Saturday, 3 December 2011

Justice for celebrities!

An Australian colleague told me yesterday that when arriving for a tour of Australia years ago, Frank Sinatra was rude and contemptuous to an immigration official. When it came to leaving at the end of his tour, the highly unionised Australian immigration staff refused to process his passport, causing him to be delayed for days. Finally, according to my friend, he had to be flown out of the country in a military plane, from a military airport. If any of the highly unionised production staff at the BBC consider themselves to be public sector workers, perhaps they might consider boycotting any future programmes involving Jeremy Clarkson, thus keeping him off the airways altogether, for the benefit of everyone, and in the interests of popular justice. Just a thought.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Metaphors for our time

In my last speculation I drew attention to William Morris being memorably compared to a bell that rang true however you struck him.  The immediacy and physicality of this metaphor, carrying with it suggestions of sound (the double meaning here is pure poetry) as well as of touch, got me thinking about the possibility of more contemporary comparisons.  After all, few people nowadays actually engage in striking bells, and fewer and fewer even hear real bells very often.  So how might Morris's character have been described so succinctly using a modern metaphor?

'His customer service was always of the highest quality'
'Whatever the problem, his code was bug free'
'You never got to the end of his game'
'There were never any leaves on his railway'

I'm afraid this could easily become the sort of parlour game that Victor Meldrew would spend his life playing - I always have to control my VM tendencies, but I mean it seriously: are these solid, real life, physical metaphors thinner on the ground in the digital age?  Or am I just stuck in an unimaginative time warp?

The value of quotations

This post comes from thoughts while ironing a shirt this morning and listening to Thought for the Day on Radio 4.  A wonderful epitaph tribute was quoted about Sir Robert Shirley, who died in 1656: 'Sir Robert Shirley built this church, whose singular Praise is this: to have done the best of things in the worst of times'. This is indeed a heart-warming tribute - Shirley's times were undoubtedly hard for everyone in the country, whatever their circumstances, during the years of the civil war, but this expression somehow transcends the horrors even of that period, and ends up being about Shirley as just another man - one of us indeed - and so somehow also manages to inspire any of us also to rise above the challenges of the times we live in. This chain of thought led me to one about a similar quotation that has stayed with me ever since I read it in Edward Thompson's biography of Morris (these sentiments tend inevitably to be expressed following the death of the individual concerned). This was said by Robert Blatchford in the Clarion, the high-circulation socialist newspaper in his obituary of Morris written in 1896: 'However you struck him, he rang true'.

As any reader of this blog will know, I like quotations, and in a rather unsystematic way, collect them. I think this is for a number of reasons: a good quotation encapsulates in a memorable and concise way an important thought, so it can be a useful practical tool for thinking; and paying attention to quotations embodies the idea that the thoughts of people in the past are potentially relevant to contemporary living, and so imply the unity across time of humanity - we are no different from our forebears, and our most important problems and challenges were theirs also. They are tools for reflection, and so potentially of great value to anyone with a professional or indeed craft attitude to their activities.

Suggestions for more inspirational quotations welcome.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Grayson Perry exhibition: the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Notes taken during my visit to the exhibition: names of pieces, and direct quotations from GP, are in italics

Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience of the world

Ceramic works that appear to be metallic, or made of wood

Examples of one culture's early and uninformed view of people from another culture: eg white settlers by native Americans

The Rosetta vase

Hold your beliefs lightly

Quote from Beuys: In places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of 'enchanter' to appear

Like a world war 2 mine washed up on the beach encrusted with the boiled down essence of empire in the form of tourist tat

The map of truths and beliefs

Maps of imaginary lands: perhaps someone today should devise a satnav app for moral guidance

An accompanying display of badges excavated in Bosch's home town showed that much of the surreal iconography in his paintings derived from the popular imagery of the day

Grumpy old god: Alan Measles is unimpressed with the 21st century. He sees the facebook generation distracted by their smartphones and obsessed with celebrity. The multimedia collage of modern life makes it hard for an upcoming god to establish himself without a web presence

Gateway guardian figures, often scary


Herms were also sited outside houses for good luck where the genitalia would be anointed or rubbed by passers by

Wear, damage, dirt, repair, corrosion and decay are a large part of the language of authenticity

Billy and Charlies: I love fakes for they make us think about what it is we see in the authentic

Roman cameo fragments

Ralph Simpson and Ralph Toft earthenware plates, late 1600s: graphic boldness and relaxed fluency.

Craftsmanship is often equated with precision, but I think there is more to it. I feel it is more important to have a long and sympathetic hands-on relationship with materials. A relaxed, humble, ever-curious love of stuff is central to my idea of being an celebrating craftsmanship I also celebrate artists, well most of them.

Model boat with skeletons, Mexico, 1980s

The tomb of the unknown craftsman: it takes the form of an iron ship sailing into the afterlife. In the central reliquary is an example of the original tool which begat all tools, a flint hand axe 250000 years old.

Added much later: here's a link to the notes from my second visit to this exhibition:

Monday, 28 November 2011

Stanislav Lem

Stanislav Lem has recently been memorialised interestingly by Google, as hinted at in a post from last week. The Google interactive animation did indeed display many of the traits of Lem's writing: whimsicality, humour, machines with human characteristics, rather flat human characters, exactitude in matters of science and scientific procedures. I've not heard any account of why Google chose to highlight Lem in this way - I quite like the idea that he tends to be a secret enthusiasm - certainly I've not met anyone else determined to read everything he wrote.  I've tried to get hold of all his stories over the years since I came across him after seeing the stunning Tarkovsky film version of Lem's novella Solaris as a student in the early 70s, but it's hard to be sure what his total output has been - he has certainly been prolific. I've done quite well, but every time I'm in a second hand bookshop I'm half hoping I might find another collection, or another short novel.

A repeated theme of Lem's, one he returned to over and over again, is the idea of non-human entities behaving like humans, or acquiring the characteristics of humans, for better, or more often, for worse.  In Lem it is often the humans who are dangerous to non-humans, rather than the other way around.  There is the short story about a mining robot on the moon which fails to report back after a mission.  The human cosmonauts track it, finding it smashed at the bottom of a sheer cliff, and gradually realise that it decided on a whim to go for a climb.  Chris's wife's alter ego in Solaris is in the process of becoming more and more identical to her, and implicitly begs the question: from a moral point of view, shouldn't she be treated like a human, like his wife, even if she clearly is not?  What is the difference between a creation of the planet Solaris and Dolly the sheep?  Neither have been 'born' in the normal sense, but both demand recognition based on how they appear to be, and on how they behave, rather than their origin.

These stories might be termed 'hard science ficition', but Lem also writes in a genre which harks back to Swift and Voltaire: I'm not sure if there is a special academic term for this genre, but I think of them as satirical parables, often featuring a rogue celebrity scientist and space traveller called Ion Tichy.  His adventures often start as conventional science fiction but plunge into surreal comic episodes poking fun at scientific conferences and demonstrating the enormous collective self-centredness and lack of imagination of earthlings.  Another series of such pieces takes the form of spoof reviews of fictional scientific and literary works, including some apparently written by Lem himself. 

My favourites include Solaris, the most memorable moral and philosophical work of science fiction I know, and The Invincible, the depressing and at times terrifying record, expressed in an admirably downbeat 'ship's log' style, of a futile encounter on a distant planet between visiting humans more or less of our time and a type of entity that once again defies categorisation, this time as either animal or mineral.  Whatever the answer to this conundrum, they are potentially lethal, and impossible to negotiate with.  The humans eventually work out the genesis of these 'creatures', which is impeccably plausible in scientific terms, if not how to deal with them.  After episodes of extraordinary mutual violence, there is a stand off, and the humans leave, realising that there is absolutely no point in staying: this is one planet they will not be able to colonise, though their 'enemy' can hardly be said to be even aware of their existence.  Lem seems to be once again expressing a message about the limits of human experience and the dangers of hubris: we are partially familar with the natural world on this planet and think we understand it, though how much is debatable.  But 'the natural world' extends in reality to other worlds too, where it certainly expresses itself in ways beyond our ken - this should be a matter for awe and humility, he seems to be saying.  We should be more aware of our cosmic insignificance and the accidental and serendipitous nature of our very existence.

Stanislav Lem 1921-2006 b.Lvov, Poland (now Ukraine) 
'The world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created ... intentionally'.   An Interview with Stanislaw Lem by Peter Engel. Missouri Review Volume 7, Number 2, 1984

Upmarket binge drinking

From the same issue of Prospect:

Lord Byron writes to Thomas Moore from Piccadilly, 31st October 1815:

Yesterday I dined out with a largeish party, where were Sheridan and Colman, Harry Harris and his brother, Sir Gilbert Heathcote, Kinnaird and others, of note and notoriety.  Like other parties of the kind, it was first silent, then talky, then argumentative, then disputatious, then unintelligible, then altogethery, then inarticulate, and then drunk.  When we reached the last step of this glorious ladder, it was difficult to get down again without stumbling; and to crown all, Kinnaird and I had to conduct Sheridan down a damned corkscrew staircase, which had certainly been constructed before the discovery of fermented liquors, and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves.  We deposited him safe at his home, where his man, evidently used to the business, waited to receive him in the hall.

Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, makes it clear how much drinking was endemic to the culture of the ruling political classes in the early nineteenth century, and particularly the Whigs, of which Sheridan was a leading member.  Is it still true today, I wonder?

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Binge drinking, a great British tradition

A brilliant 18th century primary historical document collected by Prospect magazine:

Thomas Turner, a grocer in Sussex, writes in his diary, 22nd February 1758:

'About four pm I walked down to Whyly. We played at Bragg the first part of the even. After ten we went to supper on four boiled chicken, four boiled ducks, minced veal, sausages, cold roast goose, chicken pasty and ham. Our company, Mr and Mrs Porter, Mr and Mrs Coates, Mrs Atkins, Mrs Hicks, Mr Piper and wife, Joseph Fuller and wife, Tho Fuller and wife, Dame Durrant, myself and wife and Mr French's family. After supper our behaviour was far from that of serious harmless mirth; it was downright obstreperous, mixed with a great deal of folly and stupidity. Our diversion was dancing, or jumping about, without a violin or any music, singing of foolish healths, and drinking all the time as fast as it could well be poured down; and the parson of the parish was one of the mized multitude....About three o'clock, finding myself to have as much liquor as would do me good, I slept away unobserved, leaving my wife to make my excuse...

This morning about six just as my wife was got to bed, we was awaked by Mrs Porter. My wife found Mr Porter (the parson), Mr Fuller and his wife, with a lighted candle, and part of a bottle of wine and a glass. The next thing was to have me downstairs, which being apprised of, I fastened my door. Upstairs they came and threatened to break it open, so I ordered my boys to open it, when they poured into my room. Their immodesty permitted them to draw me out of bed, as the common phrase is, topsy-turvy. Instead of my upper clothes, they gave me time to put on my wife's petticoat; and in this manner they made me dance, without shoes or stockings, until they had emptied the bottle of wine and also a bottle of beer.'

This is the kind of material that should be used much more in history lessons.

More historical documents of excess in the pipeline, suggestions welcome.