves more often.

I pulled out some old guides and remembered a walk I had read about years ago that had sounded intriguing. The Capital Ring is a 78 mile route that circles outer London connecting up parks and other green spaces, divided into 15 segments that each begin and end at a Tube or train station. Each segment is about 5 miles. So the next weekend we embarked on our first Capital Ring walk. I can't remember why I decided to start with Walk 4 at Crystal Palace, probably because I had never been there. The Crystal Palace of 1851, designed by Joseph Paxton for the international exposition in Hyde Park, was moved to this out of the way neighbourhood shortly after the exposition closed. A park was created to house the Palace, new exhibits were designed, and the site became a popular entertainment until the Palace burned down in 1936. The deteriorated park has been undergoing a facelift in recent years. Sadly there is nothing left of the Palace except for some footings and a sphinx sculpture. The not-to-miss attraction is the newly landscaped Dinosaur Garden with prehistoric beasts modeled in the 1850s as dinosaurs were then imagined to have existed in life that peek out as you wander the path.

Over the course of the summer we  completed six of the Capital Ring sections, measuring more than 30 miles, and we have had the best time learning about what London is like outside the central city. The flat, not very scenic boroughs south of the river, are very suburban with huge commons that are now recreation facilities. Then through the wealthy areas of Wimbledon and Richmond. Richmond is the only part of the route we have ever been to regularly. Along the Thames and then along the canals dug in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to connect London with the industrial, coal rich Midlands, the towpaths are now scenic routes the Ring follows after crossing into North London. Weekend activities and poor weather kept us away from the walk since late August, but on Saturday we completed the section that takes us closest to home in North London.
Here is Bob checkng our downloaded directionsand map on Gotsford Hill in Fryent Country Park. The hill behind him is Harrow which we passed through on the previous walk. We download the  map and directions for each walk, but the route is well signposted. Only a few times have we wandered off the path because the signs have been vandalised.

This is the view from Gotsford Hill. I made the photo large so that you can see the arch of the new Wembley Stadium poking up from the center of the picture. The day was rather cold, cloudy and breezy.

Farther along we came to the Welsh Harp Site of Special Scienticfic Interest on the Brent Reservoir. Display boards told us the reservoir was created in 1835 to provide water to the canals. During the 19th century, the Welsh Harp was a popular recreation spot for Londoners, and there are still watersports clubs on the reservoir. In fact there was a regatta in progress as we walked along the path. Windsurfers were also out on the water, although I don't think there are any in the photos here.


One of London's major highways, the North Circular, runs along the other side of the reservoir from where we are walking. North London's major shopping mall, Brent Cross is near to the reservoir, as is the beginning of the major north-south expressway the M1.  Of course these are urban walks, and often the connections between these lovely natural areas, are blocks of terraces or semis, sometimes boring, but more often than not interesting windows into the life of London: run-down terraces cheek-by-jowl with elegant villas, ethnically mixed neighbourhoods everywhere we have walked, the suburban life style of mowing lawns and washing cars with a hose in the driveway is alive and well in this world class city. We still have 8 of the 15 sections of the Capital Ring to complete, but we have walked half the miles. If the winter is dry and mild enough, perhaps we will be able to finish before next summer. And then we can begin the 150 mile London Loop!

Cultural events of the past week have included a concert of Spanish religious music to mark the opening of an exhibit of Spanish religious art at the National Gallery. Lots of bloody hands on display I imagine. Something to look forward to, I guess. And another dance event — although it would be more appropriate to say acrobatic event since the Swedish troupe Cirkus Cirkör, puts on circuses. It was fun, but not quite enough fun, as the Independent critic said. The Peacock Theatre — an off-shoot of Sadler's Wells — was packed with young adults who are obviously drawn to artistic circuses. I have never been much of a circus person. We took Megan to one of the big arena circuses when she was three. She hated it. I remember lots of very noisy, very smelly motorcycles. What did motorcycles have to do with a circus anyway? So we never went back again. We did go to the Big Apple Circus in Boston when they were older. That was fun. I'm glad I remembered that, for a minute I was thinking we had never taken Susan to a circus.

I haven't had to cook dinner in a week because we have been out every night. Time to reconnect with the kitchen I guess.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A cultural cornucopia of autumn

A generally busy week around here. Saturday evening we heard the Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall doing motets on death by Lassus, Gombert and Josquin, followed by Victoria's Requiem. Not a cheerful programme. We used to be fans of the Tallis Scholars, but we gave them up a few years ago when we started thinking everything they sing sounds a bit like everything else they sing. A bit boring really. And I guess we still are thinking that after Saturday night. We have tickets to their Christmas concert in December too.

Sunday was cold and gloomy so instead of doing a planned walk, we went to the Tate Britain to see the Turner and the Masters exhibit that opened a few weeks ago. Turner is not one of my favourites, and I know very little about him, except for the tons of information that permeates English culture because he is after all "England's greatest artist" who painted England's favourite painting.  A Cockney prodigy, he enjoyed besting his contemporaries and the old masters who came before. He famously added a speck of red to his seascape in the 1832 Royal Academy Show when he saw that it was hanging next to Constable's red splattered Waterloo Bridge.  This exhibit hangs the two works side-by-side for the first time since 1832. The entire show is made up of Turner paintings side-by-side with the work of artists he wished to emulate or more to the point to outshine in skill. He competed with all of the greats: Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Poussin, Claude Lorraine, Canaletto and dozens of other very good artists. The Tate holds a huge collection of Turners because of the Bequest to the nation that settled his estate's death duties — and the idea for the show comes from Turner in his will leaving a few of his works to the nation with the condition that Dido Building Carthage be displayed next to Claude's ...Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba in the National Gallery. The interesting thing about the show is that curator David Solkin chose to exhibit as many misses as hits for Turner's scorecard. There were some where Turner's version of another artist's subject was a clear winner, especially when atmosphere was a defining element. There were some perfectly dreadful pastiches of master works. Sadly, for me and for Bob who is a bit more of a Turner fan than I, there were some perfectly lovely paintings by Turner that paled when sitting next to a master, so we have another show where opinion of the artist declines as the show progresses. In our family that is known as the Bonnard effect, after a huge show at the Tate in 1998. We took time out from our moving-to-a-new-country chores to see the show, and Susan, Bob, and I agreed that the only Bonnard we really liked was the famous Dining Room Overlooking the Garden at the Met in New York.

On the plus side, some of the old masters borrowed for the show were well worth the price of admission (which we didn't pay because we are members), especially Rembrandt's The Mill from Washington D.C.'s National Gallery. That was one of Bob's favourites when he was in the army in Maryland and spent his spare time in Washington museums. He hardly recognised it because it has been cleaned in the intervening 35 years, which I read on-line was rather controversial since it completely changed interpretations of the work.

While at the Tate Britain, we stopped in to see the Turner Prize nominees work which has just gone on display. Why it is the Turner Prize I have no idea except he is Britain's best/favourite artist. He would have no problem whatsoever competing with these artists and winning hands down. This is the Prize that has featured unmade beds and light bulbs flashing on and off in past years. I couldn't possibly comment on any of these nominees so I will let a link do that.

And I found a new artist to admire in a room display on women artists who had a hard time because they were women. Stanislawa de Karlowska was married to the Camden Town painter Robert Bevan. The Tate owns three of her works and these two were on display.

Last night we did something we rarely do anymore. We went to see a dance performance. This is the centenary of Diaghilev's Paris company Les Ballet Russes, and Sadler's Wells' contribution to the celebration is this programme where they asked four choreographers to create pieces In the Spirit of Diaghilev.  We went primarily because one of four, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui,  choreographed a fabulous programme we saw last year titled Myth. His contribution was Faun, based on the music Afternoon of the Faun with additions from Nitin Sawhney,  and featured two remarkable dancers. Afterlight, danced to wonderful Satie piano music, was an homage to Nijinsky, danced by a solo male with a light show playing over his body movements. Quite fantastic. Those were the two successful parts of the evening.

The first piece featured many dancers, several large TV screens with bright red machines turning and black and white stripes rippling, plus a bright strobe light that unfortunately was directed right at Bob's retina, so he had to hold his hand over his eyes for most of the piece. The TV screens were very distracting, as any neuroscientist knows, the brain is wired to watch moving impulses of light, and as any parent buying an infant mobile knows, red, black and white are the colours that can be discriminated first and best.  I have no idea what the dancers did, I watched the TVs. When we were riding home on the Tube, and I finally had a chance to read my programme notes, I discovered this piece was made by "an ongoing collaborative enquiry into the distributed nature of choreographic thinking with the Interactive Cognition Lab, UCSanDiego" — the very place Bob did his cognitive science post-doc 30 years ago!!!!!! So it was neuroscience after all.

We had gotten an e-mail from Sadler's Wells last week noting this production included "adult content" material, and that would have been directed at the final piece which included rape, sodomy, a Pope, a garotting, blood, and an electrocution. This was very much "in the spirit of Diaghilev" measured by the people walking out! But no fist fights as far as I could see. A powerful blast of incense permeating the theatre did nothing to improve my reaction. The music was a lovely waltz — my programme says Ravel's Mother Goose — so ho hum, violence and nursery rhymes, must be a commentary on our times or something.

I also finished another book this week, Gardens of Water, a first novel by Alan Drew, written when a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The book has one of those Readers' Guides for book groups in which we learn that Drew and his wife took teaching jobs in Turkey, arrived in Istanbul four days before the huge earthquake hit in 1999, and lived there for three years. The latter means they were there pre- and post-9/11, never mentioned in the interview, but clearly what helped shape the text. A Kurdish family of four has been uprooted from their Southern Turkey homeland because of the PKK rebellion. The Turkish forces are of course funded and supplied with weapons by the US — it's just what we do — and the father hates Americans — it's just what they do. They have settled in a city near Istanbul, but when the earthquake hits, they lose their home, shop, and extended family. The Turkish government is unable to respond to the crisis so they rely on American aid workers to feed and house the population. These aid workers are Christians who offer succour, but at the price of intense proselytising. The novel sets up clashes in world view: evangelical Christianity in a Muslim community; traditional parents trying to maintain their values — values that are mostly abhorrent to those with Western values such as the readers of this book — but whose children are swayed by the toys and treats of the modern world; the deep distrust of anything associated with the US by the millions of people whose lives have been tragically altered by one US policy or another.  I won't be giving anything away if I say this is not a happy book.

Cold weather has arrived in London this week along with quite a bit of rain. We haven't yet turned on the heat, but we will this weekend. After spending a day shivering wearing three sweaters and my bathrobe, I finally pulled out my winter clothes and sweaters. My closet and drawers are stuffed full so that means no shopping trips for me. I find myself drawn to the window displays this season because so much of it looks familiar — 1965 familiar. The last time these cute tunics and miniskirts were around, I was the target market! There are articles in the paper about Twiggy because she is turning 60. How could she have been younger than I was? And suddenly through Facebook I am in contact with high school classmates who haven't crossed my mind in 40+ years. I seem to be simultaneously moving backwards and forwards in time.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Norway on my mind

I have only been to Norway once. And only to Oslo.

We went to the Viking Ship Museum.

We went to the fantastic open-air architectural museum.

And then we took a ferry to Denmark. (All photos by Bob)

Susan and I also bought a lot of yarn. Our hotel was up the street from the best, most famous handicrafts store in Oslo. How lucky was that. We had to window shop all weekend, waiting until Monday morning when the shop reopened. As we approached, there was a crowd outside that turned out to be the American ladies on the Vogue Knitting Magazine Tour of Scandinavia waiting at the door ahead of us. We were planning a longer trip in Norway the following year, but Bibs was born, and we went to the States instead.

Norway was on my mind on Thursday because Bob and I went to a concert at St John's, Smith Square called Nordic Voices, from Norway. Bob bought the tickets thinking they were a group he listens to on iPod/CD, but when he read the programme, he realised they were some completely different group. Six a capella singers doing Lamentations by Gesualdo and Victoria. Done often. Done well. Nice. And then after the interval they turned to modern pieces by Norwegian composers — Ødegaards, Thoresen, Nystedt, Havrøy (their baritone) — using folk melodies and folk singing voice techniques. An absolutely amazing performance. It was electrifying, and they looked so happy. They thanked us and said this was their first trip to London. Sadly the audience was miniscule. St John's, Smith Square is a much too large Baroque church turned into a concert venue years ago, with terribly uncomfortable chairs and no rise in the floor. Music people we know have a nostalgic fondness for the place, but the concert halls that have opened in the past few years have marginalised St John's, Smith Square. Every established group is deserting them; most of their offerings seem to be posh school music recitals. Audiences are down everywhere, we've noticed. Tickets are an easy item to cut back on when money is short.

Friday morning, Bob called me and said have you seen the I hadn't, and when I clicked on the New York Times, I was left speechless. A few hours later, Megan called, also speechless. In fact we had a ten minute conversation that was mostly dead air as we communicated speechlessly. She was the first person in the States whose reaction I heard, and I was surprised when she said, Why Does Norway Hate Us? or some variation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm not sure Americans realise how much the rest of the world reveres Obama, how much they idealise him. This is a little hard to comprehend in the States, where everyone — the right-wing nuts, the dissatisfied lefties, the press, other politicians — always criticise something Obama has done. There seems to be no question the guy is a loser, with a failed administration, and no backbone. And then there are the people who think he is fascist socialist Nazi, just like Mao, and is appointing czars because he wants to establish a Communist Russian monarchy.

In England, where they can read this stuff, since it's written in English, they have become a bit more cynical — although you wouldn't know it from the days of newspaper coverage on: Why didn't Obama have a one-on-one meeting with Gordon Brown in New York? Why did Gordon have to corner him in a kitchen at the UN for 15 minutes? It can't really be because we tortured his grandfather, can it? The man is a star. Everyone wants to spend their 15 minutes with him. The repulsive Berlusconi shoving Prime Ministers aside, and being upbraided by Queen Elizabeth for his boorishness. The ridiculous Sarkozy organising a 65th D-Day commemoration at the last minute, strong-arming Obama to come, knowing that months earlier Brown had declined participating in such an event, so he wouldn't have to share his rock star guest. And of course the Spanish Prime Minister's Goth daughter(s) — I thought it was hard to tell since the entire family was dressed in black right down to the Prime Minister's tie — with their family holiday photos. None of these people read the swill available to us English readers — most of them could read it, but why would they want to waste their time. What they do know is that the United States had the great good sense to elect a handsome, brilliant, personable, thoughtful, well-educated, caring, accomplished man, who loves his wife and daughters, and who also happens to be a member of a racial/ethnic minority, something which very likely could not happen in whatever country they live in.
However, Norway did not make this award to Obama because he is the biggest rock star on the planet. The motive is much more Manichean: there is Good and there is Evil. The United States by definition is Good, but for eight years, the country turned to the Evil side — and the Peace Prize is a reward for renouncing Evil and turning back to Good. George W. Bush was loathed every where outside the States. He represented every negative trait universally recognised as the stereotype of an American: thick, noisy, bull headed, uncultured, xenophobic, entitled, overly familiar. The first time he became president most accepted it as a terrible mistake; the second time was unforgivable. Electing Obama — and many in Europe commented they should be given the right to vote in US presidential elections because the outcome was so crucial to their lives —was met with relief. The slipping structure of the world had been righted.

Norway is the world's richest real country —  discounting Luxembourg which is hardly a country — so they must do a lot of things right (alas, the policy of killing whales is not one of them), so if they want to exert a little power in the unique opportunity given to them of choosing the Nobel Peace Prize winner, what's to say they shouldn't. Most of the criticism heaped on Obama's selection is in the vein of, "but what has he done to deserve this." In fact doing something is not a criteria for the prize laid out in Alfred Nobel's will. Merely acting on the desire to promote peace is acceptable. A BBC Radio-4 presenter made reference to this in a report yesterday mentioning the case of apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was awarded half the prize in 1993 (nobody ever remembers that F.W. de Clerk was awarded the other half). For 27 years Mandela was imprisoned as a terrorist who regularly refused to denounce violence as a means to end apartheid. When he was released in 1991, and became head of the ANC, he negotiated with de Clerk, but early in 1993, the talks had broken down, and the election that ended apartheid was not held until 1994, several months after the Peace Prize was awarded to the two men. The Prize may have helped to move policy in the direction of peace, and we can all be thankful for the prescience of Norway in taking that step. Norway took a risk on Mandela, and the risk paid off. Don't forget Henry Kissinger was also given a similar half-Nobel — his Vietnamese co-winner turned his half down on the grounds that peace had not yet been achieved — and the war did continue for two  years. This too was a case of Norway using the award to influence policy going forward.

So Norway does not hate the US. They may have made Obama's job more difficult with their little surprise. Most commentators seem to believe that.  I doubt if that was the Norwegians' intention. No one outside of the US wants Obama to fail, making the world a more dangerous place than it is now. From the slurs I see on the internet, there certainly seems to be a substantial number of Americans who would like nothing better than to see Obama fail. I got this link to Gawker from Megan, and it is incredibly funny, citing things that used to be okay, before Obama did them. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize and getting a puppy for your children head the list.  Gawker links to other pieces that I found quite shocking in the level of their vitriol and rudeness. The casual acceptance of vicious behaviour is a danger to the nation, preventing us from working to solve the critical problems that are undermining life in the States.

Friday, October 9, 2009

As the world turns so do we all

I have been invited to my first Grandparents event! How exciting is that. We'll be in the States for Thanksgiving, and Bibs' pre-school is inviting Grandparents in for a visit the day before Thanksgiving. We are so lucky to be gifted with grands while we are still "young" — as meaningless a word as any in existence — except in a relative context to the much too meaningful term "old." My twenty-something/thirty-something daughters are dealing with the concept of what it means to be "old" — while sixty-something me is proclaiming the joy of being "young."

I don't really think that I am young. In fact being gifted with grandchildren has made that very clear to me. After Bibs was born, Megan, (half)-jokingly told me that if the goal of a species is reproduction then my time was up since I had successfully reproduced — and that is a half goal reached — but now that my progeny had successfully reproduced, a full goal had been reached, and I was now surplus. I say half-jokingly because our family thrives on stories of biological determinism, an outgrowth of Bob's work in cognitive science and animal behaviour, I think, and of course it is true that I am the one who should be tipped out of the lifeboat if needs must.

It is true though that having grandchildren has given me an age reality check. I have discovered that I am no longer 35 years old. I generally live ignoring this knowledge, but I have now accepted it as true when I am faced with reality. Age moves inexorably onwards, but inside we don't feel any different. My 91-year old friend says she sometimes is shocked by her reflection in a glass window, thinking, who is that old woman. When younger people occasionally offer me a seat on the Tube, I want to say, "no, no, can't you see I am the same age as you." When younger people don't offer me a seat, I can think, "see see, they know I am their age." I realised a few years ago that mid-thirties was my forever age, but I have just figured out why.

Last week Susan had a few reversals of fortune — minor, not tragic — but in an effort to be "maternally helpful" I blurted out, "Well, the late 20s is really a shit time of life for most people," which she didn't find to be particularly helpful. My reference to the relativity of "young" and "old" above, came from this conversation, because her first response was "Late 20s! I'm in my mid 20s." then her shoulders fell, and deflated she said, "You're right, 27 is late 20s." I felt awful, because my point wasn't to make her feel old, but to say that all the big life issues and decisions that bombard you in your late 20s will feel oppressive, but they can be gotten through, and will eventually pass, just as early adolescence, another shit time of life, did. That's when I realised my forever age is 35, because by then I was a grown-up, with a husband, two wonderful children, a house, a potential career that never materialised, but put it all together, and I had a Life. A Life cobbled together from some planning and lots of happenstance, never perfect in its day-to-day reality, but certainly near perfect in retrospect.

My age check came last winter when I lived with Megan for two months — a month before and a month after Bobs was born. On a routine trip to the paediatrician, I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by mothers with their children, all doing what mothers do when their children need to see a doctor, and I suddenly thought: I used to do this, this used to be what I did when I was 35 or 45, the age of all these mothers sitting in this paediatrician's waiting room with their toddlers or teenagers. This is their life, but it isn't my life any longer. So that's when I discovered I was no longer 35 years old, but it was okay because I also remembered how much hard work it was to hold everything together in that life. The grandparent role is great because you can share in all the benefits that children bring to life, but it's not your job to hold everything together any more.  Despite knowing I am not 35,  I still feel like I am most of the time — and that paradox never seems to bother me either.

Becoming a grandparent also reminded me that the universe we live in has an order to it. When I was left without parents in my mid-20s, I remember feeling like I was free-floating through the ether with nothing to hold on to, as if I had been sloughed off from some Great Chain of Being. Since that time  other people have told me of having the same experience when their parents died. When I had my children I again experienced that feeling, but happily because I now had hands to hold onto again. Having new sets of hands holding on to my daughter and her husband, adding a new link to the chain, is a lovely way of illustrating that biological imperative for survival.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Books/Sweet Booker

After three full days of rain, the sun is peeping out again and the air is autumn cool. The daylight doesn't penetrate the bedroom curtain until after seven in the morning at this time of the year, so Bob has been oversleeping when the designer alarm clock (Alessi) that he cherishes offers only a tiny beep, is easily turned off, and has no insistent repeats like a flashy digital model. A little more than two weeks (three in the States) from now we will be pushing the clocks back an hour, so the mornings here will be a briefly brighter, but oh those lovely short afternoons will begin. I do love the available hibernal possibilities when at two in the afternoon, you can say, well it will be dark soon so I may as well just curl up here with a book, some knitting or quilting, watch a DVD or an old TV series, with a huge choice endlessly rerun on my 500 channels of Sky-TV.  Somehow it doesn't seem right to say that in summer when two in the afternoon means another eight hours — yes, a full winter's day — of daylight left. Winter is such a gift to the lazy and sedentary.

This is Booker Prize Week here in London. Renamed the Man-Booker Prize a few years ago when the Man Group hedge fund took on sponsorship after the Booker food market company gave up their sponsorship. Up until a moment ago, I was about to say that perhaps we could take it as a good sign of financial green shoots, that Man is still around and able to sponsor anything. However a moment later, with all the world's knowledge available to me through Wikipedia, I have a much more interesting tale to tell.

Yes Booker is a food ("cash-and-carry") marketer, but its history involves controlling the sugar plantations of British Guiana where they made their money through the exploitation of indentured labourers. Then in the mid-20th century a Fabian took control of the company, implementing benevolent management which included founding the Booker Prize.

The Man Group, headquartered at Sugar Quay in London, was founded in the 1780s by a barrel maker who supplied rum to the Royal Navy — and we all know what rum is made from and the international significance of the triangular trade — so Mr Man became a commodities broker: sugar, cocoa, coffee — and Man still held the Royal Navy's rum contract until 1970! So how fitting that this week when the Man-Booker Prize was awarded is also the week when the Guardian declares, "Sugar is the New Oil as Prices Soar."

I have always felt directly responsible for the sugar shortage in the 1970s because I wastefully did not shake out every last granule from a bag of sugar one day, and the next week, sugar skyrocketed in price and there was hoarding and shortages afterwards. This time I have been warned, and I shall try to be more careful, but this time, my wastefulness is of a different order than a few spare granules. One of my favourite essays on food is Jane Grigson's "Introduction to the American Edition" appended to the British edition of my paperback of the classic Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book. The relevant line here is: "And American friends say, though I find this incredible, that you do not have as many kinds of brown sugar as we do." Yes Jane, incredible, but true. I once counted eleven varieties of sugar that were available, and that was a few years ago, before the options of "golden" and  "Fairtrade" and "organic" were added to the supply. Of course every recipe calls for a different sort of sugar —light muscovado, dark muscovado, demerara, molasses, icing, golden caster, white caster, light brown, dark brown, golden syrup, treacle — leading to a whole shelf of little canisters of unused sugars, slowly drying out if they are brown varieties. What's an empty nest baker supposed to do?

So we can see the Booker has a sweet history. The country becomes gripped with Booker fever in the weeks between the announcement of the long list and the announcement of the short list of the books actually in contention. Arguments all around on which were chosen, which left off, the quality of the year's judges, and of course the immediate betting odds for the front runner. The award ceremony is televised, although that has been cut down from a longer show that was formerly televised which cut between the dinner guests at the Guildhall and interviews with authors. In 2002, we watched it on TV with our friend Julia, a good friend of Carol Shields whose last novel Unless was a nominee. The Life of Pi won, but it was terribly exciting waiting for the big moment. This year the BBC's regular 10 pm news show merely cut away to the Guildhall to broadcast the announcement live. I haven't read a single one of the contenders this year, but DoveGreyReader has enjoyed her annual Bookerthon so there are no lemons among them. I'm not likely to ever read the winner Hilary Mantel or the A.S. Byatt because my experiences with both of them have been negative. I will read Sarah Waters because I have read all her books. The reader reviews on Amazon lead me to think that Wolf Hall is going to be another one of those, hyped by the critics, shrugged at by readers, books since already half the reviews are in the 3-star "I was really disappointed...." to the 1-star "this book is dreadful" range.

As for me, I have finished another of my 17th century Japan mystery novels which are okay, but I am reading them as a punishment to myself. I don't remember where or when exactly I acquired them, but I had seven of them, and they have been hanging around my Pile for years. The punishment part was to read them all this summer to remind myself not to collect piles of unknown books in the future. I have learned my lesson. I have finished six of the seven, donated them to the library book sale, and I will be more careful in the future. I used to read so many mystery series, but I have cut back quite a few. I will have to continue with Sue Grafton's Alphabet — I can't get to T, and skip past UVWXYZ. But I gave up on Patricia Cornwell years ago when her characters began passing from life to death and back again like afternoon soaps in the States. (No more Guiding Light. That was the one my mother watched.) I also decided that Kathy Reichs's books were at root boring, but Bob and I do love watching Bones on TV.  The TV Temperance Brennan is a lot more interesting than the novelised Temperance. Speaking of TV programmes, while the remaining few Kurt Wallander mysteries by Henning Mankell sit waiting on my Pile, BBC4 has been running a Swedish TV series using Mankell stories where Kurt and his daughter Linda work together on the Ystad Police force. They are terrific. We saw one or two of the Wallanders done by the BBC earlier this year with Kenneth Branagh in the lead. They were okay, but the Swedish ones are much much better. BBC4 began airing them again last night, so we can catch up with some of the ones we missed.

I also finished the third Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson. I was afraid that the trilogy was a three-book deal, and Jackson would disappear, but this one left lots of balls up in the air. Speaking of balls and air. The book event of the autumn has come and left us bereft. The event is of course the third, and tragically last, volume of Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, awaited by all in the English language world who have had to wait extra years for these volumes to be marketed. We pre-ordered on Amazon months ago, the book was shipped last Friday, but not through the Royal Mail because of the on-going random strikes, but by City Link, a business delivery firm, that is hellish for residential deliveries because they require a signature so will not leave packages. The delivery cards they slip through the slot always say, "we'll redeliver tomorrow,"  but they never do. Their pick-up warehouse is in an industrial park at the edge of London; their phone number is always engaged, although you are told to telephone to arrange for a re-delivery or to pick the package up at the warehouse. So we have no assurance of when and whether the book will arrive.

If only I had a Kindle (sigh)! My son-in-law has sent a message that Amazon has decided to start shipping Kindles outside the States. I used one he was testing for his job last summer, taking it on a weekend away to Nantucket. I quite liked it, but for whatever reason — customs, copyright — the Kindle has not been available to customers in the UK. Waterstones sells a Sony reader with a list of available books that are laughable and that cost nearly the same price as the paper-and-print version. I can see a thousand good reasons why e-readers are the way of the future — from saving trees to enlarging the type size for old eyes (gee, I wonder why that immediately springs to mind) — but I would miss all the delights of cover art and page design that make a good book a joy to have in hand.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A fully packed weekend

There is a chill in the air as the first weekend in October begins. It's time to clean out the bookshelves to collect donations for our local library's annual book sale next weekend. Susan brings over Martha Stewart's fat Homekeeping Handbook which I retain in hopes of finding inspiration to do better at homekeeping than I have ever done at old-speak housekeeping. A dream never dies.

Friday afternoon I went around to Burgh House for a talk about the value of Oral History. The current exhibit is based on an oral history Susan has been doing by speaking with people who were instrumental in saving the house 30 years ago and who have been involved in managing programmes over the past 30 years. The speaker was a beautiful young Italian woman who has been involved in various oral history projects in recent years. She played us clips from one of her major projects recording the existence of a "Little Italy" community in the Clerkenwell area of east London from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries. The Italians in London became enemy aliens in 1939, just as the Japanese in the US did after Pearl Harbor. Residents of Clerkenwell's "Little Italy" were interned, some were shipped to Australia, many were lost when a packed ship full of internees was torpedoed and sunk by the Germans. We heard a woman describe a religious procession imported from Italy, celebrated by the whole community every July; a man who remembered his evacuation to the countryside with his younger siblings at the start of the Second World War, and the initial shock of their hosts to find the children were from an enemy-alien community; and a celebration of the camaraderie of Italian waiters who emigrated to London after the war. I wanted to see a Ken Burns style documentary told through their stories.

Her current project involves an art event going on right now in London. Trafalgar Square has an empty plinth in the corner by the National Gallery, so for years artists have been invited to show a sculpture on the plinth for a limited period. When the sculptor Anthony Gormley was commissioned to show his work on the plinth he conceived a scheme to choose people to stand on the plinth and do what ever they wanted for one hour, 24 hours a day for 100 days. A live webshot is available here because the project still has a few weeks to go. Jane's Probably Knitting has a post with photos of a plinth knitter from August that is fun. An oral history of each participant is being recorded, if they wish to be interviewed, before they are hoisted up to the plinth.

Friday evening, we went off to the National Theatre to see David Hare's new play The Power of Yes in which he tries to understand the financial meltdown of the last two/three years. Hare lives in Hampstead, and I see him striding up and down the High Street with or without his big Golden Retriever (okay, I'm not good with dog breeds, but the dog is big, it is a pale gold colour, and looks happy). The curtain opens and a smaller, younger version of David Hare is on stage telling us this is not so much a play, but an investigation. Since we have lived in London, Hare has written two plays that investigate giant clusterfucks by reading transcripts and interviewing sources and then using their words to tell the story. After two fatal train crashes happened soon after we moved here, he wrote The Permanent Way which looked at the sloppy, irresponsible, ideological way in which the last Tory government privatised the rail network. The play had a real political impact and resulted in the present Labour government being forced to ameliorate some of the errors. After The Permanent Way, Hare was a guest at one of our evening programmes at Burgh House, and when the discussion turned political, Hare admitted, as so many people were doing at that time, how his great hopes for a Labour government had turned into the deepest loathing for Tony Blair and his alliance with Bush. Our interviewer asked if he would be writing a dramatic response to the Iraq situation. I like to think that Stuff Happens, Hare's Iraq war play, began there, but for us, ended there since we never saw it when reviewers told us that somehow Hare had turned Colin Powell into the tragic hero of the piece. Bob and I have long despised Colin Powell, for exactly what he is, through learning of his role in covering up the My Lai massacre, and I think I can safely say our opinion of him was confirmed with his reprehensible deliberate prevarication in the UN presentation prior the Iraq invasion. Hare got a lot of stick about his Powell character, and I think I read he did some rewriting before it went to New York.

The Power of Yes is still in previews until later this week, and I did read a snarky comment about it in The Times yesterday, but Bob and I enjoyed it, and Bob thought he got the tone of what happened spot on. The central character is "David Hare" asking the important people exactly what happened to get us to the place where the system very nearly crashed, and ended with a question of why has there been no reckoning. The people responsible are still sitting pretty with their wealth, and everyone else is doing the paying and losing for them, the old whipping boy concept remains useful for those in power. So many villains, and no heroes. The few who are now credited with posting warnings — Nouriel Roubini, Gillian Tett — aren't heroes because they couldn't turn the train around or hold back the flood.

The play was more of a success than the other big weekend event. The Southbank used to have an annual early music weekend in the late summer that was always wonderful. Then a few years ago, the Southbank hired a new artistic director, and the event, along with its director Philip Pickett disappeared. So we were pleasantly surprised when flyers were circulated for what looked like a revived early music weekend. Even if the flyers were a bit suspect -- calling the program Take the Risk — A Weekend of Early Improvisation with lots of big photos and not much information. As it turned out two of the four concerts were complete duds -- Bob went on to call them frauds. We figured out that this event was likely the public-benefit side of an Arts Council grant for lutenist Paula Chateauneuf to put together an all star group to improvise music from incomplete 17th century texts. Good lord were they ever boring. Paula nattered on — American, probably New Jersey, but has been in the UK long enough to put on an irritating proto-English accent — about how risky this all was because the texts were often just sketches of what should be played. She was wearing some sort of ruffly blouse with a neck ruff that kept reminding me of a clown which didn't help. The brief written programme talked with wonder about how these musicians "put their personal stamp on a piece through embellishment. . ." leading both Bob and I to wonder if any of these people had been to a rock concert. Super famous violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk was on stage wearing his undershirt. It was all so bizarre. The English tenor came on stage and explained things to us, with an Italian accent I think. We left at the interval, so I can't say what we missed in the last half. We had been demoralised by a concert earlier in the day by Stevie Wishart who played the hurdy-gurdy — improvised on the cutting-edge of course — for an hour. Okay for half an hour, the two hurdy-gurdy pieces were interspersed with viol pieces, but even a half hour of a solo hurdy-gurdy is painful.

Fortunately the Arts Council grant left some funds to hire the always wonderful Orlando Consort to give us an hour long chronology of the development of plainchant into polyphony. And on Sunday evening to bring us a pick-up group of consummate musicians: lutenist Crawford Young, Patrizia Bovi from Micrologus, Begoña Olivade from Hesperion XXI (and Mudejar). They were great and made some jokes about improvisation and risk. So our risk here was two out four for concerts this weekend.

One other thing we fitted in was a visit to the Guildhall Art Gallery to see an exhibit of the work of John Gay, a photographer who lived in Highgate for 50+ years before he died in 1999. In the 1960s he did a book on Hampstead and Highgate, and donated the original prints to the Hampstead Museum, which did an exhibit of them earlier this year. Those photos were wonderful, so we have been looking forward to seeing this larger show put together by English Heritage. Gay was born in Germany in 1909, emigrated to England in the mid-1930s, and worked as a commercial photographer and as a free-lancer for magazines of English life, country and city. What an eye the man had. The English Heritage Viewfinder website has more than 35,000 Gay photos available. Here is a link to ones he took of Downshire Hill and a nearby cross street in the 1960s. While the photos were wonderful. the papercuts he did as a child and teenager in Germany were astonishing. Some were so amazingly intricate they looked for all the world like woodcuts.

One more contribution to making this a good weekend was the video Megan posted of Bibs feeding Bobs. I have watched it over and over, laughing every time at those adorable children.

Monday morning and the rains came — and the rain hasn't stopped yet.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Reading RoundUp

Yes, it really is October already. I ask rhetorically, why did September go past so quickly? Maybe because I spent half the month in this chair, in front of this screen, blowing away fifteen years of writers block. Perhaps there is a Dan Brown effect. I understand he published a new book last month after years of writer's block. I'm afraid I have only ever gotten around to reading one of Dan's oeuvre. In 2004 when it came out in paperback here, which was years before it did in the States, I was in the airport on my way to meeting Bob, who was at a conference for work, in Cannes. There it was piled up in the airport book store, with previous recommendations by friends in the States as a great read, I succumbed to The DaVinci Code.

Cannes, in March, is really quite a boring place. The LaCroisette promenade is blocked with heavy equipment as the beach clubs are being made ready for the upcoming season and Festival; after you have climbed up to the museum in the castle on the hill above the scenic port, frankly there is little else to do. The bank conference organiser was Bob's friend, and we had been allocated a beautiful room overlooking the sea, so for much of the week I holed up in this luxury room watching French TV. I learned that Charmed seems like a much more interesting show when Piper, Phoebe and Prue are speaking French. I re-learned the craft of crochet after a 30-year hiatus, and remembered that US and UK crochet stitch instructions are different by a factor of one — a US single crochet is a UK double crochet and so on up the number scale — but the bag came out great. And I read the worst book ever written. It was so bad that I forced Bob to read it in his conference breaks. He too was enthralled by the pure awfulness of the writing. The bonus for us was that after the conference, we spent a week or more driving around Provençe and Languedoc and came upon the very places Mary Magdalene and her companions roamed after setting off from the Holy Land in 40 A.D. Their boat landed in the Camargue village of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer where the church commemorates Mary, the Virgin's sister, and Mary, mother of the apostles James and John — hence the plural "Saintes" — who settled in the village and were buried in a small oratory built to establish Christianity in continental Europe. Mary Magdalene and her siblings wandered farther — her brother Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead previously, went to Marseilles and eventually died again in Cyprus. Her sister Martha went to Tarascon where she tamed the local monster, the Tarasque, a cross between a dragon, a scorpion, and a turtle, apparently, in this photo from Wikipedia. When the townspeople killed the monster, unaware he had been tamed, Martha made them feel so guilty, they all converted to Christianity and named their town after the monster. Mary Magdalene went first to Marseilles, then retired to a cave in the Saint-Baume mountains and was buried in the church at St-Maximin-a-la-Sainte-Baume. When we stopped at the church, a funeral mass had just begun, so we were unable to see what sort of shrine is in the church. There is no mention in any of the legends that the family was traveling with a child however. Undoubtedly a mere oversight in the legends, now set straight for all of us by Dan Brown.

I have notched up two more books since the last reading roundup. I devoured the second Jackson Brodie novel, One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson while we were in Bruges. I am a fan of the convoluted plotting that introduces at least a half dozen characters and events, all of whom are eventually twined together as the novel progresses. Hallelujah, the library had volume three, When Will There Be Good News, on the shelf when I returned volume two.

C.P. Snow's The Masters, chosen by one of my book groups, was quite a wonderful read. An old-fashioned novel with chapters, chapters with titles, chapters whose titles appeared as a phrase somewhere in the chapter. No magical dream sequences tilting reality; no mystical butterflies flitting in and out. The Masters is a slice of life at a Cambridge college in 1937 where the current Master is dying of cancer and a new Master must be elected by the Fellows. The novel is part of an eleven volume series, called the Strangers and Brothers Sequence, narrated by one of the Fellows, Lewis Eliot, who teaches law at Cambridge and maintains a practice in London, one foot in academia, one foot in the real world. The Sequence chronicles Eliot's life and career from start to retirement, but this volume remains, claustrophobic, within the walls of the college as they choose one of their own to be Master. The moments of political power play are subtly told, mostly through dialogue, but the reader is always forced to keep up with the mind games being played by the major characters.

Snow is best known for his lecture/article/book The Two Cultures, delivered in 1959, and now being commemorated in its 50th Anniversary year. Snow believed the two cultures — of science and of the humanities — had grown so far apart both among scholars and the public, they could hardly communicate with each other. I'm not going to pretend I know what his arguments were, nor what his critics said, because I haven't read the lecture or the commentary. Back in the day, the Enlightenment day that is, science was called "natural philosophy" in academic parlance when it was taken for granted that arts and science were not separate. In 1770s England, Joseph Priestley as a scientist could discover the element oxygen, but have his house firebombed – and eventually flee to Pennsylvania – because of his Unitarian religious beliefs. The same theme was explored in the Darwin show we saw at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge a few weeks ago focusing on how visual artists adopted the findings of "natural history" when painting landscapes or anthropomorphising cute puppies .

I will admit that although I am an "educated, enlightenened" person, I shy away from science when I am confronted with a concept that might require some effort to understand. Bob has a subscription to the wonderful magazine New Scientist, which presents recent research findings in language a layperson can understand. Every week I look at the cover, think "oh that's interesting," and rarely inquire any farther. Megan lists Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything right after Dorothy Dunnett in her list of favourite books, and she has been after me to read it for years.

I think in the States, our education system does a better job on instilling some science into "non-scientists" than the UK, where students who go on to university begin to study specialised subjects after they finish their school-leaving exams (the GCSE tests) when they are sixteen. During the last two years of secondary education, in preparation for university entrance, students choose three to five subjects to be tested on at the end of the two years (the A-level exams), but the subjects they choose are related to the course they wish to study at university, and when they reach university, they will study only the subject of the course they have been admitted to and some ancillary subjects related to their core area. In the States, of course we normally continue studying science all four years of high school, and most universities have curriculum distribution requirements. While most everyone grumbles about these "outside the comfort zone" classes, I fell in love with botany and then ecology back in my day at Mount Holyoke, and Susan loved her opportunity to study ornithology at Bowdoin.

So while we Americans have the chance to study science longer, we are the ones who now seem to have a serious problem with accepting scientific information. While I might shy away from science, I still believe what scientists have to say. I certainly believe that science may be the only thing that will save the planet from the mess humans have made. Yet if I believe polls, most citizens of the States have some doubts about various findings in this realm of knowledge, and many citizens outright reject some of the most basic principles of the universe. Was there ever a more embarrassing moment for the States, when the Republican presidential hopefuls for 2008, stood on a TV stage and argued that they believed less science than anyone else on that stage. Yes indeed, we're all with Archbishop Ussher now, and we'll be celebrating the earth's 6,013th birthday on 22-23 October this year. Isn't it time to propose this date as a national holiday? Now I read that fewer people believe in global warming these days than the numbers who believed a few years ago. What's to believe? This isn't a faith-based argument over a supernatural deity. Even the conventional argument that climate change is a natural event, yada yada yada, so we don't need to panic, doesn't change the outcome. Of course there have been climate changes not caused by human activity — in some cases because there were no humans at the time – but those changes still wiped out large numbers of species, according to the geologic record. There is no reason that you can't adhere to Bishop Ussher's time-scale and also believe that droughts are longer and drier than in the past, temperatures are rising, seas are rising, currents are changing . Whether you believe the past is thousands or billions of years old, the evidence is still the same; the cause of change can be attributed to God or to humans, the outcome is still the same.

The Christian right abetted by the Republican party of know-nothings have perpetrated evil in the United States, but perhaps the worst has been the politicisation of science. In the 1970s, the PBS science programme Nova had an episode about the tremendous advances made in the study of genetics during the 1920s by Russian scientists who were already positing the idea of some sort of genetic replication mechanism. When Stalin came to power, true scientific work was suppressed in favour of crack-pot theories promoted to further goals of the state. I remember thinking how glad I was to live in a modern country where science was respected and would never be politicised. How did things move in the wrong direction so quickly? C. P. Snow worried that representatives of the two cultures could no longer communicate with each other. Humanities scholars who expected scientists to be familiar with Shakespeare's poetry, did not accept they should equally understand Newtonian laws of physics, thus demeaning the quality of scientific principles. Today, the rift has deepened to where one side of the divide will now deny the validity of the other side's work. Tinkering with communication will no longer save us from plunging into a dark age.