Saturday, 12 December 2009

A Memorial, the Transit of Venus and Not Planning Ahead Nicely - like Olden Day Masons.

A post ago I wrote about the death of a friend. His memorial service was held at St Michael's in Hoole near to Preston. It would have been insensitive and intrusive to take camera to the service but there are particular features of the day that stayed with me and I returned to the tiny church at the weekend to photograph some parts of the memories. My Other Middlest child came along with me for company.

I was taken by the heart-shaped motifs picked out in the brickwork of the building, and by a strange and elaborate doorway in the north wall - when you are inside the church there is no sign of an entrance - just blank plaster; it's a door that leads to nowhere.

The heart seems such a modern and frivolous emblem but St Michael’s is very old and I would like to understand why the shapes were incorporated by the bricklayers. There are diamonds too - but no spades or clubs - so it isn’t that the workmen were borrowing playing card symbols.

(Some people think playing cards are sinister.
'based on the blipish Satanism of the Cabala,'
(see Playing Cards on this rather unsettling site). I don't think the lovely priest who conducted my friend's memorial subscribes to the belief that cards are inherently evil though)

St Michael's at Hoole is (a bit) famous because of its association with an extraordinary astronomer, Jeremiah Horrocks, who died in 1641 aged 22.

Jeremiah Horrocks was the first person to accurately predict and observe the transit of Venus; a phenomenon during which Venus moves between the Earth and the Sun and is visible on the solar face.

The transit of Venus occurs in a massive 243 year cycle and then happens twice within a decade. Young Horrocks witnessed the event in November 1639. The last time it occurred was on the 8 June 2004. During the eulogy the lovely priest mentioned how my friend, a bespoke jeweller, made commemorative transit of Venus pieces for St Michael's.

There were three particular aspects of the memorial service that I couldn’t recapture with a camera after the event.
The first is the reading the eulogy. It laid out the frame of my friend’s life before us and it touched upon the lives he himself influenced: He was born in Hoxton but was evacuated to a manor house in Devon for the duration of the war. His life and his deeds seem to have reflected that dichotomous start to his existence; he was a jeweller, a singer, a boxer, a stuntman (I didn’t know that!) a father, a writer, a promoter of sport for all, a politician, and much else. He was funny and he was irreverent. 

He pretended to be a Tory - but he was far more complicated than a description of his activities suggests; all his instincts were to redress social iniquities, not to perpetuate them (he stopped eating meat after a programme about how transported livestock suffer). To put it charitably, I'm a fuzzy-wuzzy, well-meaning liberal; an atheist who views boxing with aghast bewilderment - but I do nowt.  My friend was a properly kind and committed person and he actually did stuff that made the world around him more fair.
The second picture I would have taken is of all the boxers my friend trained over the years, bursting from the joints of the gated choir stalls. Young lives and young men that have realigned themselves within the space they occupy because of what he taught them about self-discipline and self-respect. They clattered up to the gallery at the back of the church; the heeled shoes of their girls muffled by the red-ribbed stair carpet. If my friend had been able he’d have reminded them that they have as much right to the prominent seats as anyone else and he’d have ushered them to the front pews, budging up the officials to accommodate them. I like to imagine him introducing his latest protégée to a startled Mayor.
The third image I didn’t get, because it would have been intrusive to take it, is of grown men shouldering a coffin. I hadn’t realised before but it’s an act as visceral and as concentrated as giving birth. Three broad sons and a brother, arms linked over each others shoulders, baring his weight; awkward but peculiarly graceful, their faces waxed with effort of baring one of their own on his very last journey.
I started this post not really knowing what I was going to write or how I was going to finish it – and the bother is, I still don’t know.

As we were leaving the churchyard my Other Middlest child noticed this gravestone beside the rustic gate that leads between the grounds and the car park. I am impressed with how cavalier masons used to be about spelling and hyphenation but this is a particularly spectacular example of not planning ahead nicely; with this post I am continuing a noble tradition...
(Incidentally, the next transit will be in 2012. I live in Preston and (cloud cover permitting) I'll be able to see Venus crossing in front of the Sun at dawn on 6 June 2012. You can check if and when you'll be able to see it here.
We're really lucky-duffers to be living through a time when we can witness the transit of Venus; after 2012, the next events won't be until December 2117 and 2125).

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Phil Morsman and Civilisation

A few weeks ago I wrote a post wondering, Would we put another human person in a zoo? I blathered that civilisation can't be so very civilised when it's predicated on enforced labour.

After publishing the post I saw an exhibition of Phil Morsman's work in The Gateway at the University of Cumbria (it's there until tomorrow - you'll need to be quick).

Phil's pictures neatly convey what I was struggling to say.

More of Phil's work is exhibited in Selected Obsessions the Alexandra Gallery - also at the University. The very poor photograph below is of a mixed media picture entitled Fissure.

To my simple mind Phils obsessions - in particular slavery, deserts, borders and geological features - reflect my own preoccupations.

I took a photograph of another mixed media picture called Fault but it is a Very Bad photograph. The gallery lights (and me!) are hideously reflected in the glass and it'd be a profound injustice to Phil to publish it here. However, Fault is my new best obsession.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Some Important Things - two weddings, a properly sad event, a twenty-first birthday & the real size of a Shire Horse.

Since the last post a some Important Things have happened. I'm setting these events down in order of chronology not magnitude.

My son married. If I'd been set to design the Just Right wife for him I wouldn't have known where to start. Luckily, he found her, and she found him. Congratulations! I could not be gladder.

My middle child and I visited a dressmaker in Blackburn to talk about bridesmaids dresses for her wedding and to purchase ladybird wings and antenna from Blackburn Market (for Halloween, not bridal wear). The next day we visited my other middle child in Newcastle. On our amble, between tea and buns at Fenwicks and tea and buns at the Baltic Arts Centre across the Tyne, we saw steeplejacks abseiling along the roof of the Sage. We’ve no idea why.
A dare?
Window cleaning?
For the view?
Whatever they were up to, they were especially intrepid.

My old friend and neighbour, Peter, died. He's been ill and in pain for a long time and I'm glad he isn't suffering anymore, but it is almost incomprehensible to me that I will never see him, speak to him or listen to him talk, ever again. I miss him just not being there. He was as complex and as interesting as any of us (well, more remarkable than most - but that's his story, not mine). I think he is best summed up by what he said when a Bad Thing happened at our house.

‘We have no arrangement that can’t be changed if you need us.’

And he was true to his word.

Finally, my youngest child turned twenty-one at five minutes past midnight on Sunday 15 November. I put fairy lights in the window, assembled a bare-bottomed baby photo montage and decorated a cake with a heart filled with dolly-mixtures.

Her boyfriend lovingly made her the blue cake below; the one with hand painted Shire Horses and a Collie Dog. My youngest child isn’t particularly partial to Shire Horses or Collie Dogs, but he explained.
'Shire Horses are my favourite - the Collie Dog is for scale. Most people don't appreciate just how massive Shire Horses are.'

Well, there you have it; Shire Horses are considerably bigger than a Collie Dog but a little bit smaller than a birthday candle.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The terribly sad story of not getting an Award...

You were delighted and grateful to be nominated for the Award and overjoyed to find yourself on the Best Personal (blog) category shortlist.

Then you start to ask yourself.
‘Why Best Personal category? Why not the Best Writing category?’
Because that’s how ridiculous and deluded you can be.

You are afraid to attend the Glittering Awards ceremony because you feel a fraud mixing with proper writers and also because you know you’ll be irrationally jealous of the (justly deserving) winners. Your friend prevails upon you.
‘If you’re going to submit yourself to scrutiny - you have to be prepared for rejection.’

And your youngest child indulgently pretends she'd like to attend with you; so you purchase Glittering Awards ceremony tickets.

You are virtual friends with some of the other shortlisted writers. Your virtual friends, the Nice Man and the Writer Who Will Win, are on the same shortlist as you. The Amusing Man and Prolific Short and Story Writer are on a different shortlist. Prior to the Glittering Awards ceremony you realise that other shortlisters are preparing readings for the evening. You’re not sure if it’s an axiom that shortlisters read and you’re the only one who isn’t aware of this protocol - but you’re afraid of ridicule and not brave enough to simply ask someone who will know.

You tentatively prepare several readings; a three-minuter, and five-minuter and a ten-minuter – just in case, like a little boy going to a important football match with his cleaned boots in a carrier bag.

Then you realise your behaviour is preposterous and you contact your virtual friend, the Nice Man, to see if he’s planning to read. He isn’t. And he isn’t sure how shortlisters know they are expected to read at the Glittering Awards or what the selection criteria are. You speculate that it might be writers on the Best Writing category shortlist who are asked to read. He suggests that your Best Personal (blog) category might be interpreted as a Best at ‘colouring-in without going over the lines’ category, and you both have a hearty virtual laugh over that.

On the day of the Glittering Awards you paint stuff on your nails (writer blood-red on your toes, nervous-neutral on your fingers); have a hairdo in a shop; put on a dress - with legging, because that's how edgy you writers can be.

You stash your the three readings in your big bag - just in case.

On the evening of the Glittering Awards you are sick with nerves. You down some Beechams Flu Plus Caplets because you feel a bit queer, and because you want to dull your anxiety.

The Amusing Man, the Prolific Short Story Writer and the Writer Who Will Win read their engaging and hilarious pieces.

At nine o’clock the Lady Who Has Worked So Hard to ensure all this happens takes her place on the stage to make the announcements. She says.
‘First I’ll read out the shortlist for each category.’
And your youngest child nods at you in excitement, her eyes saying.
‘This is your moment!’
You nod back, still more queasy with anxiety.
Then, the Lady Who Has Worked So Hard to ensure all this happens says.
‘Oh. I don't have a copy of the shortlisted nominations. I’ll go straight to announcing the winners and runners-up in each category.

And your moment has gone.

The Writer Who Will Win has won and the Amusing Man, the Prolific Short Story Writer and the Nice Man are all runners-up.

All your virtual friends get a mention and you fail.

On the walk back to the car park your youngest child gives you a cuddle because you look bereft. Your chest is full of tightly compressed tears but you can’t cry. Your youngest child doesn’t understand.
‘I don’t understand - why are you sadder about this than you are about sad things?’
And you can only reply with a rigid little shake of your head, because you don’t understand either.

During the drive home Michael Bubley, the affable Canadian popular singer, is treating Radio 2 listeners to an easy listening concert. This is galling but your hand is too sad to turn him off. Then Michael Bubley, the affable Canadian popular singer, starts to sing the song Home, and the tears start to roll down your face and there are even more of them than you thought and your youngest child is watching your face in the reflection of the rhythmic motorway lights and she doesn’t know what she can do to make it better.

And she can’t make it better can she? Because it’s all down to you. You have to stop thinking you’re a splendid scribe one moment and that you’re an insignificant incompetent the next moment. You need to grow a carapace and put more energy into what you actually write instead of worrying about what others think about you and what you write. Until you’ve done those things, you need to avoid Glittering Awards ceremonies; especially if you’ve been shortlisted.

This terribly sad sequence of events isn’t what happened to me; but it might have happened to someone like me if their personality were a charmless combination of misplaced confidence and hobbling insecurity.

Coincidentally, I didn’t win at the Manchester Blog Awards but these talented people did and I extend my super-congratulations to them. I also am very grateful to Kate Feld of Manchizzle who manifestly does work incredible hard to ensure that North West bloggers get such a fantastic event and such lovely acknowledgement for what they do.
There is a nice Guardian review of the Glittering Awards too.
Lost in Manchester
The Manchester Zedders
My Shitty Twenties
Cynical Ben
Words and Fixtures
Songs from Under the Floorboards
I thought I told you to wait in the car
Dave Hartley’s Weblog
Run Paint Run Run
The Manchester Hermit

This terribly sad sequence of events, written in the second person, didn’t happen to me but if I were ever called upon to cry to order - unlikely, I know – but if I’m offered a starring part in a weepy film say, or I find employment as a professional mourner, I know a tune that will set me off nicely.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Would we put another human person in a zoo?

When I believed in a God I looked forward to a time, after my death, when I could see the world as it was in the olden-times. Homo sapiens (modern humans, like us) are unusual because we’re the only living representatives of our taxon left. I wanted to witness an era when there were several human species alive all at the same time.

I had a fond hope that He (if He resembled anyone in my anticipatory imaginings He looks a bit like David Attenborough) would have a special screening room where I could watch the planet at any given point in history. With eternity to play with I’d happily watch all eons.
'Where's Kim?'
'In the screening room watching the Pre-Cambrian on fast-forward.'
'Oh yes.'
But to begin with I’d choose to view a time around 90,000 years ago. A time when modern humans were still mostly based in Africa, H erectus (go on, have a good laugh, get it out of the way… Are you done? Sure?) Right. Erectus lived in Indonesia, H neanderthalensis ruled Europe and the dwarf human species, H floresiensis occupied parts of East Asia.

I don’t believe in the supernatural anymore and it makes me sad to realise I’ll never see that scratchy video replay.

Floresiensis has been nicknamed The Hobbit. I will not refer to Floresiensis as The Hobbit. That is to trivialise the human who lived and breathed and made a living - and it’s not particularly fair on Bilbo either. That will be my last mention of The Hobbit in this post.

I recently attended a weekend conference on human evolution in Oxford. Here are some astonishing things I learned at the conference:

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives; we share 99% of our DNA.

Chimps are as evolved as Sapiens but we've developed along separate trajectories for over five million years. Less than two million years of evolution separates Sapiens from Floresiensis and less than 700,000 years of evolution separates Sapiens and Neanderthalensis.

We are more closely related to chimps than a horse is to a zebra, and a horse and zebra can interbreed.

Neanderthals lived between 250,000 and 30,000 years ago. They were top predators and consummate hunters; more carnivorous than lions or hyenas. Neanderthals are our evolutionary cousins but definitely not our ancestors. They were a bit like us; they made complicated stone tools, cared for their sick and buried their dead. And they were a bit unlike us; in their anatomy and in their cognitive organisation - they had bigger brains than many modern humans but probably less elaborate powers of abstraction.

We (modern humans) evolved in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago; we were the first human species to colonise Australia - over 60,000 years ago. In human history Australia has never been visible from Indonesia and the journey to Australia always entailed a treacherous sea crossing. When we first set out on that peril filled trip we had no idea where we were going to end up (Indonesia is tectonically volatile and it may be that those first Australians made a choice between Vulcan and the deep blue).

We (modern humans) were established in Europe by 45,000 years ago.

The dwarf human species, Floresiensis, survived on the island of Flores until 18,000 years ago. Their ancestors were also competent seafarers.

And here is some sad stuff that those astonishing things made me think about:

The conference was about hominin evolution. From six million years ago until the extinction of Neanderthals 30,000 years ago. Most of the other people at the conference were thoughtful and clever; interested dilettantes like myself - keen to learn more. A few were Eurocentric xenophobes.

When, as happens a lot, someone tells me society is deteriorating I think about the enforced labour that buttressed great civilisations; Egypt, Greece; the Roman Empire. I think about Africans packed in slave ships and about exhausted Victorian seven year olds strapped to mill machinery, strapped to machinery - and I respond that we’ve been capable of the unthinkable for a long time, (yes, I am very popular on the Clapham Omnibus).

At the conference, I didn’t need to reflect on slave ships or seven year olds to wonder what we’re capable of doing to our closest relatives. I only had to sit in the lecture theatre and listen to queries from the floor. Questions raised by some of the delegates showed that they'd spectacularly missed the point of the whole event.

After one lecture an elderly lady with a very posh voice asked.
‘If modern humans arrived in Europe 45,000 years ago, why did they take so long to become civilised?’
I squirmed in my seat; embarrassed for her; embarrassed that she was airing her chauvinistic assumption - that sedentary classical culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

At university a lecturer told me it was impossible for him to understand or express the complexity of indigenous Australian tradition because it wasn’t a matter of merely describing a belief system or a material culture. It was impossible for him to describe Aboriginal systems because Australians don’t just do things differently from people with a western mindset, they think things differently too. He likened their cognition to an ability to think and see around corners.

During coffee, another posh lady assured me that, despite what we'd learned about genetic and anthropological evidence to the contrary, she still thought Australians were from far more primitive stock than Europeans.

Matthew Pope spoke about Neanderthal adaptations to Ice Age conditions. At the end of his lecture the lady in the seat next to mine puts her hand up. She’s a perfectly nice posh-spoken lady and we chatted amiably before the talk started. I smile and nod at her encouragingly as she makes to ask her question. I should know better…
‘Has anyone commented on the similarities between Eskimos and Neanderthals?’
What? What?! Because they can cope with inclement weather and they eat a lot of protein?
I swivel with my knees facing away from the lady, in a cowardly attempt to disassociate myself from her views. Matthew Pope is silent for a moment; dumbstruck I assume. My flattened hands are clamped between my knees; I hope beyond hope that no one will think I’m with this lady; think that she’s my friend, or my mother, or my sister.
Matthew clears his throat.
‘Eskimos - the Inuit - are modern humans.’
My knees are crushing my knuckles; my shoulders hunched, my eyes squeezed tight closed - and something is emitting a tiny high-pitch humming sound, I think it’s me.
‘Yes, but has anyone properly done any research…?’
Stop! You can't talk like...
I don’t know what else was said. I might have blacked out.

Another speaker, Chris Stringer, wondered aloud how we would behave if Floresiensis were alive today. He suspected, Badly, and I concur.

The small-brained humans were still going about their Flores-business 18,000 years ago; that’s yesterday in evolutionary terms. If I’d timed my birth and arranged my geography a bit better I could easily have met Floresiensis and not had to hang about for the post-mortem Betamax screening (I imagine Heaven to be like a green-painted church hall; to be a little bit old fashioned and a little bit out of step with the rest of… erm, the Cosmos).

And if Floresiensis had clung on in Indonesia for another few thousand years, what would have happened to them? If civilised Egyptians got hold of the little folk first they could’ve been set to work on the fiddly bits of pyramid construction, down those long shafts that were sealed after completion. Floresiensis would have slotted very nicely into plantation jobs and they’d have been just the right size for mill and mine duties. If eco-friendly Westerners found a colony of Floresiensis today, I think we'd put them in a conservation zoo along with our other closest living relatives. In an Indonesian enclosure maybe, with a concrete wave pool so they could keep their hand in, launching rafts (the posh conference ladies might be persuaded to donate funds for an Outback enclosure and an Arctic enclosure if approached).

This time last year I was doing The Poet’s poetry module. As my other reader knows, I never really got the hang of poetry but I did develop a taste for writing pantoums; I’m a bad finisher and with a pantoum if you’ve got your first line you got your final line. I wrote a pantoum about how it would feel to see another kind of human being. When I was small and very ill I was treated by an Indian doctor; that was the first time I’d ever seen anyone who wasn’t white and European; I wondered if it would feel like I felt when I saw him. I was concerned that a reader of the pantoum would consider my poem to be racist but the sentiments in the piece tie in with this post so I’ve (very tentatively) put that poem on my other blog, Another Human Being.

Ranty, blethery, blathery, rant. What on earth am I trying to say? I’m trying to say that I was shocked by the casual racism and I suppose, speciesism, shown by my sophisticated colleagues. That I don’t think civilisation is all that civilised. And that I worry about my own craven responses – in Oxford I was more concerned to disassociate myself from misguided posh ladies than I was to make an effort to change their views. I worry at the contradiction that I think it’s dubious to keep fellow creatures in captivity but that if there was a Floresiensis to see in a wild life park (see below) I’d be there with my camera, like a shot. I’m saying that if David Attenborough could organise for me to look into the eyes of another kind of human person before I die, I’d be very grateful. And I am saying that I tried to write a poem about similar thoughts this time last year.

The drawings are by James Fraser; thanks yet again, James. I saw some captive meerkats at the Bowland Wild Boar Park. I felt sad for them because they belong in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana - but they were lively and enchanting and I watched them for ages; they really do take turns at keeping watch.

The Bowland Wild Boar Park is great, by the way. A proper farm with no use for nancy gaffer tape or No More Nails (because baler-twine is the farm-mender stuff of choice for everything). This is my youngest grandson on the recycled oil-drum ride; yes he is being chased by the tractor – fabulous!

I usually end a blog post with a cohesive upbeaty quip but it seems out of place in this instance. My youngest grandson is seven; the same age as the exhausted Victorian mill workers I think about sometimes.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Heysham, Lemn Sissay & The Manchester Blog Awards (again)

I've cheated in my task of viewing the everyday for revelations of truth and beauty. That I'm a cheat is the first disclosure.

On a Sunday in September I travelled with my youngest child to register at university. After the queuing and form filling we drove to Heysham, an old village on the bottom corner of Morecambe Bay. The area is dominated by two advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors; structures so implausibly big that they are almost certainly visible from everywhere on the planet.

We parked and walked for (about) half an hour and came to the ruins St Patrick’s where we photographed this group of rock-cut graves. The chapel was in use 1200 years ago; it seems very close to the water now but I suspect erosion has brought the sea a lot nearer.

St Patrick's Chapel

The two of us scrambled down to the beach and chanced on a man and a boy dabbling in a rock pool with a net. We chatted for a while. My youngest child has helped at an environmental centre and knows a bit about nature and stuff, and I like facts to be straight. The father was telling us the (incorrect) names for some of the tiny swimming things with great assurance but we didn’t contradict him. We tacitly agreed that it’s fine for that little boy to believe his super-dad is omniscient – at least for a little while longer.

I photographed this coastal rock formation because I believe it shows an unconformity; probably at least two unconformities. An unconformity is a buried erosion surface dividing two periods of deposition which may have been separated by millions and most probably billions of years. The underlying sedimentary rocks in the photograph are thinly-bedded siltstones, sandstones and mudstones which have been folded over by heat and tectonic activity deep underground. Over time those rocks have been exposed at the earth’s surface by a process of attrition. I think the top layer of sediments under the turf will have been deposited in relatively recent times, at the end of the last ice age, as little as 12000 years ago; virtually within living memory.

We had a go at skimming stones but the pebbles are mostly hearty chunks of Millstone Grit and not very bouncy. But then, I would say that.

'They're the wrong sort of stones...'

'Yes Mum, that'll be what the problem is...'

On the way back to the car we visited the most peculiar shop. The lady sews dog coats and peg bags on a machine, on the counter. There are the oddest assortment of things for sale; used buttons, medals and improbable jewellery and CDs that come free with the Mail on Sunday. I was tempted to ask for a packet of pea-flavoured crisps, just on the off-chance. I’m only sorry I didn’t think to photograph her emporium.

A perfect day; my youngest child going to learn more stuff, a deity dad, 1200 year old rock-cut graves, 12000 year old glacial deposits, sediments so old and folded it hurts my eyes to think about them – and a curious shop.

This piece of writing first appeared at The Culture Cheese and Pineapple an arts discussion blog I've recently joined . The remit was to leave the house, walk for about an hour in an unfamiliar direction, take pictures and notice things. Apparently, it is based on the idea of le quotidien; that the everyday can reveal truth and beauty.

As observed, what it initially revealed is my tendency to bilk. But I was pleased with the result. I'm always trying to be as candid as I can but somehow this writing seems more gentle and honest than my usual stuff, Maybe it's because I'm not striving so hard to try to be funny or clever. I'm more calm.

A friend sent me this link to Global Poetry System an idea that began with Lemn Sissay. Poetry isn't quite my thing. I've only really written one poem; and that was an accident, but I love the idea of poetry revealed in the everyday - along with truth and beauty.

As I've repeated to death,
I'm on the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards shortlist. My youngest child will attend The Event with me; even though I've warned her I'm likely to collapse in grief, beating my fists on the carpet and wailing,
'It's not fair! You've let talented people in!' when I don't win.
I'm not sure she believes me...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Manchester Blog Awards shortlist

For anyone who was visiting Mars yesterday: I'm on the 2009 Manchester Blog Awards shortlist
This has made me very, very happy.

I'm glad that some of the blogs I read regularly are also shorlisted:
Cynical Ben
Forgetting the Time
My Shitty Twenties (twice!)
Dave Hartley’s Weblog
I thought I told you to wait in the car
Big city, little girl

Congratulations everyone!

Thank you to my other reader for nominating me. Thank you to the shortlisters.

This is a photograph of me not being able to skim stones because they are the wrong sort of rock (Millstone Grit). But fate will have to work harder than that to get me down today; I'm on a shortlist and when I've stopped messing I'm going to get ready to travel to Oxford to attend a Continuing Education weekend course called Neaderthals in the 21st Century. It's my birthday and Christmas presents until forever - and that's fine.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Birthday Neanderthal, half an MA and Time

I was given this Neanderthal for my birthday, and those fossils and that terrifying stuff from the stygian crevices of my head. James Fraser made this picture for me. James, you are officially the King of being able to judge a person.

I might have half an MA Creative Writing. A 'M' I suppose, or more properly an 'A'; I’m certainly not a Master - but then I hardly qualify as an Art either.

Whatever, the taught year of the degree is over and when I met the Author who is Writing about Neanderthals for my first dissertation tutorial she intimated I'd passed the last two modules; the exam board meets in October. Schrodinger's cat is completely out of the box – the marks aren’t confirmed - but I’m never, ever going to average 70% or over for the year. Oh well, I don’t exactly want to top myself. Although actually, a bit I do…

The dissertation is to be twelve thousand words with a three thousand word commentary. I’ve form for being ungovernable regarding word count guidelines; the short-story I wrote for the fiction module grew to be over eight thousand words long and was a nightmare to edit and make coherent because I couldn’t actually read it all in one go (grim to mark too I imagine). Consequently I’m planning to write six, two thousand word pieces, a mixture of fiction and creative nonfiction, based on some of the statements from my 20+ Things about me-meme; me, me, me, me. I'm hoping some unifying theme will emerge.

When I spoke about the three short-story ideas I've got so far:

  • Alternating male and female perspectives of an affair over forty years;
  • Changes wrought by a transfer from a mobile forager/hunter existence to sedentism and food production;
  • The impact of dementia;
the Author who is Writing about Neanderthals suggested Time as a theme. I dunno why I didn’t think of that because I am already a Time-Nerd.

In an earlier post, That’ll be different, I referred to shifting perceptions of time through moment and culture. For example, during the 1940s an anthropologist, Evans-Prichard, lived amongst the Nuer, a pastoralist people of Southern Sudan.

Evans-Prichard reports that Nuer don’t have Time; that is they don’t have any expression equivalent to Time which means that they can’t speak of Time as if it is something actual, it doesn’t pass, can’t be wasted, can’t be saved and can't be made up. It pleases me to think of people who live without Time; of Time as an artificial construct.

How I feel about time is - in the short term everything matters but in the long term, geological time, nothing matters.

If my infant mother hadn't survived diphtheria in an era before antibiotics I would never have been born.
'No great loss!' My other reader might reasonably exclaim. 'You're a
narcissist, you produce ungovernably long short-stories and you're morbidly attached to Neanderthals.'

Okay, that is all true - but, what if Charles Darwin's mother
had died of diphtheria or Alan Bennett's mother? And anyway, if I wasn't born who would my childrens’ partners be marrying at those pretty damn special weddings I've written about; the weddings that are going to happen in the near future? And who would be here to submit bridesmaid gowns to the YMCA test? Unsettling thoughts.

Yet in terms of geological time, nothing is really significant, not whales, not poor darling infants choking to death, not the threat of redundancy, nothing.

I think to be kind and attentive are the most essential human characteristics. I try to occupy the moment and believe that everything equates. But mostly I live in a geological-time mindset; a mindset where nothing matters; except maybe MA marks and interesting facts about Neanderthals (my favourite hominin, thanks again, James).

Yes, I know I’ve used stygian twice recently. Stygian has taken over from trope as a word I bandy in an attempt to appear clever.

ps I've borrowed the 'What if my mother hadn't survived? None of this would have happened,' motif from Kathleen Jamie (Findings p. 112). Jamie's mother survived pneumonia and my mother really did survive diphtheria.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Syphilitic Nature of Blogging (Part Two)

I’ve just had the curious experience of stalking a stalker.

A while ago a friend gave my blog a nice plug on her blog. Afterwards she asked if I'd noticed an increase in traffic. I explained that, unless someone left a blog comment or emailed me, I'd absolutely no idea if there's been any traffic at all.

Following said friend's advice I installed a Statcounter.

On the first day I was astonished to see I’d had twenty-nine visitors to my blog, that's twenty-nine.

Statistic counters tell you a lot more than how many visits your site has received. You can learn where in the universe the visitor was when they viewed pages, the IP address of their computer, which pages they viewed, how long they lingered and what in particular they did whilst they were visiting (in terms of searching, downloading images and leaving comments, I mean; not what they were actually doing whilst they were looking).

When I investigated the visitor paths it was obvious that all my visitors were, sadly, me.

I’d logged in to correct spelling mistakes, I’d logged in to adjust paragraph spacing, I’d logged in because I’d decided, after long deliberation, to replace obtained with got, to be more faithful to my roots, and so on…

To begin with, checking your visitor numbers is a little bit addictive.

‘One visitor! From Plano, Texas! Yay!’

‘How did they find you?’

‘They did a Google search for ‘Doktor Hotfingers’.’

'Great Cripes*! That's Smashing.'

'I know.'

‘And how long did they linger?’

‘Well, only 0 seconds, but they came, and they saw. It’s A Start.’

'It certainly is just that, A Start.'

Last night I check the Statcounter – sure enough, I’ve visited myself aplenty. I’ve also currently got another visitor; someone on a computer in Glasgow.

Gratified, I take a few moments to look at the visitor number(s) for my other, newer blog. The blog where I’m keeping pieces of my (proper) writing; when I say pieces, I mean piece. There’s one (Joint) award winning poem there at the moment, and a self-important meme and something my daughter pointed out to me that still makes me laugh.

When I return to the statistics for this blog there are several more page loads showing…

It’s that same Glasgow visitor; still looking. Page to page, He (I’m picturing a He) loiters over postings and moves on. He follows the link to my (Joint) award winning poem then returns to my Second person and research post and downloads a photograph. That photograph of Ellie fancy-dressed up as the Tin Man. Already disorientated, I start to wonder if I should feel uneasy.

This is absurd. For months I’ve been effectively saying.

‘Here! Over here. Listen, listen to this!’

‘You, yes you - look at this! I’m dead funny, me.’

And here I am feeling uncomfortable because somebody is doing as they’re told, He’s reading my words, checking out my poem and He's downloading a photo of my twenty year old dressed in silver leggings.

For thirty minutes I watch in snowballing horror as (in my head) the drug-addled pervert in his seedy tenement riffles through my stuff. I want to shout at him.

‘Oi you! Yes you - Deviant-Dougal with your swivelly-eyes and your bagpipes. What do you think you're playing at looking at my pictures? Don't think you can get away with this. I’ve got your (Temporary IP) address you know!’

But, as I’ve written before, blogging is such a queasy paradox.

On the one hand I’m self-effacing and I don’t want people to think I’m vulgar or pushy; on the other hand I’d sell my foot to a transplant surgeon if I thought it would encourage a readership.

Vulgar and pushy wins out every time, of course.

I start to rationalise that it probably isn’t a pervy druggie who is working His way through the pages. It’s most likely a nice lady who is interested in poems; She
, Fragrant-Fiona, is doubtless a Kelvindale matron searching for fancy dress ideas for her own grown daughter.

In light of this edifying insight I’ve started to wonder if it might be a good idea to use Ellie in her Tim Man outfit as my blog banner. If that’s what people demand, scantily dressed... no, I mean fancy dress outfit tips, so be it.

Incidentally, I don't really think blogging is like syphilis, have a look at The Syphilitic Nature of Blogging (Part One) for how I arrived at the title. In the comments for that post my reader suggests that the dysphemism 'self abuse' is a more accurate analogy and, naturally, she is right.

Thank you AGAIN, James Fraser, for the Tin Man image. The soundtrack accompanying the slideshow of his doodles at that link are James and David Wright playing Anouman by Django Reinhardt. Incidently, David and his band, New Zealand Story, have a new album called Show Your Workings.

Check out the witty Madeleine York at Déjà view: television reviews & analysis, I like her blog.

*My new favourite expletive comes from Flann O' Brien. I've been listening to Jim Norton reading The Third Policeman. Listening to The Third Policeman half makes me want to give up writing altogether and half makes me want to plagiarise all his best phrases. Three guesses which I'll choose.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The YMCA Test for Bridesmaids' Gowns and being a Creep

There are going to be some pretty damn special weddings in the near future. My youngest child has been asked to be a bridesmaid, which is grand, and frocks are under discussion. One suggested dress is an asymmetrical style. It has rose petals or foliage all around the top and clambering over a single strap.

My youngest child is hesitant about this style.
‘What’s going to be under those petals climbing over the shoulder?'
'I'm not sure.'
'Will it be a shoe-string strap?'
'It could be.'
'You know what'll happen if it is don't you?'
'Will it dig in?'
‘Will it be annoying because it’s not equal and balanced?'
'Not that.'
'Will the other shoulder feel left out?’
'No, not left out.'
'What then?'
'The second I start doing the YMCA it’ll snap. There'll be petals flying everywhere.’

I’m not sure how to put it to her that this celebration might not be a YMCA kind of a do. It might not even be a
(brace yourself) Oops Upside Your Head kind of a wedding-do either.

I'm not going to let on just yet. It's going to be much more fun shopping for bridesmaids’ outfits if we're assuming we have to submit each gown to the YMCA test.

I discovered yesterday that the Author who is Writing about Neanderthals (my favourite hominin) will supervise my MA project. This is a very good thing but I’m also a little bit sad that it isn’t going to be the Writer with the Writerly Name.

At least I can now write sycophantic comments on the Writer with the Writerly Name's blog posts without appearing to be a creep. But then, what is the point of writing creepy comments, if it’s not going to get me better marks? Only kidding. Oh man, I think I’m only kidding, I hope I'm only kidding.

Had two mentions and
very fine link-ups in the last week.
Valerie O'Roirdan at not exactly true is about to start
an MA in creative writing at the University of Manchester (she's keen to hear from others doing the same or similar). There are links to some of Valerie's smashing stories from her blog.

Kate Feld at Manchizzle is hard at work adding blogs nominated for the Manchester Blog Awards to her blogroll.

And on the topic of the Manchester Blog Awards Dave Hartley has written a story a week for the last twelve months (just two to go). If you haven't read his tales yet you're set for a lovely treat.

Thank you, James Fraser, for my YMCA bridesmaid.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

It’s body snatching and it’s not nice but it’s not robbing… and the Top Secret Bunker

I was finding all about grave-robbing baddies on my recent trip to Crail.
Crail is a tiny seaside town in Fife in Scotland. As I’ve mentioned before; it probably isn’t there when you’re not looking.

Grave-robbers securing specimens for anatomists were considered a bit of a nuisance in Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. The real life characters, Burke and Hare, have been described as grave-robbers but they were in fact slayers and snatchers not robbers. They murdered outliers of society and sold their bodies to anatomists and they claimed the cadavers of people who weren’t really their relatives, so they could do the same. But they didn’t go to the trouble of digging up fresh bodies, not towards the end of their careers anyway.

However, real Resurrectionists, as they were nicknamed, did rob people out of graves. Scots parishioners devised a series of increasingly cunning devices to foil the nefarious grave-robbing baddies. They used metal hoops that secured a body into the coffin; ton-weight temporary mortstones to position across the grave; mortsafes and morthouses where the body would be tenable prior to burial and watch houses where a sentinel would guard newly occupied plots.

The nice man at the Crail bed and breakfast told me told me these things whilst I was eating my tea. And he added,
‘There’s a morthouse at the parish church, just along the road.’

I am incandescent with excitement. After tea I start to get ready to go out. Ian eyes me warily.
‘What are you doing?’
I am pulling on my tartan holiday socks.
'Just popping out for a little walk.’
‘It’s going dark.’
I am hoping towards the door, tying my shoelace as I go; did you ever see Wilson, Keppel and Betty performing the Sand Dance? It is very like that.
‘I won’t be long.’
‘You’re going to the graveyard, aren’t you?’
As my reader knows, I do have form where graveyards are concerned.
‘Only to see if the masons here ever use Shap Granite...’
You may also remember that Shap Granite is my current favourite rock.
‘You’re going to look for the morthouse, aren’t you?’
‘...and to look for the morthouse, I was going to say that.’
‘You know you’re a little bit Not Right in the Head, don’t you?’

He is probably correct, but I don’t care. I’m afraid of living people not dead people; I’m afraid of living people and loud bangs; loud bangs terrify me, every time.

It was twilight when I arrived at the gated church. Huge crows hunkered blackly on the church roof and supplied mournful and atmospheric cawing.

The churchyard at Crail is an enchanted necropolis. Built into a tall shadowy wall to the west of the church are a series of mural monuments. These architectural structures date back to the 17th century and are gratifyingly decorated with emblems of mutability and decay, the hourglass, skulls, crossbones, grave digging tools.
The carvings range in quality, from a detailed deaths head like the one above from James Lumsden’s tomb to almost childishly incised representations of skulls and femurs.
Death’s heads have crossed bones behind them whereas the skull and crossbones have the bones underneath. I’m calling the one above a death’s head because I suspect that those gaps where the face joins the cornice once held stone-bones; I have no other evidence for my theory. But I do like it.

A number of of the skulls resemble turnip heads, which, in the twilight, was somehow even more chilling than the more meticulous work.

The mason’s inscriptions are as forthright as their symbolism, although I concede that forthright symbolism is a contradiction.
‘Here lyes interred before this tomb
The corpse of Bailie Thomas Young’
No nancying around with euphemism; ‘there’s a rotting dead person under here’.

A particularly rewarding mural monument to the south of the church appears at first sight to be to the memory of a Dr Who character. The headless suit of armour is an effigy of William Bruce of Symbister.
The Christian convention is for dead people to be buried with their head in the west and their feet in the east; on judgement day the deceased wants to be able to sit up and face the rising sun. As a consequence, the posh people of Crail are interred along the, literally, monumental west wall.

Although Bruce of Symbister’s tomb looks archaic I wondered if it postdated the time when the west wall became full of memorials. Apparently this isn’t the case, he was buried in 1630. I’d be interested to learn why he was placed in the (lower status) south; maybe he just liked sunshine.

So, Bruce of Symbister was clearly posh but when the trumpet sounds his headless armour is going to have to sit up rustily and turn to the right as he does so to get the benefit of the sunrise. He was 80 when he died and has been dead almost four hundred years. Well, I do Pilates. I’m still alive and I’m only fiftyodd and I can assure you he’s going to find that exercise veeery tricky. Trust me. I would like to be here on the day of judgement to see his resurrection though.

As the stygian dusk deepened, the distant clock in Crail Marketgate sounded, the desolate cries of the corvids intensified (thanks, Sound Effect Guys) and I came across the neo-gothic morthouse with its inscription:
ERECTED for securing the DEAD:
AD 1826.

So this is where bodies were locked-up until they were too decomposed to be of value to the anatomist or medical student.

There are morthouses all over Fife but it seems the parishioners’ response to the threat of grave-robbing baddies was hugely disproportionate to the scale of the problem. It’s a long haul for a grave-robber to cart a corpse from Crail to St Andrews or Edinburgh and graves were not routinely robbed in the area. In any case by 1832, in response to the Burke and Hare murders, an Anatomy Act was passed, which secured a legal supply of unclaimed bodies from hospitals, poorhouses and workhouses.

Morthouses were an inexplicable fashion, a bit like animal print leggings.

I take my last photograph in the gloom, nod to the Sound Effect Guys and return to Ian, delighted with my first mural monument and my first morthouse. I start to explain to him about watch houses.
‘Relatives, or more likely, lackeys, had to stay in a little house in the graveyard, watching.’ There’s a pause.
‘A proper house?’
‘A little house, with a window and a fire.’
He’s listening to the radio, it sounds like athletics. I try to hook him with mans’ stuff.
‘Some watch houses have gun embrasures and the watchers were armed so they could fire at the grave-robbing baddies.’
He lifts the radio up to his ear.
‘Or they set up tripwire gun-traps.’
There’s a pause whilst something crucial happens in a race or whatever, then he speaks.
‘You wouldn’t have lasted long then.’
He’s right; I am always lurking around in graveyards looking shifty. Maybe I was a Resurrectionist in a previous incarnation and I got shot. That would explain a great deal.

In my last post I wrote about Padre George Smith being buried in Preston Cemetery. It says on the Rorke’s Drift website that his headstone is light red marble. Well I’ve found it and his headstone is Shap Granite; I knew it would be; Fools.
See, the thing is, marble is metamorphosed limestone and granite is… oh, never mind.

On a lighter note, there’s also a labyrinthine Top Secret Bunker by Crail; it’s where central government and military commanders would retreat in the event of a nuclear attack. Obviously, the parishioners of Fife don’t want the trouble of a lot of Johnny Foreigner types hanging around the golf course in spy wear asking directions in broken English (and not understanding the reply because it’s in Scottish English) so the helpful authorities have supplied a sign.

I was allowed to go to Crail as a prize for handing in my MA assignments nicely. I’ve also had my first rejection; I wasn’t selected for the Flax creative non-fiction anthology; I wasn’t surprised but I was sad. I understand it’ll get easier.

ps nominations are now open for the the Manchester Blog Awards. You can nominate yourself and you only have to be nominated once to enter (my friend's done me). Good Luck. (No. Really!)

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Zulus fighting in the flowerbed

This post is mostly about Preston and South Africa and Crail and some dead people who were once alive in those places.

Last week I finished the last two first year portfolios for my MA; the Writer with the Writerly Name’s Creative Writing Workshop portfolio, and the Agreeable Doctor’s Creativity and Marginality in Contemporary Writing portfolio. There’s a dissertation to write now; and a year to complete it in. As ever, I was just one day short of having enough time to finish those last two pieces nicely and I was up until three on Friday morning compiling them.

A few hours later Ian hefted me weightily into the car, folding my legs and arms in after like an inexpertly doubled deckchair and we set off for Crail, via the Humanities Office to hand in the assignments. The Humanities Office was locked and deserted; but I can’t talk about that yet. It’s enough to testify that the kind lady from the Ceremonies Office took the portfolios from me and gave me a receipt, and a hug.

There is an assignment drop box but how I feel about assignment drop boxes is: what about the bad person with the lighter fuel and the lit match? That’s all I’m saying.

On the way to Scotland the Radio 4 play was Ken Blakeson's Bearing the Cross which tells the story of Rorke’s Drift. This is an Amazing Coincidence because there’s a flower bed in Avenham Park in Preston that’s designed to mark the 130th anniversary of Rorkes Drift (*thinks* 'maybe that’s why Ken wrote the play too').

The 1964 film, Zulu, depicts the Battle of Rorke's Drift. It was a terrible fight between the British Army and Zulu warriors. Preston are observing the event because the padre, George Smith, became the chaplain at Fulwood Barracks, here in Preston, on his return from South Africa and is buried in New Hall Lane cemetery (that was after he died, obviously).

Apparently one hundred and thirty-nine British soldiers successfully defended the garrison at Rorke’s Drift against several thousand Zulu warriors (reported numbers vary). Eleven Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defending soldiers; the largest number of VCs conferred to a regiment for one action. George Smith received the Zululand medal and clasp for gallantry; only soldiers can receive the VC.

I felt ill at ease when I saw first saw the Avenham Park flowerbed a few weeks ago. I know the soldiers were brave and doing what they were employed to do, but it somehow seems out of place to be commemorating the defeat of native people who were defending their stolen land; just as Victorian Prestonian warriors would have defended Avenham Park, armed with fettlers and yard-brushes, if Zulu pastoralists had rolled up and set about grazing their cattle on the sward. Ken Blakeson's play reinforced my disquiet.

Crail is in Fife, across the Tay from Dundee. I tipped my hat groggily to Kathleen Jamie as I was driven by Newburgh. Jamie wrote Findings which was one of the Agreeable Doctor’s set texts. She also wrote the poem Arraheids in which arrowheads in museums,

thon raws o flint arraheids
in oor gret museums o antiquities’

are likened to the sharp tongues of Grannies who cannot stop themselves from putting you back in your place;

'ye arenae here tae wonder,
whae dae ye think ye ur?'

We’ve all met one of those Grandmas.

Crail is a picturesque fishing town (see above) fixed in another time and place. Like the Isle of Man, I suspect it isn't there if you’re not looking.

As you know, I spend a lot of time in graveyards, stealing names, admiring Shap Granite headstones, looking for dead babies; I can add looking for the headstone of an Army padre to that list now.

The graveyard at Crail Parish Church is the best yet. It has the oldest and most elaborate range of monuments I’ve ever seen. Tombs that would temp one to be buried alive (as was said of the mausoleum at Castle Howard, I forget who by).

I’m tired and emotional now, thinking about assignment drop boxes, kind administrators and displaced Zulu warriors who're reduced to fighting in a flowerbed. I’ll tell the tale of mural memorials, body snatchers and mort houses next time.