Friday, 15 May 2015

Blog Interruption

I am going to England for a month and for various reasons may not be making any blog posts until my return in mid-June. In England my home town is Dover; here is the flour mill on the river Dour, in the nearby village of River; I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents in this village:

Tuesday, 12 May 2015


I had two slices of bilateral toast for breakfast this morning: each slice had two sides, one of which I spread with butter and marmalade. The pages in the books I’m currently reading are bilateral: you turn them over and there is writing on the other side too. Lots of things are bilateral; we don’t usually need to mention the fact.

‘Bilateral’ is now the trendy word for news readers, politicians, (whom we don’t need to be told are two-faced), journalists, indeed anyone who wants to give a spurious impression of being frightfully clever. We are told that President Obama and Raoul Castro had ‘bilateral talks’, or that two counties had a ‘bilateral agreement.’ It is hard to see what a unilateral talk would be apart from a ticket to the funny farm, and of course a ‘unilateral agreement’ is not an agreement at all.

The word ‘bilateral’ as used in the contexts mentioned above adds nothing at all to what is being said. In fact, it triggers my personal bullshit detector. (See yesterday's post.) I hereby declare (‘unilaterally’) that in future I shall stop listening as soon as I hear this idiotic, pretentious, and unnecessary word.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Bullshit Detector

Recently I have been reading writings by and about Nikola Tesla, of whom not so many people have heard, but whose inventions almost everybody uses every day. Books about him range from the (for most people) forbiddingly technical to the open-minded brain-has-dropped-out new-ageish adulatory; the best I’ve found so far is by Bernard Carlson, but even that, in spite of the author’s academic and scientific credentials, is marred by careless slips that can lead to complete misunderstanding of, for instance, the way Tesla’s first polyphase and split phase AC motors worked.

There was so much of the spectacular in Tesla’s work that, as I suggested, descriptions often contain a great deal of bullshit. Had he lived long enough to see some of these descriptions, I think he would have tried hard to invent a Bullshit Detector, and, knowing Tesla as I now feel I do, he might have succeeded.

The trouble is, the people who most need bullshit detectors are the people who generate the stuff, and who, of course, don’t think they need one. As a writer I get a lot of bullshit by e-mail. How about this, the publisher’s description of a new book of poetry?


These poems are ploughing new territories outside of the compulsion to portray any particular emotion or feeling, for what each of them demands of itself is not just ‘expression’ or an escape from expression, but to uproot the very trunk of the language which has already outgrown such things. Blandine Longre, in carving away at the object of the idol of her own primordial will, draws blood fresh from the fingertips of any reader who might happen to pick up and inspect the rough-hewn contours of her truest self—that is from the detritus of each imaginary torso-in-the-making that may float inside of our brains soon after reading her: ‘senses maddened into bone-tales distold: / fronting the words of thick-wet / their loose skeleton only savant mimicry’.

I make no apology for publishing here again a picture of the non-bullshitting poet Basil Bunting:

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Mixed Metaphors

You know what a mixed metaphor is. The example my school English teacher used — taken I think from a text-book by Ridout — was ‘I smell a rat: I see it floating in the air; I shall nip it in the bud.’ The simple point is that, having chosen a more or less fanciful but one hopes illuminating thing to identify with what you’re really talking about, you should stick with your choice at least until the end of the sentence, perhaps longer, to avoid ludicrous absurdities such as balloon-like rats. The ‘conceits’ of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne or George Herbert in which, say, religious faith is identified with the actual stones of a church, or the poet and his girlfriend with the legs of a pair of dividers, are extreme examples of the extended but consistent metaphor, and some readers find these poets difficult: King James, a cultured man, said ‘Mr Donne’s poetry is like the Peace of God: it passeth all understanding.’ Mixed metaphors, on the other hand, are easy to avoid, and fun to spot in the speech and writings of the self-important but not very bright, such as politicians. It’s O-level stuff really; no-one who actually cares about language mixes metaphors.

So how about this:

Adonis and Blunkett saw academies as a way of kick-starting the regeneration of struggling schools, usually in economically depressed areas, which had become so overwhelmed by so many problems, that the best thing seemed to be to hoover out their innards and transplant them with what Adonis called private-enterprise ‘DNA’.

And then, just a few lines later,

Gove arrived in government eager to ‘put rocket boosters’ under the academies programme, with funding carrots for successful schools…

Those examples are taken from a long article in the London Review of Books on – er – education. The whole article is rather poorly written; I found myself continually going back to re-read whole paragraphs because I couldn’t quite see what the writer was on about. This was a pity because in fact, once one had puzzled it out, she had interesting and important things to say. The piece would have benefited from skilled and knowledgeable editing, indeed I thought it odd that a periodical of such high reputation had allowed it to appear in the form in which it did. I looked up the author in the list of contributors:

‘Jenny Turner is on the editorial board of the LRB.’

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Was it worth voting?

Ironically, VE Day and the UK general election have all but coincided. VE day reminds us that democracy, human rights, freedom from fear of the midnight knock at the door, are worth fighting for. The fight is of course never conclusively won: if not overtly then by various creepy ways (think of the efforts of UKIP and Marine Le Pen to seem respectable) the enemies worm their way in again. Someone said that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance, and that meant of course our vigilance, not that of the people who tap our telephones and monitor our e-mails.

And once every four years or so, the UK electorate has, or should have, a chance to choose representatives who will not, we hope, tap our phones, not turn a blind eye when the police fail to investigate a murder because the victim was black, not slavishly follow the Americans in trading freedoms for a doubtful ‘security’.

So the irony is that at this election there was, except in Scotland, nothing to vote for. This lack of discernible difference between the two main parties promotes boredom, indifference, a failure to vote, a dismissal of ‘politics’ as if it could somehow be separated from ‘life’. These are just the conditions on which such vilenesses as the National Front and UKIP thrive; the conditions, or something like them, that led to the rise of Nazism and fascism.

It’s too late now, and if we’re not careful we might permanently lose the chance to choose. Even if you ‘spoil’ your paper because there’s no-one worth voting for, you should still make the effort, go out and vote, do all you can to make your voice heard: otherwise, the bastards will just continue, bit by bit, eating away at the freedoms and rights too many of us take for granted.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A Song about a Marrow

Here you are. Words only, but the tune is a simple three-chord trick one. Kenneth Williams sang it rather well in one of the 'Round the Horne' shows.

There's a man lives down the street I'd like you all to know
He grew a great big marrow for the local farmers' show
When the story got around, they came from far and wide
And when they saw the size of it, all the ladies cried :

Chorus: Oh, what a beauty! I've never seen one as big as that before!
Oh, what a beauty! It must be two foot long or even more.
Such a lovely colour, so nice and round and fat;
I never thought a marrow could grow as big as that.
Oh, what a beauty - I've never seen one as big as that before.

He was leaning on his garden gate the other day,
He beckoned to a lady who lived just across the way,
He took her down the garden path and showed her it with pride
When she saw the size of it that little lady cried :

Repeat Chorus

Then the feller showed it again and everybody went
To see his great big marrow lying there inside the tent.
Then the judges came around to give the prizes out
They only took one look at it, and they began to shout :

Repeat Chorus (twice)


Monday, 4 May 2015

To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite.

(Sic). Those were the words Queensberry wrote on the card he left — unenveloped, so read by the receptionist, though he later claimed not to have understood them — for Wilde at his club. Queensberry was, let us say, not noted for his skill with words, but admittedly he wrote the card hastily and in indignant rage, and may genuinely have believed he was ‘only’ trying to protect his son Lord Alfred Douglas from the corrupting influence of Wilde. (The idea is grotesque of course — any corruption was in the opposite direction, but an idea’s grotesqueness never stopped Queensberry from entertaining it.)

Goaded on by Douglas, who hated his father, Wilde took out a prosecution for criminal libel against Queensberry, which he abandoned when it became clear that Queensberry’s defence counsel planned to call various rent boys who would tell damaging stories about Wilde. Thus there was a verdict of not guilty, because there was ‘No libel’. That is to say, the words on the card were true.

A crown prosecution of Wilde for sodomy then followed with a rapidity unusual in English law, and Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to hard labour.

But hold on — sodomy was illegal in England in those days. It may even have been illegal simply to be a (non-practicing) sodomite; I’m not sure of that, but English law contained and still contains greater absurdities. But surely, even then, it could not have been illegal simply to pose as a sodomite, still less a ‘somdomite’? And if the finding of the libel case was that there was ‘no libel’, then all Wilde could be said to be ‘guilty’ of was ‘posing as a sodomite’. There was, then, no legal justification, no, or only a very flimsy, prima facie case for the criminal charges against Wilde.

Most comment on the whole sorry business has concentrated on the moral aspects; as far as I know no-one (except me, now,) has drawn attention to this legal flaw. 
Sorry about the dreadful quality of the picture.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Sailor on Horseback

When the readership of the blog shoots up, it's often because I've posted one of my translations of the poems of Nikos Kavvadias.  You must like them I suppose. So here's something of his you probably haven't seen:

To My Horse

Nikos Kavvadias

Writing to a person is, I suppose, something a lot of people find easy. Writing to an animal is unbelievably difficult. I’m afraid to try. I shan’t manage it.

My hands were hardened by your harness, my soul by other things. But I must do it. I feel the need. Yes, I’ll write to you.

To begin with you didn’t take to me. You thought me unskilled, clumsy. You were right. It was probably the first time I’d seen a horse up close. The horses I’d seen were ridden by Cossacks in the circus, or bet on by people at the race-track. I’d never liked that. You weren’t made for such vulgarities. But … that’s another story, as Kipling said, who loved you and wrote of you.

I know how much I tired you. Unevenly loaded, obedient, you followed the night marches. We soon became friends. You got used to me. I stopped losing you among the other beasts of our unit; I learnt to recognize you.

If I start on the ‘D’you remembers’ I’ll never finish. I like brevity. I’ll just remind you of three of our nights. (I’m surprised at myself tonight. I’ve never spoken so fondly of any person.)

D’you remember the night of the downpour? Both of us totally drenched, we were walking through the night. Alone. Was I leading you, or you me? My sleepy eyes tried to stare through that night’s curtain as they’d never stared searching for lights in the North Sea. It was your sense of smell that saved us. A stable gave us asylum. We cleared a space in the straw and lit a huge fire. ‘We,’ I say. You gave me courage. I lay down and listened to you champing. Then I started talking. I’d never agreed with people as I agreed with you then. We fell asleep talking. Me lying down on the straw, you upright. How many people have fallen asleep upright, as they walked? How few have had your judgment? But anyway …

The second night: when we went, with many others, into battle. We were able to carry away some of the wounded. Together we heard the sound of battle and got used to it. We picked up the boy with the wounded leg, and left. I’d never seen you move so carefully, with such a gentle gait. You’d forgotten your nervous habit of bucking the pack-saddle. Maybe you’d understood the situation before I had.

And now, the night on the mountain, in the mud: Overloaded, exhausted. Unbelievable the wretchedness and sorrow of seeing animals, people, everything, deep in mud; of knowing yourself to be among them.

Our way was blocked by fallen horses and mules. We tried to get through. Suddenly you fell. We fell, I should say. Two of your legs broken, your head buried in the mud. You remember the efforts I made. I couldn’t manage. You must surely know it wasn’t my fault. I’d never tried harder. I stayed with you all night. Just beyond us, a dead Italian. Above us the Great Bear, the Pole Star, and Orion shed their faint light.

I’ve never seen how people die. I’ve always turned my eyes away from death. But I imagine …

No. I’m afraid I might say too much.

I still keep your brush and curry-comb. And if the time ever comes to give them away, I shall still remember you.

The callouses on my hands from your reins mean as much to me as those I used to get during my sea voyages. I shall write to you again …

Ko├║desi, March 1941.

Translated by Simon Darragh.



Saturday, 2 May 2015

Soft Pedal Blues

That’s actually one of Bessie Smith’s numbers, from 1925. (No doubt others have recorded it since.) The soft pedal is the left-hand one of the two or three on a piano: on most uprights it introduces a long strip of felt between the hammers and the strings; on a grand piano it shifts the entire keyboard slightly to the right or left, so that the hammers hit only two of the strings on three-string notes, one on two-string notes, (hence the instruction ‘Una Corda’ for the first movement of Beethoven’s C# minor sonata, known as the ‘Moonlight’) and, in the case of the low one-string notes, causes the hammers to hit the strings with a softer, less impacted part of their felts. Anyway the result is less volume and a muted, vaguely subaqueous sound.

But I’m digressing before I’ve even started: I want you to consider the following: a concert of Music by Bach is advertised, and one goes along. The first item is one of the violin partitas (a piece for entirely unaccompanied violin) and one hears, clearly, every note. Then comes one of the violin concerti, and again one hears every note: not just those played by the soloist, but those of the string ensemble accompaniment. (With a bit of practice, one can aurally separate out, at will, any of the orchestral voices, of which there are in music of that era usually four. Hearing the middle voices properly without being distracted by the top voice and the bass — all most people hear — takes a bit of practice, that’s all.)

But just a minute: assuming even a fairly modest accompanying orchestra, there will be, say, four first violins, four seconds, a couple of violas and a ’cello, and that’s not even mentioning the soloist. So surely what one is hearing is — just a moment — 11 or 12 times louder than what one heard in the partita? OK human ears may respond to volume on some kind of logarithmic scale, but even so — and what about, say, the Beethoven or Tchaikovsky violin concerti, where one has full orchestras, with brass, woodwind, and timpani to contend with, but nonetheless has no trouble, even when the concert arrangers have not indulged in the barbarous practice of selective miking up and amplification or attenuation?

Well, the human ear, or rather the mind that sorts out what hits the ear, is pretty versatile. Problems arise when concerts are broadcast on the wireless, or recorded onto disc or tape. In the early days of direct non-electrical recording onto 78 rpm disc, the engineers had to geographically rearrange orchestras and even quite small ensembles to get some sort of balance. In the case of the Hot Five, one of the things that gave the pianist Lil Hardin a soft spot for the cornetist Louis Armstrong was the fact that whereas she was right there under the horn, poor Louis had to be sent off to the far corner of the room so that she sheer power of his playing didn’t make the needle jump off the wax. And conductors can’t have been too chuffed to find they had to wave their sticks in unexpected directions when trying to make records of, say, a Mahler symphony with its vast dynamic changes.

Then came electrical recording, and, almost at once, valve amplifiers and the use of several mikes and multi-track tapes. It was now possible to have the orchestra normally placed, and to get the balance right at the mixing stage. Fair enough, but it led to such things as muting the orchestra and winding up the soloist in, say, a violin concerto, so that one heard, listening to the final record, not what one might have heard at a performance, but an ‘improved’ version, an ‘easy listening’ version for people who don’t think they ought to make any sort of effort to actually listen to music. Recording engineers of vulgar taste would ‘bring out’ say, a short flute or oboe solo, quite contrary to the composer’s intentions, just because they thought it was pretty; listeners of even vulgarer taste (sod off spell-check; it’s a word now) loved it and bought the records.

And then came limiters, and compression controls, and lazy mixer operators who would just turn the compression and limiters right up and go away to drink coffee. (Try Greek Radio Three to hear this taken to grotesque extremes.) It is as if, like those people who only ever want music as a vague soothing background noise while doing something else, had hastily twisted the volume control down when the music got ‘too loud’; the result is that huge orchestral tuttis actually sound quieter than solo violin passages.

One or two recording labels — particularly small ones, that simply can’t afford elaborate equipment, but full marks also to Naxos, which started out small but has become huge, but nevertheless retains in many of its recordings the simplicity of its earlier ones — have gone back to using just two microphones and two tracks. Those are the records to go for; they can at their best be just like being in the concert hall, with all its ‘imperfections’.

I haven’t got a heavy ironic punch-line for this post; it’s just something I wanted to talk about.

Friday, 1 May 2015

May the First

Today is the international festival of the working class — which means anybody and everybody who actually earns his or her living — and here in Greece at least it is a public holiday. I believe it remains so in the UK too. The holiday’s left-wing nature got up the nose of Margaret Thatcher — the only human ever known to be stupid, wicked, and mad simultaneously — and she wanted to abolish it, suggesting that instead the Queen Mother’s Birthday become a public holiday.