Monday, July 28, 2008

sculpture on show

If you're down in Devon in September, don't miss Devon Open Studios, 10.30 am - 4.30 pm, 6th, 7th and 8th September 2008.

Peter Randall-Page is participating. I wish I could be in Devon in September, as I would love to see some of his sculptures 'in the flesh' so to speak. He is part of the West Devon trail (trail 2), guides to which can be downloaded from the Devon Artist Network (pdf).

I've been aware of his work since the late eighties, when I had a postcard of one of his sculptures on my wall.

His more recent work is even more exciting - it's so organic. It reminds me of some of Andy Goldsworthy's stuff, or Chris Hill's. I really like work that seems to reveal the hidden secrets of nature, like fractals, spirals, and the shape of rocks. Anyway, go and check out his website and admire it for yourself.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

the art of suicide

It has always amazed me that some art apparently has the power to suggest suicide to people. Goethe's novella Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers apparently caused many suicides among German youth, who dressed themselves in the style of the hero and even had the same book beside them when they committed suicide.

Similarly, the Hungarian song Szomorú vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday) apparently has the power to suggest suicide to those who listen to it, according to Curious Expeditions:
Hauntingly beautiful, the story goes that the song was so sad, so depressing, so completely soul crushing, that upon hearing it even once, Hungarians were driven to suicide. And not just a few, during its era, hundreds of suicides were attributed to the melody.
Billie Holliday also recorded a version, which is certainly very sad and gloomy (but then so are most of her songs).

Then of course there are all the novels about suicide: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides; A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby; Suicide Wall by Alexander Paul.

Chris Power in The Guardian blog further explores the theme of literary suicide. Both Schopenhauer and Donne defended it, and Plutarch considered Cato the Younger's suicide a noble death. The Romantics lauded the death of Chatterton as 'the apotheosis of artistic sensibility'.

There is also a tradition in Japan of writing haiku before committing suicide (and also before a natural death):
In a full ceremonial seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide) one of the elements of the ritual is the writing of a death poem. The poem is written in the tanka style (five units long which are usually composed of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables). Asano Naganori, the daimyo whose suicide the forty-seven ronin avenged, wrote a death poem in which commentators see the immaturity and lack of character that led to him being ordered to commit seppuku in the first place.
Oddly, different countries have different suicide rates, which remain fairly constant, perhaps because of varying cultural attitudes to suicide. Hungary is number 5 on the list.

Goths are also fascinated with death and gloom, as this song by Emilie Autumn, The Art of Suicide, illustrates. They also love death in general; Chas Clifton recently spotted a Gothic Book of the Dead, which offers advice on:
Meditating on gravestone sculptures, creating a necromantic medicine bag, keeping a personal book of the dead, and other exercises will help you explore the vital, transformative forces of death.
Chas declares himself no longer entranced by death, having experienced too much of it lately. I agree - life is too full of joy and complexity and love - but it's a curious pleasure to wallow in melancholy sometimes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
... as Keats so eloquently expressed it in his Ode on Melancholy.

Suicide is always a tragedy, and leaves heartbreak in its wake. But its cultural aspects are very interesting.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

funk to the music of the galvanised bucket

As if monastic heavy metal dudes were not enough, now babies can get in on the act too, with rock anthems transformed into lullabies, which sound as if they are played on a xylophone.
Rockabye Baby! is a series of albums put out by some record label that feature your favorite rock songs turned into wordless, soothing lullabies for children.
Some of them are an improvement on the original, especially in the case of Metallica, but some definitely aren't.

A much more exciting prospect is presented by Universery Rhymes, an updated and very stylish version of classic nursery rhymes, with lyrics by Jaspre Bark and music by Jason Rebello.
Alien visitor Muth Argooz has made a special recording of all the nursery rhymes he has been writing down to send back to his planet. As you may know he doesn’t speak our language very well so when he writes down the rhymes he never seems to get them right.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

straining the meme

In a comment on a previous post about my taste in literature, The Silver Eel asked why I did not list Margaret Atwood. It's a good question, and there's actually quite a good reason why not.

SF (science or speculative fiction) is not just a genre for geeks; it is a serious exploration of what life might be like if you changed one or more parameters of existence, either social, scientific or technological.

Classic examples of the genre include Where late the sweet birds sang by Kate Wilhelm, Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and many more; books by authors who understand how the technology or science that they are writing about actually works, and manage to write characters and scenarios convincingly affected by changes in the technology or science.

In order for such books to be credible explorations and extrapolations, the author must understand both the science and the characters, and be familiar with previous SF; it's not enough just to be able to write good characters. This is why The Death of Grass by John Christopher works, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy does not work - in The Death of Grass, the ecological disaster scenario is coherent and convincing, and in The Road, it's not - why are a lot of humans still alive when every other life form has died?

Mainstream authors who write science fiction are frequently unfamiliar with the genre and often do not realise that the idea for their book has been done before, probably more convincingly. So the sheer chutzpah that they exhibit in then denying that what they have written is SF, because they write "literature", is outrageous. For example, both Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood have denied that their efforts are science fiction. That's why I call this type of book "strain-meme".

And frankly, I thought Oryx and Crake was a pile of pretentious garbage. The Handmaid's Tale was good, if depressing - but still not really SF.

At least Sir Salman Rushdie does not regard his early novel Grimus as "not SF" (though the publishers apparently denied that it was). He also continued to include elements of magic realism in his subsequent novels.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

hot capuccino

BBC video: A Capuchin friar has taken up singing in a heavy metal band - not because he wants to convert people to Christianity, but because he wants to convince people to live life to the full. What a dude!

Apparently he went to see Metallica in 1990, and got really into heavy metal. I can't say I'm a huge fan of heavy metal myself, I just think he's got the right idea about life. Also, what a splendid beard!

Friday, July 18, 2008

some art that I appreciate


The other day I mentioned to a writer at a "do" that I had enjoyed his book. "Aha!" he cried. "A fan." Now, call me an intellectual snob, but I don't really see myself as a "fan" of anything. A connoisseuse maybe, someone who appreciates, but not a fan. Fans are people with an obsession; people who go to conventions and talk about absurdly unimportant details of TV and movies while studiously avoiding talking about the real history, science or philosophy on which they are based. So no, I am not a fan. At least not in that sense.

I do, however, deeply appreciate many writers, artists, and musicians for their work, and I think there needs to be a word to describe that. Unfortunately many of the words which one might have used are actually pejorative terms like amateur (literally a lover) and dilettante (originally not pejorative). To describe oneself as a connoisseur seems unduly to claim extensive knowledge about it. So we need a word that means someone who appreciates something.

hidden talents

The BBC has just discovered an archive of recordings made by Delia Derbyshire, the woman who composed the classic Doctor Who theme music (but the credit was taken by someone else).

They are amazing, and well ahead of their time.

Paul Hartnoll, formerly of the dance group Orbital and a great admirer of Ms Derbyshire's work, said the track was, "quite amazing".

"That could be coming out next week on [left-field dance label] Warp Records," he noted.

This story seems reminiscent of numerous instances where someone discovered or created something that was then credited to someone else.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

a science not an ideology

Three articles about Darwin by Olivia Judson in the New Yorker:
  • June 17: Darwinmania! Darwin got all the glory, but did he deserve it?
  • July 8: An Original Confession Many scientists admit that they’ve never read Darwin’s Origin of Species. What are they missing?
  • July 15: Let’s Get Rid of Darwinism Darwin lives on, and should, but for the sake of evolutionary studies the term “Darwinism” should be retired.
In the last article, Olivia Judson says that evolutionary biology should not be referred to as Darwinism because it makes it sound as if the science began and ended with Darwin, and as if it has not developed since Darwin. One commenter on the article also pointed out that it ignores the contribution of Alfred Russell Wallace. GeneXs at Witches and Scientists observed that the term 'Darwinism' is also "used nearly as a curse by Creationists, Young-earth Fundamentalists, and Dominionists". To my mind, calling a science an "-ism" makes it sound like a political ideology instead of a science. We don't call the physics of gravity "Newtonism" (though people do refer to Newtonian physics, I suppose). Of course Dawkins' new atheism is an ideology, and social Darwinism was an ideology (and a particularly unpleasant one at that), but evolutionary biology is a science, not an ideology, and therefore shouldn't be labelled as an -ism.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

memories of Cambridge

As Bo is moving to Cambridge, it brought back memories...

Cambridge is in many ways a strangely schizoid place. It is divided between town and gown - there's even a pub name commemorating this deep divide. The university was founded in the 14th century after some academics fled from Oxford after the people of Oxford rioted in protest against the oppressive behaviour of that university. Accordingly, the Cambridge colleges appear to have been built to withstand a siege; they have ditches and banks and cast-iron fences. They also own most of the river bank between Midsummer Common and Silver Street, and only members of the college can sit upon the hallowed lawns. That said, most of the colleges do let local residents into the tourist bits for free, which is nice. But the university once had enormous power. In the nineteenth century, an unaccompanied woman walking around at night could be arrested by the university proctors for soliciting.

I love the hidden corners of Cambridge, the architectural surprises. If you look up and in side streets, there are often quirky features of buildings - the gateway of Gonville and Caius college for example. There's also the splendid lamp-post in the middle of Parker's Piece, which traditionally has "REALITY CHECKPOINT" graffitied onto it. Last time I went, it was still there. Another architectural oddity is the Round Church, originally a Templar church; it has Romanesque architecture, but it's round. The Templars also had a cave in Royston - a bell-pit carved into the chalk which was rediscovered in the eighteenth century.

Then there's the stories that accumulate. Apparently Aleister Crowley was so smelly that his fellow students forced him to take a shower in the fountain of Trinity College; and Byron was so mad that he took showers there voluntarily. There's also a pool on the river Granta called Byron's Pool where he is supposed to have swum regularly. A popular Cambridge urban myth used to be the story that some students substituted a polystyrene ball for one of the stone balls on a bridge over the river Cam, and proceeded to push it off as a punt-load of other students was going underneath, causing them all to jump into the river. Another myth tells that one student dressed as a porter and another student walked across the lawn, complete with a sachet of fake blood under his shirt, and then the one dressed as a porter pulled out a fake gun and "shot" him, much to the consternation of a passing group of American tourists. Another story (untrue, alas) tells that Isaac Newton built the Mathematical Bridge without any bolts - it was just held together by geometry - and the other dons took it apart to see how he'd done it; but then they couldn't put it back together again without using nuts and bolts.

There are many literary associations in and around Cambridge. A E Housman was at Trinity. Rupert Brooke and Rose Macaulay used to hang out on Grantchester Meadows with their fellow "Neo-Pagans". Of course Brooke's poem about Grantchester is well-known (though its comic aspects are often forgotten), but he got the time wrong - the church clock was not stuck at ten to three, it was actually quarter to eight (but they moved the hands after he became famous for being a far-flung outpost of England in a foreign field). Aleister Crowley went to school in Bateman Street (but cursed anyone who looked upon the place; I'm doomed then, as I used to live two doors down from it) and later lived at 12 Portugal Place.

Grantchester Meadows are idyllic, and a great place for walks. I once went there to do a solo Midsummer ritual, and there was a party of hippies there playing the violin (rather well, I might add); quite magical.

Cambridge is also home to two fabulous museums: the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (like the Pitt-Rivers but bigger), and the Fitzwilliam Museum (which is like a mini-British Museum). I have spent many happy times there. The Fitzwilliam has a massive collection of Blake engravings which I never got to see; but I did see an exhibition of Hokusai there, and also paintings of Antarctica and volcanoes and stars by a wonderful artist whose name I forget. Another great place to visit is the Botanical Gardens; these used to be free of charge one day a week. They have enormous drifts of snowdrops and daffodils in spring, and a lovely grove of birch trees, and a brilliant winter garden with plants that have vivid colours in winter, like the beautiful Chinese rainbow birch.

Oddly two of the parks are named after Pagan festivals: Midsummer Common (where Strawberry Fair is held) and Lammas Land.

The pubs are quite characterful - I used to work in the Cambridge Blue (you had to have a degree to work there), and became good friends with the other bar staff, including Ruth Bagnall (sadly no longer with us) and Jane W, who then went on to work in the Boat Race as a music promoter. I tended to go in the pubs around Mill Road, but there are other good ones in the town centre. There's also a brilliant vegetarian place just up the road from King's College called the Rainbow Café. I sometimes went to the Tap and Spile, and once was playfully pushed into the river by a former Pink Floyd roadie while I was holding a pint of bitter. If I hadn't been holding a pint, I would only have gone in up to my ankles, but since I was trying to balance the pint I ended up sitting in the water (didn't spill a drop of the pint though). So I went for a quick swim in the river, and then climbed out and gave the said roadie a big wet hug, so he was almost as wet as me.

Bookshops are plentiful, as you might expect. The Libra-Aries bookshop on Mill Road is the Pagan and alternative bookshop. It wasn't there when I lived in Cambridge but we met the owners at a Pagan event a couple of years ago; they are lovely and very knowledgeable. In my day, the Pagan bookshop was the Ninth Wave (named after the Kate Bush song). In the centre of town, there's Heffers and the Cambridge University Press bookshop.

Some of the college chapels are wonderful - I went to a Tallis concert in Trinity chapel once, and the acoustic was amazing and made the music pour down the walls and float into your ears like a pale blue crystalline mist. Trinity chapel also has a Baroque interior and a black-and-white tiled floor. The atmosphere in the chapel of "Porterhouse" is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

I loved Cambridge, but it wasn't a good place for jobs unless you were a Cambridge graduate - that's why the landlord of the Cambridge Blue could stipulate that bar staff must have a degree. I applied for a PhD once, but the interviewer spent most of the interview staring at the ceiling, except when I told him I read French and German. I didn't get in. It could be frustrating sometimes, being on the outside of a hive of intellectual activity, unable to participate. However, I did write my first two books while living in Cambridge, got involved in Wicca there, and had a relationship with a wonderful bloke with whom I moved to Scotland in 1994. We split up eventually (in part because he didn't get Paganism) but I wish him well.

Friday, July 04, 2008

care of your geek

There are numerous guides available to living with a geek; there's even a book.
Most of these guides are written as if the geek in question is male; however there is some awareness of female geeks, particularly in the book.

If you think you may be a geek, there's a diagnostic tool available from just say hi, and a more comprehensive one available from innergeek (but slightly biased towards a US audience). My latest geek score from innergeek is 37.08087% (major geek); JustSayHi rates me as 72% geeky.

Because we all know that the geek shall inherit the earth.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Monsieur Tête de Pomme de Terre

A new toy has appeared on teh interwebs: Mr Picassohead. It's basically Mr Potatohead for the art appreciation fraternity. You can use it to produce Picasso-esque drawings. Here's mine.

Have a browse through the gallery, too - there are some amazing pictures in there.

Via {feuilleton}

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

new poetry blog

I have created a blog just for my poetry, so you don't have to search for it on my website and my various blogs. It's called Le Beau Ténébreux.

Le Beau TénébreuxThis is the place where I will post my new poetry (and some of my old poetry when I get time). Le Beau Ténébreux is the nickname of the main character in the book What's Bred in the Bone, part of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies. It seemed like an apt description for my muse, who usually appears as a dark man with an air of mystery (and no, he does not bring me chocolates).

poetic technique

If I hear one more person saying "I only like poetry that rhymes", I swear I will scream. There is so much more to poetic technique than mere rhyme.

So, in an effort to educate, entertain, and inform, I present the beginner's guide to poetry:
  • Assonance is repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences, for example:
    That solitude which suits abstruser musings - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Alliteration is the repetition of the first consonant sound in a phrase; it was very popular in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic poetry. For example:
    He aerest sceop aelda bearnum
    Heofon to hrofe Halig Scyppend

    ~ Caedmon's Hymn
  • A caesura is an audible pause or break in a line of poetry (used in Greek, Latin, French, Old English and Middle English poetry), for example in the opening line of Beowulf:
    Hwæt! we Gar-Dena || on geardagum
  • Consonance is like assonance but involves the repetition of consonants instead of vowels, as in "zig-zag" or "pitter-patter".
  • Haiku is a Japanese form with 5-7-5 syllables, and includes a kireji (cutting word) and a kigo (season-related expression); in scifaiku the kigo is replaced by an SF-related concept.
  • Metaphor is language that directly compares seemingly unrelated subjects; for example:
    My love is like a red red rose. (Burns)
    Metaphors can be distinguished from other closely related rhetorical concepts such as metonym, synecdoche, simile, allegory and parable.
  • Then there's metre. At this point, we require a little assistance from a certain Mr Coleridge - take it away, Sam:
    Trochee trips from long to short;
    From long to long in solemn sort
    Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yet ill able
    Ever to come up with Dactyl's trisyllable.
    Iambics march from short to long.
    With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng.
    One syllable long, with one short at each side,
    Amphibrachys hastes with a stately stride --
    First and last being long, middle short, Amphimacer
    Strikes his thundering hoofs like a proud high-bred Racer.

    If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise,
    And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies;
    Tender warmth at his heart, with these meters to show it,
    WIth sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet --
    May crown him with fame, and must win him the love
    Of his father on earth and his father above.
    My dear, dear child!
    Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge
    See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. Colerige.
    ˘ = short syllable,
    ¯ = long syllable
    (macron and breve notation)

    ˘ ˘ pyrrhus, dibrach
    ˘ ¯ iamb
    ¯ ˘ trochee, choree
    ¯ ¯ spondee

    ˘ ˘ ˘ tribrach
    ¯ ˘ ˘ dactyl
    ˘ ¯ ˘ amphibrach
    ˘ ˘ ¯ anapest, antidactylus
    ˘ ¯ ¯ bacchius
    ¯ ¯ ˘ antibacchius
    ¯ ˘ ¯ cretic, amphimacer
    ¯ ¯ ¯ molossus

    In French (and Baroque German), there is also the Alexandrine, a line of twelve syllables, usually with a caesura between the sixth and seventh syllables. Corneille and Racine used the Alexandrine a lot.
  • There are many poetic forms (types of poem with specific rhyme schemes and metres):
  • Rhyme is much more complex than you might think:
    • masculine: a rhyme in which the stress is on the final syllable of the words. (rhyme, sublime, crime)
    • feminine: a rhyme in which the stress is on the penultimate (second from last) syllable of the words. (picky, tricky, sticky, icky)
    • dactylic: a rhyme in which the stress is on the antepenultimate (third from last) syllable ('cacophonies", "Aristophanes")

    In the general sense, "rhyme" can refer to various kinds of phonetic similarity between words, and to the use of such similar-sounding words in organizing verse. Rhymes in this general sense are classified according to the degree and manner of the phonetic similarity:

    • syllabic: a rhyme in which the last syllable of each word sounds the same but does not necessarily contain vowels. (cleaver, silver, or pitter, patter)
    • imperfect: a rhyme between a stressed and an unstressed syllable. (wing, caring)
    • semirhyme: a rhyme with an extra syllable on one word. (bend, ending)
    • oblique (or slant): a rhyme with an imperfect match in sound. (green, fiend)
    • half rhyme (or sprung rhyme): matching final consonants. (bent, ant)
  • Rhyme schemes are also important; let us fly free from the tedious imprisonment of AABB and discover the joys of Chant royal, Clerihew, Sestina, Terza rima, and many more. Here's an example of the sonnet form: Wyatt's Farewell Love and all thy laws for ever.

All of which reminds me that I am only scratching the surface with my poetic technique; but at least I am aware of these things. You cannot break the rules of a craft or art without first knowing how to work within them.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Olafur Eliasson

The New York Times has some photos of Olafur Eliasson's work, in particular this one of his 2003 installation at the Tate Modern, which was awesome. The best thing about it was the mirrored ceiling, which meant that people could become part of the artwork by lying on the floor in strange formations, waving their arms and making star shapes with their friends. It was like some bizarre ritual, and very meditative. The best bit was that people didn't seem to mind doing all this in front of complete strangers, which just goes to show that the English are perhaps not as reserved as has been claimed.

You can see people making funny shapes in the photo on the right.

{feuilleton} has details of Eliasson's latest work, New York City Waterfalls (worth a look).