Sunday, 18 November 2012

Surround sound

First there was one bell.  It wasn't the tone of a church bell nor a small tinkling sound - and it didn't come from the usual chords of the musical stave.  It came from somewhere behind me, compelling and mysterious.  

After a while another bell joined it.  Then I saw the musicians, entering the theatre from different points but creating working together to create a soundscape in which they and the audience existed together.  It was as though we entered another form of space, a place in which sound was chief among the senses.

At last the four musicians stood together on the stage, playing their bells - Ghanaian instruments in music which came, I think, from the Siwe people.  By this time I was in the place that they had created.  And this was just the beginning of the concert by ensemblebash at Nottingham's Lakeside arts centre.

I first encountered ensemblebash a couple of years ago, at Ignite, an exceptional free festival in Covent Garden's Royal Opera House.  They were performing for free, sometimes joined by pianist Joanna MacGregor.  If I'd been asked in advance, I wouldn't have thought a percussion quartet would be much to my taste.  But it was free and gave me chance for a sit-down so I settled down with an audience which ranged from small children to regular opera-goers and prepared to give ensemblebash a courteous hearing.  I was soon entranced and excited - and so, I think, was everyone else who had crowded in to listen.  This was performance with wit, intensity and magic - like nothing I had heard before.  So when I saw that ensemblebash were finally visiting the East Midlands I had to be there.

I knew some of the music from ensemblebash's recent album, A Doll's House.  But listening to a CD on fairly unsophisticated equipment is quite different from hearing pieces by David Bedford and Howard Skempton in a theatre - not to mention the added dimension of seeing them performed.  With percussion the visual element is a particularly important extra dimension, whether it comes from watching four players hovering over a single marimba, the blowing of a conch shell or the way music can be made from a donkey's jaw-bone.  The absurd and hilarious dinner-party of Stephen Montague's Chew Chow Chatterbox, in which the musicians use voice, chopsticks, bowls, wine glasses and bottles, couldn't work half as well in a recording as on stage since the players enact the roles of host and dinner guests.

I loved the varied programme which ranged from Peter Garland's delicate variations in a single chord in Apple Blossom to an arrangement of free-form jazz evolved from Max Roach's improvisation with other drummers.  As I lived in the world of sound, I found my emotions shifting from moment to moment in response to the music.  At times it even seemed that I could see the sound hovering like a cloud above the players as they made the air vibrate.

The evening ended with an exuberant performance of John Cage's Third Construction, using a range of found (but carefully-tuned) instruments.  And I bought two more ensemblebash CDs.  The CDs may not match up to the wonders of performance but they have introduced me to still more percussion music and have already been a source of considerable pleasure and well worth the money I spent.  The CDs will have to suffice until ensemblebash return to the East Midlands.  I hope they come back soon.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The satyr dances

I don't feel comfortable in Piccadilly.  It's the province of the rich, who can afford its casual extravagances.  Suited and cloaked doormen - they are always men - stand at the entrances of buildings.  I would be reluctant to risk their contempt.  In Piccadilly, Fortnum and Mason's is mid-range while Pret-a-Manger is dangerously down-market.

It's partly my uneasiness with Piccadilly that keeps me away from the Royal Academy exhibitions, and partly the high cost of admission.  It's expensive even with an Art Fund card.  But when I saw the picture of the dancing satyr, I knew I had to brave Piccadilly, pay the admission price and see the exhibition in which he appeared.  It's called "Bronze" and bronze is the linking motif between all the exhibits.  It's about the material and its qualities rather than a period of history or changes in ideas.  Its focus is what stays the same.

 It's not just the material that is a constant in the exhibition.  There was also a repeated response to it from numerous visitors throughout the exhibition.  The gasps of awed admiration began as visitors opened the door to the exhibition and saw the first piece: the dancing satyr, in a room by himself.

The satyr is a recent discovery, found by fishermen in the sea off Sicily only fifteen years ago.  He's slightly larger than life-size and displayed so that viewers have to look up to him.  After his long immersion in salt-water, he's acquired a greenish patina and a slight roughness.  This only seems to aid the satyr's fluid movement.  It's as though his ecstatic dance continued without pause, whether he moved through air or water.  There's a smoothness about the curve of the limbs and body that made me want to reach out and touch him - but the flung-back head and the blank eyes speak of possession and tell the watcher to keep a distance.

So awe was there at the beginning and it continued.  There are massive statues: of saints, statesmen and peasants.  There is even Rodin's Age of Bronze which conveys uses the material to convey masculinity - or perhaps masculinity to convey the material.  There are tiny works.  Perhaps the most disturbing are the tiny copulating grasshoppers, whose image was cast by encasing them in molten metal.  There are gods and domestic objects.  Men ride horses, and panthers, battle monsters,  suffer agonies of torture or gaze sternly on the world.

Women are less in evidence.  There are goddesses and rulers; a stern and prickly Catherine de Medici, showing off the fashion of the day, is particularly memorable.  There are grief-stricken madonnas and a wonderful South Indian sculpture of the infant Krishna with his wet-nurse Mukhara.  And there are objects of desire - often small pieces presumably intended for private collectors.  Venus (naked, of course) removes a thorn from her foot, a satyr uncovers a sleeping nymph and, in another piece, a satyr and nymph are engaged in enthusiastic sexual intimacy.  It's a mark of the exhibition's focus on the craft of casting that my first thought on seeing this explicit and detailed piece was awe at the skill involved in creating so fragile a scenario in bronze.  Most of the workers in bronze have traditionally been men, so far as we can tell, but two twentieth-century pieces by women sculptors had a considerable impact: a large Louise Bourgeois spider mounted high on the wall and a curved abstract piece by Barbara Hepworth, which seemed to echo the sea evoked in the dancing satyr.

It's impossible to go into detail about all that is wonderful in an exhibition so far-ranging.  The Royal Academy has borrowed pieces from many parts of the world, inviting viewers to make comparisons across cultures and time.  I found myself particularly struck by a small chariot from Denmark made of bronze and gold in the 14th century B.C.  No-one knows its purpose or why the horse is placed within the chariot rather than pulling it along.  It is tiny, delicate and magical in its incomprehensibility - and the gilding on the circle which may be a sun, a shield or a great wheel is a thing of wonder.  And, as the films shown in the exhibition display, it was probably made by one of the two main methods still in use all over the world today.

Coming away from this exhibition, I knew it had changed something in the way in which I saw the world.  It had encouraged me to make comparisons and connections across cultures.  It had helped me look at art through the materials it uses rather than just the period in which it was made.  And it showed me the flexibility of that material in conveying a huge range of emotions and evoking numerous responses.  I wondered if there was any emotion it could not show or evoke.  Then I realised what was missing from that range which included desire, ecstasy, pride, fear, admiration and awe.  A word trickled into my mind and reminded me that one emotion and response had been absence.  Maybe bronze is for every emotion, every response - except love.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

After, and before

A colleague showed us a video from youtube.  A newly-married couple came out of a church.  The camera panned along the street.  There was a brief glimpse of a young girl looking out of a window, curious to see what was happening.  She could have been any girl of 12 or 13, watching the adult world and anticipating her own future.    This young girl's life is well-documented and her diary is translated into numerous languages.  Her name was Anne Frank.  She wasn't quite sixteen years old when she died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

For most of the photographs of August Sander, now on display at Leicester's New Walk Museum, as part of a touring exhibition sponsored by the Art Fund, viewers can know little of how people began or ended.  Sander's initial aim was to present a study of German life, using individuals to represent different types within German society.  But however determined Sander's categorisation, the people he photographed resist being mere types.  Some perform their occupations, often surprisingly.  A farmer in the 1920s still ploughs with oxen  Another, in 1952, sows seed by hand, scattering it from a basket.  Others pose with the implements of their trade.  Almost all gaze straight into the camera, leaving the viewer with no more information that the brief labels provide.  The more I look, the more I understand the impossibility of reading a whole human being from a face.

I never have the sense that Sander's photography mocks or diminishes its subjects.  I always see them as complex, interesting human beings.  If I wish, I can build stories.  I have to set those stories in the time through which they lived.  Almost all of them were confronted by the dilemmas and persecutions of Nazism.  But when I start wondering "How did that farm-worker vote?" or "What did that woman do when the Nazis came to power?" I can't answer the questions I want to ask.  People's actions don't always harmonize with their faces.  An SS officer in one of the photos of Nazis looks benevolent and slightly unsure of himself.  His uniform does not.

I can and do make guesses.  Some of the circus people in the photo above are plainly not Aryans.  I hope they got away.  I would like to imagine a happy future for the gypsies, the children with severe disabilities, those who are simply labelled "persecuted people" or "political prisoners."  But I know most didn't get away.  The exhibition ends with a portrait of the death mask of Sander's son Erich, who died towards the end of his ten-year jail sentence.  Escapes are temporary.  None of us ever walks out of history or politics, however hard we try.  I wonder what future generations will think, if they ever look back on photographs, film and videos of the time in which we live.

August Sander didn't lead the life that was mapped out for him at childhood.  He was supposed to be a miner.  One day, working at the mine, he helped a visiting photographer and looked through the lens of a camera.  He never forgot what he saw - the sky, the movement of clouds.  That moment gave birth to one of the great photographers of the twentieth century.  He was part of his time but the records he made speak to the future.

I have paid one visit to the August Sander exhibition so far.  I hope to visit at least once a week while the exhibition is in Leicester.  I want to look more closely at many of the portraits.  I would like to commit them to memory, which is another way of letting the people of the past live on.  I also want to spend more time on Sander's pictures of human hands and of landscapes.

But I can't spend too long in the gallery with Sander's pictures.  There's too much humanity there, real people set to face a dreadful future.  

I think if I stayed too long, I would cry.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

An opening

Cynic though I sometimes am, I warmed to the Olympics opening ceremony.   Yes, I know it cost a lot and I know the performers were volunteers and that there are numerous problems with corporate sponsors and the treatment of dissent.  I might not have watched the ceremony had my daughter not been one of the volunteers but, once I'd got used to the style, I found a great deal to love.

It's easy to be critical of the account of history, especially since there was so little time and so much was going on.  I glimpsed the suffragettes but only learned later that the Jarrow marchers were also present.  Perhaps the Chartists were somewhere around though I don't think the Tolpuddle martyrs or the Diggers were included.  They didn't represent the the Commonwealth either - perhaps the execution of Charles I was judged unsuitable for all sorts of reasons - and Britain's uncomfortable colonial history was omitted.  But Blake's "Jerusalem" made a good starting point and the complexity of the Industrial Revolution - with its excitement, achievement and damage - was stupendous.  I'm still thinking about the implications of conflating Shakespeare's Caliban with Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Perhaps because it appeals so strongly to my imagination, it's made a slight adjustment to my views of the 19th century.

I expect most viewers took what they wanted from the ceremony.  Some of my friends lauded J.K. Rowling. There was great enthusiasm for James Bond, the Queen and the corgis.  Mr Bean had even more fans than Simon Rattle.  I was thrilled to see a huge CND symbol in the arena, even though I understand that it was there as part of the history of Britain in the late twentieth ceremony.  But a huge number of people were excited when the letters "NHS" appeared.  Most people in Britain still agree that being able to go to the doctor and be treated in hospital when necessary without worrying about money is one of the great achievements of Britain's welfare state.  As the story of the health service was entangled with children's books, it wasn't surprising that villains from children's literature appeared to attack children in hospital nor that nurses and a number of Mary Poppinses finally defeated Lord Voldemort.

But perhaps the best thing about the opening ceremony was that it showed so many people what they love about Britain: its countryside, its industrial achievement; its literature;  its music; and above all the huge mixture of ordinary people who mostly live happily together, enjoy life and like one another.  It was an optimistic and hopeful picture of life here today, appropriate for the short period in which, in theory, there should be an Olympic peace.  I liked the way the peacemakers handed the Olympic flag to representatives of the armed forces, because, if we're ever to build peace, we'd be wise to involve armies in the movement away from violence.  

The parade of the athletes, many grinning broadly as they entered the stadium, fitted well with the show as a whole.  I know it's not always like this but I'd like to think of the Olympics as somewhere in which competitors form friendships across national boundaries and despite suspicion and conflict.  I'm also happy to celebrate the huge variety of people who take part in sports for love of it and who often aren't very well-known.  Since I joined a fencing club, I've learned about the amount of dedication shown by people in "minority" sports.  At my fencing club the coaches are unpaid (but qualified) volunteers and members of the committee donate their skills in such roles as web-designer, accountant, social secretary and armourer so that the club can keep its fees down and welcome members of the basis of interest.  It's given me a great respect for people involved in sport.

It seems that Danny Boyle's vision is one of peace, freedom and equality - one in which the contributions of all people are valued.  It's a fantasy, of course, and I see the strength of the objections.  People say it all costs too much in an age of austerity,  that it's a bit unreal and that sport isn't for everyone.  People quote Juvenal and talk about "bread and circuses" - some of them go on to ask "where's the bread?"  I can see their point.  They see sport and the arts as an extravagance when we need to to campaign once more: for the health service, for workers' rights, for food for the hungry, for an end to torture and oppression, for the welfare state, for equality, for freedom. I want all those things but I want circuses as well.  

Juvenal saw bread and circuses as something that distracted the people from Rome's serious political purposes.  He didn't like the people much.  For him they were the enemy of political decency - and he didn't reckon he belonged among them.  But I am happy to be one of "the people."  For me there's a different way of expressing what I want.  Just over a hundred years ago a poem declared that a life devoted to work and survival was not enough.  Two lines have often been repeated:

 Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
 Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

 I want a world in which people experience delight as well as having enough to eat.  I don't think art and sport necessarily turn us into passive consumers of whatever the government says.  They can bring people together and widen their knowledge and understanding of the world.  They can set the imagination and intelligence alight, and bring people who would not normally encounter one another the joy of engaging in a shared activity.  They can give us some idea of how much better the world might be, even though they leave us with the task of achieving it.  

Photo by Nick Webb, courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A touch of class

I haven't read Shades of Grey.  Having seen numerous blogs and articles about the book, I used Amazon's "look inside" feature to get some idea about it - and I peeked inside a copy in Waterstone's.  At my age, I don't need to worry what other people think of me, and I expect fellow travellers assume I'm reading erotica when they see me with my kobo.  (At the moment I have James Joyce's Ulysses open and Zola's L'Argent - both pretty dodgy books in their way and immensely enjoyable.)

However the fuss about Shades of Grey has led me to think about the kind of book it is.  It's fanfic, obviously - and because it's Twilight fanfic it's not much to my taste.  It's porn so not rooted in realism or good writing.  And it's also romance with all the usual baggage that entails.  Its heroine is young, innocent and adoring while the hero is enormously rich, terrifically sexy, and enormously damaged.  Her role is to rescue and adore him.  His role is to give her extravagant presents, including - and this is where I'm almost hooked - a valuable first edition.

Romance is an odd genre with a curious descent.  Part of it is a male genre - it comes from the seduction narratives of courtly romance.  In these the woman are praised for their exceptional beauty and virtue.  There are traces of this in Elizabethan sonnet sequences.  Shakepseare's sonnets reverse some of the usual conventions; the fair youth is praised for beauty and virtue while the dark lady is seen as both desirable and dangerous.  This enables Shakespeare to emphasise another aspect of this kind of romance: the suffering endured by the male lover. 

Romance also has roots in the spiritual journals often kept by Puritans.  This may sound unlikely but, because they were concerned with the soul and the interior life, spiritual journals naturally recorded emotions.  Samuel Richardson's 18th-century novel Pamela, which is clearly a fore-runner of today's romantic novels, comes out of that tradition, with its focus on the struggles of a very young maidservant to retain her virtue as he male employer makes repeated attempts to seduce and rape her.  In the end her virtue and beauty win him over.  Richardson was an influence on Jane Austen, who turned his third novel, Sir Charles Grandison, into a play, and I think it likely that the plots of his novels, if not the novels themselves, influenced Charlotte and Anne Bronte.

It's also common to find the roots of contemporary romantic fiction in fairy tales, particularly those written or adapted by Perrault, such as "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty".  But although the structure of these stories is quite like contemporary romantic fiction, the stories themselves lack two aspects that are key to romance as written today.  They don't have an interior narrative and the women tend to be curiously passive in terms of the romance plot.  The heroines marry princes because that is expected of them and not because they love or desire princes.  Fairy stories of this era are largely concerned with actions and appearances.  The feelings of the character are irrelevant.

Contemporary romance has quite a lot going for it.  It values women's feelings and says that their desires are important.  It also suggests that the choice of a partner is both difficult and important.  However, there are also shortcomings to the form.  It tends to treat the achievement of a partnership or marriage as the culmination of women's lives, though sometimes there is a brief epilogue, usually involving pregnancy or the birth of a child.  Plainly this ignores most of women's lives and relationships.

Heterosexual romantic fiction (the vast majority) has another worrying aspect.  The hero is typically richer, more powerful, older and taller than the heroine - and usually of a higher social class.  The attraction of the heroine is almost always based on a combination of innocence (not necessarily virginity but relative inexperience), modesty (she doesn't realise how attractive she is) and adoration of the hero despite his flaws.  But while the heroine looks up to the hero, she is often also a mother-substitute who tends to some hidden anguish or moral flaw - she has to heal him while she adores him.  The heroine is permitted some liveliness of speech - today she is often characterised as "feisty" - and she is allowed a character and a career.  But the only model for romance that women are offered involved both admiring and tending to the hero.

There's nothing wrong with admiring some aspects of a partner.  Indeed, it's pretty normal given that adults prefer partners of whom they think well.  And there's certainly nothing wrong with caring for a partner who is in need of care.  But there's something wrong with the kind of transaction romance offers if on one side the man provides money and power while the woman offers adoration and nurturing.  It's not an equal relationship - and surely all of us, men and women, want more than that, even in our fantasies.

It was reasonable for Elizabeth Bennett to fall in love with Mr Darcy when she saw what a big house he owned.  In the early 19th century a woman of her class without much money was much better off if she could marry a fortune.  In the mid 19th century, Jane Eyre followed the conventions of her time by insisting on legal marriage, although her inherited wealth would have passed to Mr Rochester when that marriage took place.  Perhaps it was as well that, when they finally married, he was maimed and even less attractive than before.

But isn't it time for a different kind of romance in which the partners share what money they have - and it may not be much - and help and nurture one another?  I recall the ideal of a loving, equal comradeship, which was not unknown when I was younger.  It's present even in some unexpected 19th century novels.Perhaps the most unexpected is Dickens' Little Dorrit, with its conclusion of a marriage in which both partners together "Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness", without the corruption of great wealth.  Although the novel ends with marriage, it doesn't treat that marriage as the culmination of the characters' lives.  Instead it indicated that they have a future.  

The final sentence is one of my favourite endings of any novel: 

"They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted and chafed, and made their usual uproar.

That's the kind of partnership in which I'd like to believe - and it may be a more enjoyable and plausible one to imagine in these difficult times.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Saying [uz]

I didn't mean to go to London. I'd thought about Tony Harrison's poetry reading. I saw it advertised and considered buying a ticket. Then I realise it was on the evening of a day when I was working and that I'd have to rush to London after work and get home again the same evening. I thought about how tired I'd be, and how much the train tickets would cost. Plainly it wasn't sensible.

I blame Twitter for what happened next. I just glanced at my Twitterfeed – I don't have time to read every tweet of every person I follow – and saw a quiz question from the Poetry Society, offering tickets to Tony Harrison's reading as a prize. I knew the answer. I didn't stop to think but tweeted back to them – and won the prize. A journey to London still didn't seem sensible but, after a little dithering, I began to realise it was inevitable. I wanted to go.

I first became aware of Tony Harrison as a playwright and translator. I was still at school when I saw his translation of The Misanthrope – into heroic couplets, I think – at the Old Vic. It was clear and witty. It was more than a translation; instead of its original setting in the time of Louis XIV, Moliere's play was transposed to the Paris of Charles de Gaulle. And despite the outstanding acting of Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg, what struck me most was the pulse and neatness of the verse.

Harrison's poetry took longer to reach me. My reading has always been a chancy affair. Then I chose books following from the advice of others, because a couple of lines quoted in a review startled me into a response, or because of an encounter in a library or bookshop. I found Tony Harrison's collection Continuous in a second-hand shop and, in a quick glance through the poems, realised that there was something in the voice that interested me. It took me a while to read more but, as I did, I recognized not only the complexity and the wordplay. This was a poet who was saying something important – and something that mattered to me.

Harrison's work is grounded in his two experiences I share: a sense – emphasised by certain teachers at his schools – that he could never fit into the cultural life of his country because he was born into the working class, and a yearning to acquire knowledge and articulate it. These experiences are part of what fuels his sequence from the School of Eloquence but they are amplified by his awareness that in gaining the education he desired he lost the close communication with his parents that he knew in childhood.

I'm not sure how much that was caused by education. Children often do find a separation from their parents and education may be merely a convenient way to name it. However when a child begins to move in cultural circles which are peopled mainly by those who seem rich and self-confident, the child's apparent confidence among such people can add to the parents' sense of awkwardness, even as they enjoy their child's success. When that is allied, as so much is in Britain, to a rigid class system, the high class barriers – which really do exist – are bound to underline and intensify the separation of child and parent.

Harrison's reading at the Purcell Room began with some of his public poems, which characteristically move from a small personal perception: in one poem the starting point is fish-scales scattered as cormorants fly with gasping fish in the sky above Lindisfarne Castle. From this sight, glimpsed through a train window, the poem moves to consider history, war, politics and the tragedies of past and present life.

The length, scope and formal exactness of his public poems - often published on the news pages of a newspaper - makes them unusual. When Harrison said that his chief influence and model for these works was the messenger's speech in Greek tragedy, I suddenly understood what he was doing much more clearly. The messenger, who arrives towards the end of the play to explain what has happened, is not a major actor in events. He is someone who is on the edge of the action, who is not in himself particularly important but whose role is to tell what he has seen as he saw it. It's a good position for a political poet since it is neither powerful nor directly preachy. It is based in the “I” of personal experience.

I was glad that Harrison's reading included some sonnets from the School of Eloquence sequence. They are what is known as “Meredithian sonnets” and have sixteen lines instead of the usual fourteen. This allows for a more sustained conclusion or reversal than is possible in the fourteen lines of the Shakespearean sonnet. The poems were interspersed with illuminating anecdotes. Before reading “Classics Society,” Harrison explained that, as a schoolboy, he was instructed to translate all Greek and Latin into a high-flown language. This led to some absurdities. Translating a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus, Harrison had a character who was the Roman equivalent of a policeman saying “Move along there.” The schoolmaster crossed this through and substituted the more elevated command: “Vacate the thoroughfare.”

Harrison also recalled overhearing a woman in the audience for The Misanthrope say (and I paraphrase from memory for I was listening too intently to take notes): “What a command of the English language, my dear – even though he comes from Sheffield” This led Harrison to address the question of his own articulacy. He added to the little poem “Heredity” the recollection of his father's deep shyness.

This made me return with renewed understanding to Harrison's concern to speak for the working class now and in history. The idea of someone speaking on behalf of a class makes me uneasy. I think that the problem is not so much that the working class are silent but that they are often unheard. The problem lies with the powerful who may mock but rarely listen.

But I share is Harrison's anger – an anger which plainly lives on. I have heard recordings of Harrison reading his paired sonnets “Them and [uz]” but I have never heard such anger in them. Harrison takes the teacher's contempt for him and his Leeds accent, expressed in the lines “You're one of those/ Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose” and turns it back against the teacher, using his knowledge to insist that poetry does not come only in Received Pronunciation. The voices of poets of the past have, as Harrison says, been “dubbed” into RP as a foreign language film is dubbed into English – and much is lost in the translation.

I can't give details of all Harrison said or all that he read. I was moved – as he was – by the poems grieving at his parents' deaths. There was also a more hopeful poem – though against a dark backdrop – which Harrison had addressed to his grandson Alfie. On this occasion he read it for the first time at a reading with his grandson in the audience. But one of the final poems came from a play – Harrison's adaptation of Sophocles' Trackers of Oxyrhyncus, which exists only in fragments of papyrus. I have neither seen nor read the play but when I heard the speech I wondered how I could have missed it.

 Harrison's introduction explained that the play had made allusions to the cardboard city that grew up beneath Waterloo Bridge and in other sheltered spaces on the South Bank in the 1980s. It was where the homeless lived and established a community. I remember walking past on occasions; it was not a dangerous place. In the end they were moved on, their homes were dismantled and the area was cleansed. I don't know where the people went.

But the fate of cardboard city and its people was beyond the scope or Harrison's reading. Instead he offered a speech in voice of the satyr Silenus, brother of Marsyas, who was flayed alive on the command of Apollo for daring to learn to play the flute. The satyrs – half man, half goat – are allowed to be comical and inexpert but the Olympian gods will not permit them to be are capable of art and culture. In the speech Apollo stands by, playing the lute as Marsyas is tortured to death. At the end of the speech Silenus resolves to conform and know his place – to take the safe option.

It's a while since Harrison has given public readings. He claims that he was prompted to resume by the discovery that newspapers are updating his obituaries ready for use. But judging from this reading, he's still unwilling to take the safe option. His anger persists and he still uses his poetry as a weapon to attack cruelty and injustice. And the rhythms still sing and the words play on.

 My very brief visit to London brought another joy.  For the first time in more than thirty-five years I encountered the English teacher who taught and encouraged me in my last year and a half at school.  She was also at the reading.  She was an excellent teacher who shared her love of literature and I owe her a very great deal.  Thank you, Miss Hann.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Professional demands

I do not want to be called "professional."

Some of my friends and most of my colleagues think this is odd.  After all, the word "professional" is a term of praise - isn't it?  

But if you go back a little bit, you can find other uses of the term.  There are many theological attacks on those who are called "mere professors of religion."  They are seen as people whose entire concern is with formalities and outward show rather than real belief and action.  Within my lifetime the term "professional woman" signified a prostitute.  And the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers a sense in which "professional" is uncomplimentary, giving examples of people who treat themselves as commodities.  One of the examples is the old term "professional beauty."   

It may seem rather strange to go back to earlier meanings of the word.  We all know that language develops and words change their meaning.  But in an important sense, those older meanings of the words cling around the term "professional".  

I'm not so worried about the idea that people are paid.  I like my job - well, most of it - but I do it for money and I don't need to be coy about the fact.  If I weren't paid I couldn't do it.  But jobs - particularly those jobs that are labelled "professional" - can take more than the energy and dedication with which most employees perform their primary work.  They can, by degrees, sap the integrity of those who work.

Behaving in a "professional manner" often means acquiring a veneer of false confidence which creates a distance between the "professional" and any member of the public.  This isn't something that I would always criticize.  When I go to see my doctor, for instance, I accept that she will adopt a confident and reassuring manner, even if she's just had a bad weekend and is personally feeling a little unsure of herself.  I don't mind the distance either.  She really can't ask all her patients to be her personal friends.  But I hope her determination to appear confident never gets the better of her honesty.  If one day she can't work out what is wrong with me, she'd do best tell me so and send me for tests elsewhere. 

While professionalism distances professionals from the public, it also draws professionals together in their workplace and can begin to separate them from the world in which others live.  Here it can be closely related to the kind of corporate loyalty which leads employees to forget to question what they are doing and why.  An inside account from an unnamed bank suggests how easily a number of professionals forgot about the ethics of banking practice and their responsibility to the wider society.  Instead they showed their loyalty to the well-being - primarily the financial well-being - of their employer and, as a group of professionals, broke the law.  Manipulating the Libor rate had an effect on the wider economy and on numerous individuals but some of the professional employees of the banks involved put the banks' interests first.  They placed the good of a corporation and the good opinion of their colleagues above the good of individuals.  They may also have broken the law, though that isn't yet clear. 
Almost all employers have a rule somewhere that employees must not damage the reputation of the company or institution for which they work.  It's a vague rule which employees have come to accept - not that they have much choice.   But what does that rule really mean?  

I take for granted the idea that I shouldn't tell lies about my employer and that I should behave in a reasonable way and work hard at my job.  I worry that the reputation rule may give my employer the right to police my private life or my public life away from work.  Suppose I, acting in a private capacity, go on a demonstration against the government or the arms trade, and am recognized by someone who knows me through my job.  Would this be regarded as bringing my employer into disrepute?  If my employer were dependent on government funds and good will, or if my employer wanted to make money by hosting a reception for arms traders, I might find myself in a difficult position.  I hope the clause doesn't extend so far.  If it does, it gives government and global corporations a very easy way of stifling dissent.  And it means that an employer can control my free time as well as my working hours.

But what if I wanted to tell the truth about my employer?  There are circumstances in which honesty would be seen as "unprofessional."  So would whistle-blowing, although society as a whole owes a great deal to whistle-blowers who have seen where their wider loyalty lies. 

The best employers I have worked for have encouraged open discussion and haven't been afraid of criticism.  They create an atmosphere in which the workers do their best but know that they aren't perfect.  Anyone who needs help or advice can ask for it.  If a worker sees that something isn't working, that worker is free to say so.  The aim is not to hide behind the mask of professionalism but to do the work as well as possible.

These days, however, the market is more firmly and forcefully present.  Everything seems to be for sale: sport, arts, education, health.  Every public good is forced into competition and instructed to sell itself and explain its value in solely economic terms.  Organisations concerned with sport, arts, education and health are told that their primary aim is to acquire customers, and that the approval of those customers is the means to acquire and retain sponsorship.  Every school and GP's surgery is busy competing with others and every sports team and art gallery spends days and weeks writing funding bids, surveying customer opinion and producing the kind of jargon that will enable them to keep going. 

No-one tells employees to lie but the rhetoric everywhere is about "marketing," "branding," "presentation" and "networking."  Apparently these are key elements of professionalism.  In these panicked times they make employees look inward, focus their attention on the survival of their own jobs, and discourage them from looking at any question larger than the immediate good of their own company or institution.  When the competition is so fierce, there's a danger that the competition will focus only on the first impressions of the "customer," whether a patient, a parent, a pupil, an enthusiast for museums or the local football team.  There's no time to consider the longer term or the good of the "customer" in five or ten years. 

But humans have a tendency to ask questions and make ethical judgements.  I can't stop questioning what my work is for and what its value is, and should be, in society.  These are difficult questions and may produce answers that go against my personal interests and the interests of my employer.  It's a dangerous path.  If I think too much, I may find myself saying something my employer doesn't like.  I could even be accused of damaging my employer's reputation.  Yet I believe in freedom of speech and I believe in speaking the truth.  It's a matter of integrity - and, next to integrity, professionalism looks pretty hollow.

 I hope my employer agrees.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

The absence of Zeus

I wasn't planning to see the Olympic flame.  There's so much that's wrong about the Olympics, especially as it's currently run.  I worry about the way Londoners were uprooted, and the excuse for surveillance and repression - similar concerns have been raised about most cities where the Olympics have been held.  When I'm told that London's aim is to rival Beijing, this adds to my concern.

Then there are the lesser worries.  The sponsors are omnipresent and often absurd.  There are concerns about drugs and cheating.  These aren't new.  The Victorian establishment may have idealised sport, by which it meant the amateurism of gentlemen, but the roots of the Olympic games are rougher.  I've been looking at the kind of competitive sports described by Homer - for instance, the funeral games described in Book XXIII of the Iliad.  There's nothing gentlemanly about them.  The competitors want the very costly prizes promised to the winners and they are quite happy to cheat if that will help them win.  The most common form of cheating involves asking for help from a friendly god, as the gods are usually willing to skew the results by tripping up an opponent or giving horses extra speed and strength.  And when the event is over, there are rows between the competitors and appeals to the judges.  Modern-day sports seem pretty fair and restrained by contrast.

But the Olympics evoke the idea of Greek sports so perhaps it's only right that I ascribe my encounter with the Olympic torch to the intervention of Zeus.

My plans for the day were simple: I would mix some necessary work with a trip to the supermarket and a necessary journey to the bank.  If I got those done in the morning, I'd have the rest of the day clear.  I didn't count on the rain.

It wasn't ordinary rain.  It was a long, drenching downpour accompanied by long rumbles of thunder and occasional lightning.  It was more dramatic than any rain I've seen this summer - and that's saying a great deal.  I noted that the Olympic torch relay, which had reached Nottinghamshire, had been halted by the weather - and that the torch itself took a lunchbreak.  That was when I began to blame Zeus.  After all, he's the king of the Olympian gods and responsible for thunder and lightning.  I wondered idly whether Zeus sent the weather as a sign of his displeasure or a particular indication of his pleasure.  Whichever it was, it delayed my plans.

I reached Nottingham and the bank just before closing time.  There was a high stage in the Old Market Square.  To one side was a large, shiny cauldron, ready to receive the flame. Crowds and souvenir-sellers were beginning to assemble.  There was a light drizzle and the sky was getting greyer.  I wondered how long it would be until the next downpour.

Curiously, I began to wander round the sponsors' stalls.  They wanted to give me free things - strange items that made loud noises, objects with a possible sporting connection or even free drinks.  There was the opportunity to be photographed with an Olympic torch.  I took it, as the queues were short.  I had no problem with accepting gifts from a bank, an electronics firm and a soft-drink manufacturer - after all, it wouldn't make me more likely to buy or recommend their products.  I noticed that Nottingham people were much keener on collecting freebies than on buying officially branded Olympics souvenirs - there wasn't much enthusiasm at the stand selling mementos of the torch relay.

Gradually the dark clouds receded.  Instead the sun came out, the rain evaporated from the pavements and Nottingham was filled with an unfamiliar warmth.  Perhaps Zeus was being benevolent - or perhaps he had lost interest in the torch-bearers.  Most likely he was absent.  I know from Homer that he often goes on trips, sometimes pursuing women but often to attend feasts.   Once Zeus had departed, the weather had an unfamiliar warmth.  

I strolled away from the market square towards Nottingham Contemporary.  A few people were sitting on the base of Weekday Cross and the outdoor tables of the bars and cafés were all occupied.  A waited and gradually a gentle crowd - mostly parents with young children - gathered.   Mostly they were quiet but a group of Brownies sang while brandishing a large replica torch made from cardboard.  Sponsors arrived and distributed flags and souvenirs.  The Nottingham Contemporary zebra emerged from the gallery and shook hands with the children.   Community police and organisers erected barriers to close the road but there weren't enough barriers to line the pavements - but the children sat patiently on the kerb, waiting.  If there was any shoving or complaining, I didn't see it.

The first part of the procession was a convoy of police on motorbikes.  The children applauded and waved their flags.  Some of the policemen waved back.  There were lorries, cars and vans (several from the sponsors) as well as occasional cyclists.  No-one was sure wh they were but we applauded generously as they smiled and waved.  A coach driver did an imitation of the royal wave - or perhaps his arm was getting tired.  One cyclist carried a typed sign telling us that the flame would arrive in six minutes.  Suddenly I realised that the people smiling and waving from one of the cars were Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.  They had an Olympic torch with them and had been skating with it in the Ice Centre.  Now they were on their way to take the torch at the next stage and run together with it to the Old Market Square.  I managed to take one, rather blurred photo - proof that I had seen them.  Then we waited again.

Eventually there was another convoy and we could glimpse the torch behind a coach.  Then the torch-bearer came into view.  Someone said he was called Baz and that he ran a boxing club.  We clapped, cheered, waved and made a noise - and, as the torch-bearer raised the torch aloft, I found I was unexpectedly moved by the event.  The wasn't a glossy star or a photogenic youngster but an older man who looked like someone I might meet in the post office, greengrocer's, library or bus queue.  I was pleased with how he looked and that I could applaud a local man who had helped others through sport.  He ran holding the torch with the smoothness of an athlete.  

I suppose we saw him for a minute at most.  He ran comfortably down the hill to the next "kiss-point" - the toe-curlingly embarrassing name for the point at which the flame is passed from torch to torch.  But for a moment I did feel, against all my expectations, that I had witnessed something that mattered - something as simple as a man holding a torch and running down a Nottingham street.

It doesn't solve any of the problems with the Olympics and I still have considerable respect for the anti-Olympics protesters, who are asking necessary questions.  But the part of the torch relay I saw was impressive, for all its questionable history.  I hope that the children who watched and cheered remember the event.  I'd like to think that they might take from it a sense that they can witness and take part in history and that important events take place in their own streets.  Unlikely, perhaps, but there was a gentle kindness in the occasion that let me dream, if only for an hour or so.

Later I mingled with the huge crowds in the Old Market Square.  There too I noticed an unfamiliar gentleness.  Local schoolchildren were performing on the stage as the flame burned in the cauldron.  Then the flame was transferred to a small lantern and taken away.  Apparently even the Olympic flame has to be put to bed at night.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Pretty policemen and agents provocateurs

When I arrived at university, one of the first stories I read in a student publication was about police spies.  It said that for the entire summer vacation, two policemen, disguised as hippies, had been instructed to punt up and down the rivers watching out for students or other layabouts smoking pot.  They may have enjoyed their summer but they never managed to catch anyone.  A cartoon accompanying the story showed two policeman, dressed as stereotypical hippies but wearing policemen's helmets.

I don't know whether the story was true.  I do know that, in the three years of my first degree, I was never offered cannabis or any other illegal drug.

At the time, the story just made me laugh.  It fitted with the comforting view that the police were so incompetent at going undercover that, if they tried, they'd fail amusingly.

A little later I became aware of a more disturbing story circulating about the activities of some police forces - and I heard this so often and from so many different sources that it seemed quite evident that it was true.  This was all back in the 1970s when homosexual acts in private between consenting adults aged 21 or over had only recently ceased to be a crime.  I suppose this affected the arrest totals of many police forces.  However it remained illegal for a man to solicit sex with another man, raising an interesting question as to how gay men were ever to form sexual relationships.  Several police forces went beyond looking out for gay men meeting one another.  They sent policemen in plain clothes (known as "pretty policemen") to places where gay men met so that, if a man mentioned the possibility of sex, they could whip out the handcuffs and arrest the man.  There were stories of pretty policemen who did their best to ensure gay men would make advances to them.  It all seemed fairly disgraceful to the policemen and forces involved and I'm glad to say that the practice seems to have died out.  I don't think today's police would countenance such activities.  I don't think the government would allow it.

But I have been disturbed by what I've learned in the last year or so about the activities of undercover policemen.   There are plenty of cases of companies going under cover to spy on their opponents.  The McLibel case in the 1990s revealed that seven spies working for McDonald's had infiltrated the small London Greenpeace group so that at some meetings the infiltrators were in a majority.  The campaigning organisation Campaign Against Arms Trade was infiltrated by a man who worked with them first as a paid volunteer and then as their paid Campaigns Co-ordinator.  He was also being paid through a company working for arms muanufacturers British Aerospace.  According to the Sunday Times story which uncovered this espionage, he was one of half a dozen paid infiltrators.  Although it's a national organisation, CAAT is pretty small.  

At least when McDonalds or BAe engage in infiltration and spying they merely lower my already low opinion of them.  I had occasionally visited McDonalds with my children when the McLibel trial began but after I heard about the infiltration and spying, I initiated a family boycott.  Some people may find James Bond glamorous but I reckon there's something rather sickening about spies.

For a long time I've heard stories about state infiltrators in political groups.  I didn't think too much about who organised them.  I'd probably have thought it was the secret services, whoever they are.  I wanted them to be something shady because I didn't want to put a face to them.  I've been involved in some left-wing, mainly pacifist campaigning.  I don't want to discover that my friends aren't my friends at all - that they're pretending to like me and share my ideals so that they can spy on me, for money.  And I don't want to look at the people who really are my friends with suspicion, because if I began to do that, how could any friendship survive?

But in the past year or so it's become evident that that the state infiltrators might be quite close to home.  Mark Kennedy worked as a serving police officer by infiltrating protest groups, some of them near where I live.  I don't know if he went on the same anti-war marches but it's possible.  He looks vaguely familiar but that's all.  At least I wasn't one of the women campaigners with whom he had affairs, while concealing the existence of a wife and family elsewhere.  As the story of his spying became public, other spies were unmasked.  Some of them had affairs with activists too.  Some of them fathered children.

The police response to this was to say that the spies were "grossly unprofessional," "morally wrong" and "rogue."  My assumption was that at least, after this, the behaviour of police spies would be reined in.

I was wrong.  The Home Office minister Nick Herbert has stated that police acting as undercover spies should be allowed - in certain circumstances - to have sex with activists.  I don't know what that makes the government.  Paying someone to have sex with people as part of a job isn't quite the same as being a pimp, although morally it seems roughly equivalent.  In a few countries encouraging the deception might count as inciting rape - but this wouldn't be the case in English law.  I expect the women who have been deceived feel pretty damaged by it - especially if they have had a long-term relationship and a child with the spy.   But it's not something I want my government to permit, organise or encourage.  I think it's wrong.

I'm relying a lot on instinctive reactions here.  So I thought I'd better consider other circumstances.  What if the police spy was infiltrating an extreme right-wing group?  Would I think this worthwhile?

I dislike extreme right-wing groups, particularly those which incite racism and carry out racist attacks.  I want them to stop doing this.  It's possible an effective infiltrator would find a way of stopping them.  But I'm still not happy about the spying.

Anyone who infiltrates a group has to take part in its activities.  Police spies risk arrest when they break the law - Mark Kennedy was arrested on more than one occasion.  If they reach a position of power - which must be their aim - they need to suggest activities and encourage them.  So the police spy infiltrating a racist group might need to establish his or her credibility by abusing people on the grounds of their race, by spraying racist graffiti on walls, by suggesting groups to be targeted on a demonstration - even by initiating or taking part in racist violence.  This comes close to acting as an agent provocateur by encouraging people to break the law.  I don't want any police officer to do this, however noble the initial aims.  Nor do I want any police spy to be expected to have sex with a racist as part of his or her job.  

Doubtless some people - including members of the government - will say I'm being naive.  But I think members of the police who go undercover as spies cease to act as upholders of the law and move into a shadowy area of questionable morality.  When Nick Herbert endorses undercover policing and says that police spies may have sex with activists to reinforce their cover, he may speak for the government, but he doesn't speak for me.  I wonder whether the majority of voters - or the majority of police officers - would agree with him.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The battle of e-readers

I resisted for a long time. I like paper.  I like the sensation of holding a book in my hands, feeling its weight, leafing backwards and forwards.   I like using postcards and bus tickets as bookmarks - I leave them in the books I have finished, then find them years later.  This helps me reconstruct the experience of reading.  "Ah yes," I think, "that is where I was so concerned about Jean Valjean that I missed my stop," or "How sunny it was when I first followed Little Dorritt across the iron bridge."

My children persuaded me.  Indeed, they forced my hand by giving me, as a most generous mother's day gift, a kobo e-reader.  I'd begun to wonder how e-reading would feel but resisted the experiment.  Now resistance was useless.  I had an e-reader pre-loaded with a hundred books.

When they chose a kobo, my children respected my concerns.  I do my best to avoid Amazon and won't have anything to do with the kindle.  There are many reasons for this.  Amazon has a bad record for its treatment of employees.  It avoids paying British taxes.  Worst of all, it is trying to take such a position of power in the international marketplace that it risks establishing a near-monopoly position in which it would control authors, editing, bookselling and the way in which people read new books.

A monopoly in the production and reading of books would be a disaster, not just for book-lovers but for all who value history, free thought and the exchange of ideas.  Imagine a world where one company provided the only access to the means of reading and also controlled and selected what was available to read.  Even if the company began with the most benevolent motives, it would be bound to select certain titles for promotion above others and to give low priority to those it reckoned would be least profitable.  (All companies have to take account of economics.)  I'm not a great proponent of free-market capitalism but, when it comes to books, I'm with Milton in believing that we get nearest to truth - or progress - when ideas from numerous sources are allowed to clash with one another.  My preference for avoiding Amazon is a small act of resistance.  And in the matter of e-readers I was particularly determined to avoid Amazon.  

As I understand it (and I'm not highly technically aware) mobi - the format used by the kindle - locks readers into the kindle and Amazon.  By contrast epub - the rival format - allows users to switch from one kind of reader to another and import books from a range of sources.  While this over-simplifies the conflict - it is, for instance, to have a kindle-reader installed on a pc or an ipad - there are plainly problems in Amazon's approach and these are intensified by their offer of better terms to self-published authors who are prepared to make their work available through kindle only.  I can't comment on the quality of their books because I shan't be reading them.

For me, the kobo will never supersede books.  It does less than them.  However it does mean that I can leave the house knowing that I have, at the latest count, 176 books in my handbag.  They are mostly 19th century works - free and out of copyright.  I have most of them as paper books as well.  But there are exceptions.  I've managed to find books that are obscure and out of print - and I've obtained books in French that aren't easy to find in England.  It's great for bus and train journeys and I'm old enough to appreciate the ease with which I can enlarge the font when my eyes are tired.

So far I haven't read a great deal on my kobo.  I enjoyed Bel Ami (in French with the original illustrations) and, in honour of the Dickens bicentenary, I re-read Little Dorritt.  Now, attracted by the title, I've turned to Zola's L'Argent.  It will take me some time to get used to Zola's sentence structure.  

But I've noticed something about reading on the kobo that I hadn't expected.  It makes me focus on smaller sections of text - just because the page is smaller than the double spread of a paperback.  That means that the books which are most pleasurable are those which are densely written or which require careful attention.  The works of Dickens and books in French are ideal but I can't imagine wanting to read a modern thriller in English on my kobo.  I can't read poetry on it either - epub seems to lose the layout which is such an important element.  So it's a rather old-fashioned means of reading and I'm enjoying its old-fashioned elements.

I wonder if e-readers will last in their present form.  I rather hope they do as they're very convenient and a good aid to concentration.  But the popularity of multi-media tablets suggests that literature in its wordy form may give way to something more complex, where words, sounds and images are mixed and where pathways through the work are multi-linear and even driven by chance.  The literature of the future may mutate into a cross between the experimental novel and the computer game.  It may even return to its oral roots and become more of a social and communal experience as readers take the opportunities offered by the internet to read and respond together.

But meanwhile I'm loving my solitary experience of the 19th century.  As my train passes flooded fields I'm plunging back in time and wandering through the crowded backstreets of London and Paris.  I recommend the journey.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

What's so bad about Cyclops?

As I mentioned in my last post, I'm re-reading the Odyssey. It's many years since I last set out to read it cover to cover.  On this occasion I've chosen the E.V. Rieu translation, published by Penguin - not poetry but a quick and pleasurable read in prose.  It's probably the best translation if you want - as I do now - to read for the story.  

At times I'm struck by how familiar the people seem.  I've reached Book IX, where Odysseus meets Nausicaa, the young princess.  It's a hilarious encounter.  Nausicaa is by the stream with other young women, doing the laundry when Odysseus, who has been shipwrecked on the shore, wakes up from the bed of leaves he has made in the nearby woods. He needs to ask for help but is faced with a problem - he is completely naked.  In the end, he does he maintains his modesty by holding a branch in front of him - and decides it is best not to ask for help in the usual way by kneeling before the princess and clasping her knees.

The comedy of Odysseus' situation develops - and then it gives way to something rather different.  Odysseus becomes a guest in the household of King Alcinous, and, after all the rituals due to a guest (bathing, feasting, libations, drinking and so on), Odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventures. For instance, he explains the way in which he and his men would raid settlements, kill the men, rob the settlements and enslave the women.  There is no moral justification for this - it's treated as a perfectly ordinary way of carrying on so long as there is no breach of the obligations of hospitality.  By contrast, the behaviour of the Cyclops is seen as deeply shocking, in ways that the editor of the Penguin edition points out.

If you know anything about Cyclops, you probably know that they are one-eyed giants who practise cannibalism.  But in the world of the Odyssey, their size and cannibalism aren't the only strange things about them.  There are also two important things they do not do.  They don't build ships - and as a result they don't trade or have the habit of visiting other communities.  And, even more significantly, they don't meet in assemblies to conduct business and make laws.  Although there are social interactions - Cyclops listen out for one another and come to one another's help - each family has its own individual laws and customs.  In other words, they don't take part in politics (the word comes from the Greek polis, which means the city state).  They live entirely private lives.

Odysseus and a group of his men are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus.  There they observe his domestic arrangements.  He is an efficient farmer - even a kindly one, by today's standards.  He lets his flocks into the cave at night where he milks the ewes before putting their lambs back beside them.  This seems to suggest that he takes only the superfluous milk, which he uses to make cheese.  In the morning he lets the sheep out to graze.  But he starts to eat Odysseus' men, two at a time.

When Odysseus sets out to trick him, he does so through a version of gift-exchange, which Polyphemus seems to recognize in a limited way.  He gives Polyphemus fine and very strong wine and Polyphemus reciprocates by promising that he will eat Odysseus last - not a very adequate response.  But the wine renders Polyphemus drunk - there's a particularly disgusting description of him vomiting as a result, and bringing up chunks of the men he has just eaten - allowing Odysseus and his men to blind him.  This will give them the opportunity to escape when Polyphemus next opens the cave.

This set me reflecting that, while we would agree that Polyphemus is wrong to eat people, the other standards by which Polyphemus shows his lack of civilization apply less today than they did thirty or forty years ago.  We may not eat strangers but the idea of hospitality as a virtue seems to be slipping away.  In the Odyssey, whenever a courteous stranger arrives and asks for help, the rules of decent behaviour dictate that he will be given a bath, food and drink before he is even asked his name, that he will be provided with somewhere to sleep and will be given generous gifts.

In the time of the Odyssey, a properly-evolved society is also seen as one in which there is a widespread obligation to take part in political decision-making: to work out, through talk with others, what laws should apply.  There aren't equal societies - slaves don't take part in politics and women's status is mostly based on their relationship to men.  But it's not a dictatorship either - decisions are made after discussion.  Speaking well in public forums is valued as much as action.

When I think about society today, it has more in common than the life of the Cyclops than I would like.  The life we live is largely private - solitary or with family and friends.  Most talk and grumbling about politics takes place in the private sphere and without any sense that it will change anything.  Our society doesn't do much to welcome strangers either.  At least we don't eat them.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

a tentative return

I'm not sure that I've missed blogging.  I've been away for almost a year - not away from home, or away from my computer, but away from the practice of sharing selected thoughts with anyone who is tempted to stop by my blog.

It wasn't a momentous decision.  For some months I'd been running out of time to blog.  I had plenty to say - my brain didn't stop working and I continued to react to the world.  But work was taking over much more of my time and I also felt an inclination to spend more time in writing poetry and fiction.  And, as I stayed away from the blogosphere, the idea of a return seemed increasingly momentous - and I feared the extra demands it would make on my time.

Perhaps I also needed some time away.  Sometimes an absence from engagement in a particular activity provides a useful opportunity to reflect and gather thoughts together.  I'd like to think it's been a helpful pause as well as a hectic one.

But I've decided to return, and for no better reason than this: it's a rainy afternoon and I felt a sudden inclination to go back to Blogger.  If I were living in the time of the Odyssey, I'd say a god moved me.  That's what people in the Odyssey say when they make a decision for which they can't account in any other way.  I'm re-reading the Odyssey in the moment so that way of seeing the world is much in my mind.

I had a few ideas about what to say in this post but I'm still distracted by blogger's latest re-design.  Like most people, I'm conservative in familiar practices, which is a way of saying I don't want to relearn things I think I already know. (I still cook in pounds and ounces.)  I'm still trying to work out how to find the various functions I need on the dashboard, and hope I am doing everything right.  It's uncomfortable to be so uncertain about something I thought I could manage.  Perhaps soon I'll be used to the new design.

Meanwhile, I think I'll leave this where it is, add a few labels, press publish and see how this works.  If all goes well, I may post again soon.  If so, I'll try to write something with a little more substance, in case my readers are still out there.  And if you are, hello!