British Library – Writing Britain exhibition

July 1, 2012

[Posted this elsewhere, on a messageboard, hence the lack of the usual Jamesian poise and Flaubertian precision, but it's RED HOT OFF THE PRESSES, I only went this morning:]

I just went to British Library exhibition, Writing Britain.

It was a bit rubbish. [<--- it wasn't THAT bad, it was meh it was ok.]

The organising principles, as represented by the groupings of works and the title they were grouped under, seemed by turns vague, unhelpful, misleading, and without any overall structure. With a subject as large as ‘Writing Britain’ there has to be some kind of argument, or underpinning set of principles. The section headings were occasionally a little weird – ‘Dark Satanic Mills’, fine, but in a section that didn’t include ANY Blake, just mainly 19th C thru Victorian novels, bleeding into some stuff about the contemporary workplace (David Lodge’s [i]Nice Work[/i] in a glass box, with a catalogue entry by it, really?).

Also, if you’re displaying books and manuscripts, you’ve really got to have a catalogue that situates them as objects. This object you are seeing before has this context, and this meaning for the subject in hand. Ok, so from time to time you’d have ‘Wordsworth wrote Tintern Abbey when he yadda yadda’, or ‘Keats wrote this letter to his brother Tom while on a walking holiday in Scotland’ (great! I enjoyed peering at Keats’ massive letter with tiny writing). But there wasn’t much more than that. Occasionally it would be as bad as ‘Disraeli wrote a book about social divisions, called Sybil, here is an edition of Sybil’. Well, maybe never quite as bad as that, but I thought it shd have worked a lot harder at making the objects talk. These are garrulous, companionable and informative objects, but they go silent under a glass case. Lots of dodging your head about trying to nix the reflection, and squinting at your enforced distance, decoding handwriting from the neatly miniscule (19th century women writers + RLS) to the formally incomprehensible (yes, you, William Dunbar).

Good things!

  • Done Keats’ letter – huge and with a sonnet in the top left-hand corner. Good letter.
  • Gerald of Wales’ 12th Century Topographia Hibernica with a marginal illustration of a werewolf asking a priest to administer last rites to his werewolf friend. At least, the catalogue note said werewolf, and indeed said they were mentioned as such in the text, but thinking about it, the normal interpretation of animals in mariginal drawings would be via fables and exemplars, although strange creatures like the anthropophagi and ape-pygmies do also appear. Anyway, good picture.
  • Manuscript of Crash with Ballard’s emendations.
  • Victorian board game, which was a map of Britain, where you had to progress from the Thames Estuary, round the country, with its various industries and back again. Looked incredibly not fun, but I don’t like board games and anyway the map was good.

BEST bit of writing was a letter written to John Betjeman complaining that one of his Metroland poems was historically inaccurate, ended with this

I remember Willesden Green station when it was lit only by oil lamps, and one left it into unlighted lanes with hedges, which is my first recollection of Walm Lane. I remember walking to Cricklewood and being so frightened of the loneliness of it all that I turned tail and scuttled back home again as fast as I could!

I quite like Cricklewood – it’s nothing like London – but for some reason that description seems to me strangely still pertinent somehow.

Most surprising thing I didn’t know – John Galsworthy was a fuckin NOBEL LAUREATE?

Most unsurprising thing I knew already – typewriters really are the only tool for creative writing. The pen is too laborious, generally, the computer too much like writing in water if you’re not careful, but the combination of permanence, clarity and immediacy of typewritten manuscripts puts them in first place for me.

Oh, couple of other things:

Wales shamefully under-represented (as was Cornwall). [<—- yeah yeah the mabinogion wotevs. Conan-Doyle half mentioned as a decent suburban writer, but no mention of Arthur Machen, also an exceptional writer of London and suburbia. I know you’re constrained by your exhibits, but not to have The Hill of Dreams anywhere is bizarre. (He was represented by a quote on a board, from his excellent autobiography Far Off Things.) Also, no Jocelyn Brooke, scant mention of the Powys clan (they could have joined them thru John Ireland – they had soundscapes and Mai Dun would have fit in nicely), Chesterton, yes, but no Belloc. YES he’s a cunt, YES he should have been in there.

Think that’s why you need an argument, because without it you become necessarily inclusive: with such a large subject, the exhibition becomes patchy and somewhat incomprehensible.

They probably could have done more with the representation of words in the landscape. Especially considering their gates were designed by the wife of David Kindersley, who proposed an effective and attractive national design for roadsigns, was himself apprenticed to Eric Gill (font+literary sculpture of Prospero and a big-willied Ariel on the front of Broadcasting House), who was a student of Edward Johnston, designer of the font used on the tube.

A bit more imagination, plus a bit more rigour might’ve produced a better exhibition. Like I’d know. I’m sure a helluva lot of work went into it.

Oh, and an entire section on London but NOTHING on Henry Mayhew (Neil Gaiman, by contrast, seems to have his grubby fingers everywhere).

Still, plenty of bits to enjoy here, just feel more could have been done with it. Wouldn’t have minded something I’d disagreed with more – it all just felt a bit nebulous.

Did make me think I must do my thing on MALIGN PASTORAL or whatever it was going to be. It got a bit unwieldy.

Comparing Meerkats

February 20, 2012

So I’m reading Apes and Ape Lore by HW Janson. I love this book! I’ve read it before but I got it out of the library again because there was a tiny reference to marginal snail combat in it that I was trying to truffle out. I ended up reading a lot of it again. It’s an exhaustively detailed catalogue of the history of the portrayal of the ape in medieval and Renaissance times. Much of it is a very careful working out of a taxonomy of ape motifs. The book as a whole expresses very well the virtue of going so deep into one relatively minute subject that it starts to blossom into all sorts of strange areas and become paradoxically inclusive. There’s plenty of room for anecdote: I particularly like the the Spanish-Galician story that relates how a man climbed into a tree in order to frighten the Saviour and found himself changed into an ape.

The chapter titles are very enticing as well:

Figura Diaboli: The Ape in Early Christianity

The Ape as Sinner

Similitudo Hominis: The Ape in Medieval Science

The Ape and the Fall of Man

The Fettered Ape

The Ape in Gothic Marginal Art

and so on. And of course it’s all related in a dry, droll academic style of the specialist.

I found a footnote that well expresses the soothing poetry of this sort of writing, with its German citations, the rather Quixotic romanticism of the pursuit for historic truth through MSS, the careful and accurate-feeling balance of assertion and doubt. In the main text, I was reading:

The Ecbasis captivi, probably the earliest animal epic of the Middle Ages (c.940), mentions the ape (simia deformis) and the monkey (cerula catta maris) in a few lines as keepers of the king’s bed and light, but does not let them take any part in the action of the story.50 <—————– footnote.

CANNOT RESIST THE FOOTNOTE. Even if it is an end-of-chapter note requiring the sort of digital dexterity normally only required for Fighting Fantasy books.

footnote——————> 50 Ed. Ernst Voigt (Quellen u. Forschungen zur Sprach- und Kulturgeschichte der GermanischenVölker,  VIII) Strasbourg, 1875, lines 654, 656. Erdman (Dtsch. Archiv. IV, 2, 1941) suggests a date of c.1040 for the epic. The term catta maris is of particular interest, since it is obviously a translation of the German Meerkatze (guenon) and thus represents the earliest reference to the latter word, at least a century before Hildegard of Bingen, who is cited in Grimm’s Wörterbuch and other dictionaries as the first datable instance of the term. The fact that the word was interpreted to mean “(trans)marine cat” as early as the tenth or eleventh century, would seem to throw further doubt on its proposed derivation from the ancient Indian markata, already protested by Fr. Kluge, Etymologisches Wörterbuch d. Dtsch. Sprache, Berline-Leipzig, 1934.  

In case you’re wondering about the modern application btw:

Etymology:  < South African Dutch meerkat (Afrikaans meerkat ), transferred use of Dutch meerkat a long-tailed monkey of the family Cercopithecidae

The forms mier-cat , mier-kat , mierkat reflect the Afrikaans variant mierkat (with the first element altered by folk etymology after Afrikaans mier ant, termite).

Actually I’ve spent most of the time writing this trying to remember which Half Man Half Biscuit song has the line MEERKATS ARE CLICHED at the beginning. It seems to be from a live performance of You’re Hard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1999, but I can’t find any recording although I’m pretty certain it was broadcast on Radio 1 at the time.

I know it’s not the same, but here’s some Hildegard of Bingen chawn. Although like most medieval writers and philosophers she was more of an aggregator than originator, in her Physica she was one of the first people Classical or Medieval to emphasise the shared menstrual cycle of the primates with humans, singling this feature out from a more or less mystical/magical 6th century tract by the Egyptian Horapollo. Of course Nigel Blackwell transmutes the intense sadness of modern England to the gold of wry humour that enables us to get to the end of our natural life without recourse to our own hand. Nevertheless he can take a back seat for once:

lol the start of that video’s pretty odd.

A Rosicrucian Ramble

September 9, 2011

There sometimes seems to be a kerfuffle about ‘real’ identities on the internet. Google seem keen on it. You can always find an article or two suggesting that people would be better behaved if they used their irl identities, whatever they may be. But reading today about Rosicrucian & anti-Rosicrucian pamphleteering in the early 17th century reminded me afresh how much publishing of any sort has always been enmeshed with the shadow world of non or pseudo identities.

I wouldn’t want to give up the anonymous work of 1623 entitled Horrible Pacts made between the Devil and the Pretended Invisible Ones, in the name of bogus ‘authority’.

And frankly, excerpts like the following from Frances Yates’ The Rosicrucian Enlightenment get me really hot:

Theophilus Schweighardt published in 1618, with no name of place of publication or printer, a work with the following title: Speculum sophicum Rhodo-Stauroticum, Das ist: Weilauffige Entdeckung des Collegii und axiomatum von sondern erleuchten Fraternitet Christi-Rosen Creutz. This is a typical example of a Rosicrucian title, with its mixture of Latin and German. In this work Theophilus Schweighardt, who may be one Daniel Mögling, or may be the same as ‘Florentinus de Valentia’, who may be Andreae himself, is enthusiastic about the ‘Pansophia’ of the Brotherhood and their threefold activities, which he classifies as (1) divinely magical (2) physical or ‘chymical’, and (3) ‘Tertriune’ or religious and Catholic.

While I’m on Rosicrucians – the combination of them being required to heal the sick for free, and their red cross symbol made me wonder if this was where the Red Cross got its symbol from. Their webpage assures me that it’s an inversion of the Swiss flag, thus referencing their neutrality and the Geneva convention but I think I prefer my theory.

Despite its tendentiousness and the occasional whiff of the hobby horse there’s all sorts of good stuff in Yates’ book – Descartes showing himself to his friends in Paris to assure them he was not one of the invisible Rosicrucians (although his travels and indeed life are weirdly cognate with the trail of that phantom organisation – in fact I started dozing off and hazily imagined him on a mystical search across Europe for the secret of Thomas Hariot’s algebra…)

Then there’s this dizzying sentence:

The ‘Rosicrucian furore’ which arose in response to the stirring announcements of the manifestos soon became inextricably confused through the large numbers who tried to join in without inside knowledge of what it was all about, being merely attracted by the exciting possibility of getting in touch with mysterious personages possessing superior knowledge or powers, or angered and alarmed by the imagined spread of dangerous magicians or agitators.

A non-existent organisation, a ludic dream-fantasy of the Reformation, a ghostly reflection of Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuit shock troops, present only in publishing history, exists in its most concrete form in people who knew nothing about ‘what it was all about’? Those closest to the centre, the Paracelsist physicians Robert Fludd (from Bearstead, Kent – go Bearstead!) and Michael Maier regularly sending out pleas for this organisation to reveal itself, the ‘inside knowledge’ to which they were privy an allegorical structure of alchemical and mathematical mystical symbols? Madness, I tell you, madness:

The Invisible College of the Rose Cross Fraternity (from the Speculum Sophicum Rhodo-Stauroticum)

Leave it, Tom, she’s not worth it.

August 15, 2011

This is a really long, really boring post. That isn’t some kind of aporia, intended to seduce you into marvelling at the polished excellence of what follows. It’s just really long. There is a song about halfway through though.

Read the rest of this entry »

You’ve got to be clean, to be on the scene

April 28, 2011

Gibbon says of Caracalla (Emperor – 209-217 AD)

that Caracalla was the common enemy of mankind

that the repentance of Caracalla only prompted him to remove from the world whatever could remind him of his guilt, or recall the memory of his murdered brother

and refers to

the wild ambition and black passions of Caracalla’s soul

his  timid and brutal cruelty

and describes with some enjoyment, tempered by a little scepticism, how from the Caledonians under Fingal  he fled from his arms along the fields of his pride


how he killed 20,000 men and women who he suspected of being sympathetic to his murdered brother Geta

De Quincey suggests that on his subsequent wanderings over the empire he was

pursued into every region by the bloody image of his brother

So what would you do if you’d made such a filthy great stinking macchiato of your soul?

Build a rucking great bath.

The hot rooms to either side of the great circular caldarium offered a range of different kinds of dry heat. Their missing front walls were composed almost entirely of glass, taking advantage of natural solar energy. The surrounding surfaces on the outer facade wall were finished with coloured glass mosaic, so that the whole block will have shimmered in the afternoon sun.  All that survives of the caldarium proper (which equalled the Pantheon rotunda in height and was three-quarters its diameter) are two piers of brick-faced concrete 35m high. It contained seven plunge baths and the domed ceiling was probably lined with gilded sheet bronze.

The baths could seat ten thousand people.

Hot damn, wish I could have seen that.

Leave the Capitol! Exit this Roman shell!

April 28, 2011

The view south-eastish from the Capitoline Hill, from which the auspices of the flight of birds in the skies were taken by the augur from the Auguraculum.  It also held, *gazes down quickly at a book held beneath table level*, a Temple of Juno famous for its sacred geese, who had raised the alarm when the Gauls tried to attack the citadel one night in 390 BC and were thence looked after at State expense, carried each year on litters with purple and gold cushions in a ceremony at which dogs were crucified as a terrible reminder of the guard dogs who  had failed to bark.

So, birds basically. On the Capitoline Hill. Look, I can’t help it if it’s boring, I just wanted to use that Fall line.

Anyone drunk Fernet? It’s utterly revolting and rather more-ish. Here’s the wikipedia list of ingredients:

Fernet is made from a number of herbs and spices which vary according to the brand, but usually include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and especially saffron, with a base of grape distilled spirits, and coloured with caramel colouring. Ingredients rumored to be in fernet include codeine, mushrooms, fermented beets, coca leaf, gentian, rhubarb, wormwood, zedoary, cinchona, bay leaves, absinthe, orange peel, calumba, echinacea, quinine, ginseng, St. John’s wort, sage, and peppermint oil.

The effect of taking it down in one was once memorably described by Kingsley Amis as being like ‘throwing a cricket ball into an empty bath’.

The way it works is this: you take a sip and think ‘that’s disgusting, it’s just like black mouthwash’. Then you put it down, vowing never to drink any more. Then you think, after a suitable interval, ‘There was something else there, I wonder what it was’. Whereupon you take another sip. ‘No,’ you say to yourself, not mouthwash, what’s that bitter taste?’





‘Or, wait, is that … marjoram?’



‘Surely that can’t be…’




‘My tongue’s gone numb! That’ll be the wormwood! Pour me another!’ (crawl to kitchen singing Twa Recruiting Sergeants)

Because I was reading Wallace Stevens while drinking Fernet, and my mind couldn’t stagger too far from the immediate set of stimuli, it occurred to me that the way the flavours both mingle and rub abrasively up against each other was a little like the sonic effects of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. There’s little of the Fernet’s murkiness of course, the precision of the way the sounds explore each other is part of the appeal:

Insinuations of desire,

Puissant speech, alike in each,

Cried quittance

To the wickless halls.

The Ordinary Women

The way ‘insinuations’ and ‘speech’ each fight over/seduce/tug at the word ‘puissant’, so that a sort of exploration of the mouth, an articulation of unusual sound flavours akin to reading the perfumed auspices of the Fernet, occurs in the mind of the reader. The way also ‘quittance’ and ‘wickless’ have clearly been chosen for each other, their comparative obscurity, not least so close together, making them look like choices of sound more than whatever sense, which in turn paradoxically leads the reader to a greater secondary emphasis on meaning than might otherwise be the case…

So my mind ran drunkenly on.


I searched for some more or less satisfactory formula: The way in which his poetry revels and toys with the specific sounds of words tests the meaning of those words… maybe. ‘Tests’ isn’t quite right, ‘weighs’ or ‘proves’ maybe. I read Sunday Morning several times. It’s more lyrical than many of his poems, and I felt that at least part of the mystery was described  in lines given the woman of the piece:

She says, ‘I am content when wakened  birds,

Before they fly, test the reality

Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;’

Fields are words, poetry the sweet questioning of their reality. The lines continue:

‘But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields

Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’

Several more or less trite paradises are sketched before a half-answer given:

There is not any haunt of prophesy,

Nor any old chimera of the grave,

Neither the golden underground, nor isle

Melodious, where spirits gat them home,

Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm

Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured

As April’s green endures; or will endure

Like her remembrance of awakened birds,

Or her desire for June and evening, tipped

By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

By following the analogy of poetry’s sweet questionings above not too hard, these lines contain I think at least some sort of sense of the importance of poetry. Very often the paradise of a poem is found just after the poem has been finished, in its remembrance. Of course the lines in themselves contain a greater sense of the power of poetry than any half-assed drunken analogy drawing.

But birds, you see, birds again… and you thought I was just rambling.

Pass the Fernet.


Lost All My Friends, Can’t Sleep For Bad Dreams

March 23, 2011

Amusement arcades on the shore house the more recent automatics, horizontal glass-topped boxes on four wooden legs, where a penny releases a number of balls which can be projected by means of a spring through a series of illuminated hazards to score many thousands of points. For really high scores there may be prizes.

The Unsophisticated Arts – Barbara Jones (1951)


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