An observation

If there’s one lesson I hope everyone concerned has learnt from the current US election cycle: it’s a really stupid idea to disenfranchise a whole bunch of your constituents for any reason. I’m thinking of the debacle surrounding the Democratic primaries in Florida and Michigan.

Of course it has only become such a thorny issue because the race is so close; in a lot of years it wouldn’t have made any difference. But it’s one of those situations where, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems blindingly obvious that to disenfranchise whole states and millions of voters should not have been the solution to a matter of internal party discipline. I mean really, what were they thinking?

As I’ve said before, I think the US primary system is nuts anyway. But that’s not a reason to screw it up even further.

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The Mabinogion trans. Sioned Davies

I didn’t do my normal thing of looking for appropriate reading materials before going on holiday — I mean, I’d already read How Green Was My Valley and Under Milk Wood, so there didn’t seem to be much point in looking for anything else.*

But when I was running out of reading matter and went to the bookshop in St David’s, I was half-looking for something Welsh and settled on the Mabinogion. I knew the name but nothing else about it; as it turns out, it’s not one work at all; it’s a selection of medieval Welsh stories from several manuscripts. Some of them form connected groups, but it was the C19th translator Lady Charlotte Guest who put this selection of stories together and gave them their usual title.

See

Many of them are set in the court of King Arthur, and the most conventional seemed just like the equivalent English stories. I’m open to persuasion that, as the translator’s introduction claims, there is some kind of distinctive Welsh character to them; but I can’t bring myself to care very deeply. I tend to find all those medieval romances kind of boring.

Some of the stories are more distinctive, though, and more interesting: most notably the ‘four branches of the Mabinogi’ from which the collection takes its title. I think with most Arthurian stories, even though they feature magic and strange creatures, they operate according to a narrative logic that seems familiar to us, whether because it was in some way the ancestor of the modern novel, or because of the regular bursts of of medieval revivalism that have revisited the material. With the ‘four branches’ that doesn’t seem true: they are odder and untidier. It’s hard to explain; you might have to read them if you’re curious.

They reminded me slightly of the Haida stories translated by Robert Bringhurst, so I wonder if it’s a property of oral storytelling that we just get glimpses of in the remnants of oral culture that survive here and there in manuscript form. Partially perhaps it’s an episodic form: the story teller pulls together various episodes and mini-stories, and the emphasis is different every time, without perhaps the need to tidy it into a neat overall narrative. Or maybe there’s a kind of dynamic that’s created when you’re telling stories to people who already know them. 

This is apparently a very new translation, only in the shops a week or two before I bought it. I can’t possibly assess it as a translation, since I don’t know any Welsh and haven’t read any other editions, but I found it readable and the introduction and notes were helpful, so I give it a thumbs up.

*No, not really. It just didn’t occur to me to think about it until too late, for some reason. Incidentally, How Green Was My Valley was, in a slightly cheesy way, a much better book than I was expecting. I think I ended up leaving my copy in Tokyo, though.

The picture, incidentally, is a bit of cosplay from a fan of the Korean MMORPG called Mabinogi.

Araf

One of the few ways that being in Wales is noticeably different to being in England is the presence of Welsh everywhere. Not spoken Welsh — there was some of that, but not much, at least in the part of Wales I was visiting — but written. Every piece of public information — every road sign, every bus timetable — is written in both Welsh and English. And although a lot of smaller businesses just run in English, the bigger organisations like banks and supermarkets are also bilingual. The result is a continual sequence of double-takes as you go to read something and stare blankly for a moment before realising that you’re looking at the wrong bit.

At times this feels more like a political statement than a vital public service: I know that the language is relatively healthy these days — apart from anything else, Welsh is now a useful career skill because of the need to produce translations of everything — but people who are so profoundly monoglot that they need SLOW to be painted on the road in Welsh as well as English must be vanishingly rare.

It is often said, in fact, and it seems plausible, that Welsh is the most heavily subsidised language in the world. That’s not just the cost of all the signage and government literature; there’s also BBC Radio Cymru and S4C, the Welsh language TV channel, for a start.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is a bad thing. Of all the things a government can do with its money, helping keep a language alive seems pretty benign. 

» untitled photo of a Welsh road posted to Flickr by Herr Julian.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, I bought this on the basis of a Bryan Appleyard article where he mentioned Hazzard as one of his contenders for greatest living novelist; in fact, he entertained the possibility that The Transit of Venus was ‘the most perfect novel written in the past 100 years’.

I was less taken by this one than the Robinson. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good novel: lots of strong characters, a sense of time and place, a rich and engaging plot. And occasionally it’s very funny; there’s a vein of acid social satire running through it which just helps give it a bit of an edge. There’s an account of the changing reputation of a poet over his career which is absolutely superb, for example.

And yet… it never quite wowed me as much as Housekeeping. That novel, for me, had a touch of magic and uniqueness to it that made it really stand out. ToV by comparison seems ordinary. A very good example of a conventional novel, but conventional nonetheless. It didn’t help that I never quite settled with the prose style. It has a kind of staccato portentousness that, even after a couple of hundred pages, still kept niggling slightly.

If I sound rather negative, it’s only relative to the claim that the book is the most perfect of the past 100 years; it’s a good book, I’m glad I read it, and I’d generally recommend it. But for whatever reason of personal taste or mood, it didn’t blow me away. Shrug.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

This is one of the great novelistic portraits of London: a London full of smoke and fog, seedy backstreet pubs, horse-drawn cabs, and gaslights. That’s what I like best about it, really, the London it creates and the grotesque characters that inhabit it: Verloc himself, the secret agent and seller of pornography, his coterie of seedy, ageing and probably ineffectual foreign anarchists and revolutionaries, the police chief on his trail, the idiot brother. All of that is done brilliantly. One vaguely assumes that as a European immigrant to London himself, Conrad was drawing on personal experience in his portrayal of the anarchists, but it’s just as possible that he made it all up. In fact, reading my own description of it, it makes it sound like he set out to write a parody of a Sherlock Holmes novel.

On the whole, I think that when it gets into the psychodrama at the end — his wife’s reaction to what has happened — it becomes a bit less interesting. But it’s still a great book.

Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

The definite article in the title seems a little hubristic. I don’t know if this is the definitive biography of Shakespeare — haven’t read any of the hundreds of others — but I certainly enjoyed it.

I don’t know if I completely trust Ackroyd as a historian; it’s probably unfair, but I just get a nagging sense sometimes that he’s a bit too fond of a good story. He has clearly done a ton of research, though, and as you’d expect he’s very good at providing historical context. And he writes well.

bar in Neuchatel, found on flickr, used under a CC licence

There’s a perception, perhaps, that we have very little historical record of Shakespeare other than the plays themselves, so if anything I was surprised by how much material there was: legal stuff, references to him in other people’s writing and so on. Certainly there’s enough to build up a broad-brush picture of his life. What there isn’t is much that is truly personal: no letters back and forth between London and Stratford, no learned essays on theatrical technique, no gossipy personal journal.

So instead of the common pattern of literary biographies, where the biographer tries to use the details of the life to shed light on the work, here it’s more often the other way round: trying to mine the plays and poems for details that might tell us something about his life. It’s all hints and scraps, and any conclusions are tentative and contingent, but it’s all quite interesting even so.

In the end, I think Shakespeare remains elusive: but then, if we knew every moment of his life, I suspect it would only serve to emphasise the fundamental mysteriousness of genius. What biographical detail could possibly be adequate as an explanation?

» Pub sign in Neuchatel, Switzerland, posted to Flickr by iwouldstay (Stefan) and used under a by-nc-sa licence.

Wales photos

I’ve uploaded a set of photos from Welsh trip to Flickr. Here’s one of them, a singing whitethroat:

Singing whitethroat

I somewhat felt the lack of a wide-angle lens, with all that scenery all over the place, and I’ve held back some of the best ones for my photoblog Clouded Drab (there’s a couple already posted), but I hope you can find some you like. Over the next week or so I’ll decide which others to post to Clouded Drab and post the ones which don’t make the cut to Flickr.

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I have returned!

I am back from Wales. Debriefing, holiday book report, lots of photos, and musings on the Welsh language and widescreen television to follow. Possibly. In the meantime, here’s a shot of ox-eye daisies with cliffs and sea in the background.

Not only does it illustrate some of the many pretty flowers to be seen in Pembrokeshire, it’s an example of something emphasised by the presence of a flat horizon in so many of the pictures: my apparently complete inability to hold a camera straight.

» daisies in Pembrokeshire, uploaded to Flickr by me.

Rain, rain go away

Don’t get me wrong, this place looks beautiful even when it is raining, but I think I’m ready for some more sun now.

I would say it was no more than I expect of Wales — it’s not a coincidence that the principality is famous for sheep rather than, say, vineyards — but in fact I read somewhere that St. David’s Head has more hours of sunshine every year than anywhere else in the country, so perhaps I’m just unlucky.

Still, I had a wet but mostly enjoyable walk today: the flowers are amazing. As well as all the gorse, bluebells, campion and thrift, there were little blue flowers I think might be called squills, and little wild white roses, and milkwort and cuckooflower and scabious and foxgloves and about a hundred others. It really is rather lovely. And I saw nesting ravens, and a couple of choughs, and there were whitethroats singing from every bush.

I also went to the cathedral today. If you use the criterion that a city is a town with a cathedral, St. David’s is the smallest city in the UK. I think it might be going a bit far to describe it as a ‘village’, but in more densely populated parts of the country it would certainly be a very small town. The cathedral is really attractive: lots of good medieval stuff and some unusually attractive Victorian restoration as well.

When they built the nave in [about] the C13th, they didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and standing in the cathedral looking along the nave you can see the north wall is visibly leaning outwards, which is quite disconcerting. So in the C16th they put in some internal buttressing and lowered the ceiling: there’s a beautiful ornately carved wooden Tudor ceiling with huge protruding bosses which you can see is just cutting across the top of the arched window in the west wall. And the exterior of the west wall is covered in the fabulous purple Pembrokeshire stone: I think it must be something like an iron-rich sandstone, but it’s a sort of aubergine colour.

Like most medieval cathedrals in this country, it had some of its best stuff — windows and statues and so on — demolished either during the Reformation or by Cromwell’s men; and no doubt in the middle ages all the interior would have been covered in murals and other decoration. But that’s just par for the course. I don’t know whether it’s ironic or highly appropriate that Christians created so much of the country’s artistic heritage and then it was other Christians who came along a bit later and destroyed most of it.

I’m in Wales

In a cafe in St David’s to be exact. I spent the last couple of days in the southern part of Pembrokeshire, in a village called Marloes; it’s the kind of place which, in England, would be one street, one pub, one shop and one church; being Wales, it has a pub, a shop, a church and a chapel. Anyway, I went there because of its proximity to an island called Skomer, known for its population of puffins. Puffin was my target species for this trip, really: everything else is just a bonus.

The first day I tried to get out to the island it was beautiful blazing sunshine and the sea was like glass, but the forecast was for the wind to come up in the afternoon, so they weren’t running boats to the island because they didn’t want everyone to get stuck there. Frustrating, but I took the round-island boat trip instead and walked back along the coastal path to the village. And I have to say, it was seriously beautiful: cliffs, blue seas, the cliff-tops covered in flowers.

The next day it was wetter but the wind was from the right direction, so I got onto the island: it’s an amazing place. The whole top of the island is covered in bluebells and campion and thrift, there are gulls nesting everywhere, huge colonies of auks on the cliffsides, and best of all the puffins, which nest in rabbit burrows at the tops of the cliffs. They are fabulously cute and extremely tame, apparently completely impervious to people.  I went to the Galapagos the year before last, and Skomer is as magical a place as any of those islands – or at the very least almost as magical and a hell of a lot easier to get to. It was raining for the first hour or so I was on Skomer and cloudy thereafter, so not great for photography, but actually the soft grey light, lush grass, stone walls and bluebells made a rather lovely combination. Sun would have been even better, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

And as well as puffins: guillemot, razorbill, shag, raven, chough, peregrine, fulmar, kittiwake. It was a lovely day. I’ll show you the photos when I get home :)

Hiatus!

I’m off to Wales tomorrow morning to look for birds and scenery and photographs. I daresay at some stage I’ll find an internet café or something, but if not, that’s why I’m not posting. Keep your fingers crossed for the weather for me…

The Thames path, Putney to Kew

And two months later, I get back on the Thames Path again. One exciting addition to the routine: sunscreen. Yup, proper sunny weather; spring turning into summer. And it made for a very pleasant walk; this section of the path feels almost rural. Admittedly, for much of the walk the rurality consists of little more than a few trees and about five feet of weedy verge, but in the full greenness of May, that was pretty good. In November, the impression of being in the countryside would no doubt be a bit weaker.

And if I list some of the plants that were in flower, it certainly sounds rural. Cow parsley, white deadnettle, wild garlic, lady’s smock (cuckooflower), hawthorn, elderflower, forget-me-not; I just love the names. And at this time of the year, everything is so green and full of life: even the sycamores, a tree I basically think of as an exceptionally big ugly weed, looked pretty good.

path somewhere towards the Kew end

There were some non-floral points of interest, though. Soon after Putney Bridge, you start walking past the boat houses owned by various schools and rowing clubs, and people rowing on the river. In fact my walk was pretty much the route of the Boat Race. Over the river you can see Craven Cottage, the stadium of Fulham FC, the football club owned by Mohamed “Prince Philip is a Nazi Frankenstein” Al-Fayed. For non-Londoners, Fulham (both the area and the football club) are best defined by the fact that, as much as they’d like to be, they just aren’t Chelsea.

Alexanders and Craven Cottage

The path here was originally a towpath, I believe. In fact, I think most of the Thames path from here on up to the source of the Thames follows the old towpath: that it, the path used by horses towing the canal boats along the river. I can’t quite imagine the logistics of it: what happened if someone needed to overtake? Or two boats approached from opposite directions? Was the whole river a big cat’s cradle of towropes?

It’s odd to think that, especially before the railways, the canals were the industrial arteries of Britain. They had advantages though: apparently one reason Josiah Wedgwood was a keen investor in canal-building was that, sending his porcelain from Staffordshire to London by road, 30% of it would break on the journey.

The path goes past a couple of nature reserves. One of them, the London Wetland Centre, describes itself as ‘the best urban site in Europe to watch wildlife’. I don’t know enough about the urban sites in Europe to judge that claim, but they’ve certainly done a really impressive job there. It was built on the site of a water treatment facility, I think, and they’ve created an impressive wetland area. Their headline success, I suppose, has been to attract bitterns in winter, but they also get a variety of waders and ducks, nesting terns, and a colony of sand martins (US: bank swallows). None of which is apparent from the Thames path, it has to be said, except for the sand martins which I watched for a while hunting for insects overhead. These are not sand martins; it’s a crow mobbing a heron.

While I’m writing about birds: it was mostly the usual stuff. Great views of a wren, singing beautifully with its little tail cocked up behind it; good views of a couple of blackcaps, singing even more beautifully and with impressive volume. A couple of exotics: the more unexpected was Egyptian Goose, a bird which is fairly well-established in England but I don’t see that often. No surprise at all to see Ring-necked Parakeets nesting in a tree by the path. They’ve been spreading out from further up the Thames valley for decades now, but in the last four or five years, numbers seem to have exploded: you hear them screeching in any bit of green space in London.

Nesting ring-necked parakeet

There are two marvellous urban myths about the parakeets. 1) They are all descended from a few birds kept by Jimi Hendrix when he was living in London. 2) They are all descended from parakeets used on the set of The African Queen when it was being filmed at Shepperton Studios. But no special explanation is needed for feral populations of exotic cagebirds — there are loads of them around the world. A couple of years ago, I had to resort to parrot-fancier websites to work out what species I’d seen in a park in Seville.

Rather unusually, the other nature reserve was designed to protect an exotic species: the Two-Lipped Door Snail, which, according to the informative sign, “is thought to have been originally been introduced accidentally by the Romans from mainland Europe, where it is much more common.” I support any excuse for protecting patches of urban woodland, but an exotic species of snail which is common in its native country seems like a low priority. But it has been here for a couple of millennia, so I guess we can grant it honorary native status.

Tommy Cooper

The path also goes past St Paul’s School. When I was on the school bridge team we once played a fixture against the St Paul’s E team. I think it may have been one of the few matches we won, so they can’t have been very good, but the fact the school could field five bridge teams still seems slightly extraordinary. In case you’re interested, I also represented the school at chess and fives. I was pretty rubbish at those too. No killer instinct.

» All these photos and a load of others have been posted to my Flickr account. You can see the whole Thames Path set or just the set for Putney to Kew. I’ve geotagged them so you can see them on a map but to be honest the locations are rather approximate.

Lies, damn lies and religion

There’s an article in today’s Times about the rapid decline in church attendance in the UK. The particular angle they’ve chosen to take is that within a mere 30 years, the number of people going to mosque every weekend will outnumber those going to church. This is illustrated by a dramatic graph with the Christian line sweeping down at a vertiginous angle and crossing the lines for Muslims and Hindus, which are creeping up a bit slower at the bottom.*

Leaving aside the huge uncertainties involved in extrapolating the trends forward, I can’t help feeling that the graph is missing something important: a line for the vast majority of us who don’t go to any kind of religious service. If they had included us, and changed the scale of the y-axis to accommodate us, all the religious people would be squashed down into a very flat and unimpressive bit at the bottom of the chart.

Of course it’s an interesting and significant demographic shift if the number of churchgoers changes from about 8% to 1% in 45 years, as the graph suggests. But if you say instead that the number of people who don’t go to church/mosque/temple regularly is rising from 90% to 94%, it doesn’t seem quite so dramatic.

As regular readers will know, I’m not about to lose sleep over shrinking congregations; and I certainly don’t believe there’s some kind of essential connection between Britishness and Christianity. But I was mainly annoyed by the use of statistics.

*The graph isn’t available online or I’d link to it. The Times’s consistent habit of having less in the way of pictures and graphics online than in the dead tree edition always seems to be completely missing the point, to me, but hey-ho.

Prokudin-Gorskii photographs

I’ve actually linked to these before, but a post over at i heart photograph reminded me about them and I was browsing through them again. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian photographer taking colour pictures in the years before the Great War. He took three black and white negatives of each subject using different coloured filters, then reassembled them using a projector and coloured light.

The Library of Congress have used a digital version of this process to recreate the images and have put them online. The one above is a harvest scene from 1909, but also check out i.e. Woman in Samarkand, dog, Siberian scenery, Georgian woman in national costume. [as Jean points out, those links don’t work: you’ll just have to browse the collection]

I find the particular aesthetic of the lurid coloured borders as appealing as the subjects, though those clearly have historical and ethnographic interest. 

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