Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Everything is illuminated

Everything Is IlluminatedEverything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the film, and so I read the book, and then, having finished the book, I watched the film again.

The story is funny and sad by turns. The film, which deals with only one dimension of the book starts by being funny, and ends by being sad. Because I’m interested in family history, at the surface level a young man’s search for his family history interests me. Jonathan Safran Foer knows his grandfather came from a village called Trachimbrod in Ukraine, and was saved from the Nazis by a woman called Augustine. Since this is also the name of the author, it seems that he is one of the characters in his own story.

The film deals mainly with the search, while the book deals more with what he found, or what he imagines he found. His guide and translator is Alex, and they are driven around by Alex’s grandfather (who claims to be blind, and has a seeing-eye bitch called Sammy Davis Junior Junior).

From the film: Alex, Jonathan, and Sammy Davis Junior Junior, the See4ing-Eye Bitch

Alex’s English leaves something to be desired, and he seems to have learnt it mainly from books. Finding too many synonyms in English, he fixes on one word, which he uses on all occasions. He picks words for their imagined denotations, regardless of the connotations. When he is angry with people, he “spleens” them, until Jonathan tries to explain that English doesn’t work like that, so Alex substitutes “wrathful” for spleening. He confesses to Jonathan that he has never been carnal with a girl, and is rather distressed to discover that when Jonathan writes the story he writes that his (Jonathan’s) grandfather has been carnal with many women, mainly widows, from an early age.

The story is told from different viewpoints. Alex writes letters to Jonathan, while Jonathan sends him currency for the research he does. Jonathan tries to reconstruct the story of Trachimbrod and its inhabitants. The village was obliterated by the Nazis during the Second World War, and there were very few survivors, one of whom salvaged what she could, and another was Jonathan’s grandfather.

The name of the village does not appear on any map, because it came from an incident when a wagon overturned in a flooded river. The wagon may or may not have belonged to a man named Trachim, who may or may not have drowned when the wagon overturned. A baby, who may or may not have been Trachim’s daughter survived the accident, and the village decided who should bring her up. She was called Brod, and was Jonathan’s great great great great great grandmother.

The story that Jonathan reconstructs has a kind of dreamlike quality, and though Trachimbrod was very good at keeping records, many of the records were destroyed when the village itself was destroyed by the Nazis. As they discover more, Alex’s grandfather is forced to confront his own past behaviour during the war.

It is a book about many things, and especially memory, and how we remember and interpret the past and the present in the light of the past.

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Nauseating words

I’ve occasionally read articles about words that people hate. Apparently one of the most disliked words in the English language is “moist”.

But this article reminded me of two of my least favourite words — 2 New ‘Harry Potter’ Books Are Coming This October:

Harry Potter fans have yet another reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the iconic wizarding franchise: They’re getting two new books this October.

For me two of the most nauseating words are “franchise” and “brands”, but “iconic” comes a pretty close third.

Harry Potter is a fictional character in a series of books. Why call him a “franchise”? Why are so many sports teams called “franchises” nowadays. These words do have proper uses. I have no objection to referring to a fast-food joint like KFC as a “franchise” where it means that they have been licensed to use the KFC brand and logos even though they are independently owned. But call it a franchise when referring to their business model;, not to the stuff they sell (ground up chicken beaks and gizzards called “nuggets”).

But how many authors have been licensed to write Harry Potter books? How many sports teams around the world (or even the UK) have been licensed to call themselves “Manchester United” or “Norwich City”? As far as I know, one and one only in each instance. That doesn’t make them a franchise, or anything remotely like it.

And all this talk about “brands” — are you interested in “brands”? Yes, I’ve seen online questionnaires that ask that. Should I say yes, I’m interested in brands. I really do prefer KFC to Ford, for example. Fried chicken gets me from A to B so much faster than a motor car, Dettol plays much better cricket than the Titans.

But perhaps I’m alone in this. “Brands”, “franchise” and “iconic” don’t seem to have made these lists, no matter how high they are on mine “Moist” And 28 Other Gross-Sounding English Words That Everyone Hates | Thought Catalog, and 11 Gross-Sounding Words Everyone Hates To Hear, According To Science.

The SAfm radio station has a Sunday morning programme on media, and “brands” feature pretty prominently in it.

Samuel Maverick

It all makes me rather sympathetic to Samuel Maverick, whose name entered the English language because he never branded his cattle. Unbranded cattle that did not belong in the herd were called “mavericks”. Later it came to be applied to people who didn’t follow the herd, like politicians who didn’t toe (or nowadays “tow”) the party line. Like Makhosi Khoza. I suppose that’s why I like to read the Daily Maverick. And why I would like to see Makhosi Khoza as our next president.

So the more talk I hear of “brands”, the more I think of Samuel Maverick. No matter what else he did, he made an important and much-needed contribution to the English language.

Writers’ territory

Writers' TerritoryWriters’ Territory by Stephen Gray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty-seven short pieces ranging from the 16th century to the late 1960s, of people who travelled in or wrote about southern Africa. It covers most of the subcontinent, and has a variety of authors, many of them well known, and some not usually associated with southern Africa.

The selections include descriptive articles, short stories, and extracts from larger works, beginning with The Lusiads of Camoens, and ending with an extract from Terra Amata by Jean-Marie le Clezio.

Some of the authors, like Jules Verne, Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope are known mainly for their writings outside the subcontinent, while others have a more indigenous flavour. Some are professional writers, while others, like the German soldier fighting against Hendrik Witbooi’s resistance in the dry Auob valley, are just trying to describe their own experiences. What makes it interesting is that each piece views the landscape and the people from a different point of view.

Among my favourites are those that describe places I have known, like William Plomer’s description of Zululand in the 1920s. We lived there in the 1970s, so it was interesting to see what changes had taken place since then, and it is now almost as long ago that we lived there.

Another such time warp was Etienne Leroux’s description of the south-western Free State, a part of the country I have never visited, but his description could apply to many other places as well. He begins thus:

You can describe a region and its people, you can list colours, objects, sounds, generalize about types and trace its history. Out of such material a place takes on a different character for each of us, and each creates it from his personal, transcendental world which exemplifies yet again the loneliness of each of us — your own ‘true’ image cannot be shared by anyone else. I remember the sunlight through my windows one morning, many years ago, on a farm in the soutjh-west Free State, and I am suddenly filled with a longing for something that might never have existed.

And that is what this book is about, places that may have evoked longing in the writers, but perhaps different places evoke a similar longing for their readers. Sometimes it evokes a longing for youth…

There are no ruins worth talking about; only some stones where a house once stood. A new building is erected by a later generation and the old building crumbles away into a shed, a kraal,. and eventually a gravel heap with pieces of bottle and rusted kettles. What has happened to your youth? Where has it gone? You look around and see that your playgrounds no longer exist. Vanished like the mist on the vlei — which also no longer exists. It all lives on in the memory; the past is not contained in landmarks, but in the stories old people tell — and the old people die one by one.

And my blog is one of the stories that old people tell, for I am now old, old as Leroux was in my youth, when he was writing that, for he goes on to describe a funeral he attended back then:

… the farmer sons buttoned up in tight fitting snuff-grey suits and strangled by snow-white collars; the grandsons and granddaughters from the city in the uniform of the teenager: beehive hairdos and ducktails greying with dust…

Beehive hairdos and ducktails?

That dates it to when I was 17 or 18. “Tomorrow they leave for the city on motor scooters, in Valiants and Kombis, leaving the depopulation of the south-west Free State to be felt again.”

It can be dated even more precisely from internal evidence by those old enough to remember, for he writes of “the garage painted in the glaring colours of either Shell or Atlantic or Total.” That puts it in 1959, the year that Atlantic petrol made way for BP, and after 1957, the year that Total petrol began to be sold in South Africa. And beehive hairdos were no earlier than that, even though ducktails were. And a few years later the Valiants would have had plastic oranges on their aerials.

But each place has its own memories, its own associations for each of us, and in spite of a book like this one, they cannot really be shared. They can only hint at one’s own memory of a longing for something which might never have existed.

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In a relationship

Nearly 60 years ago a friend, Dale White, tried to explain to me how urban society imposes different kinds of relationships on peope. In small towns and villages, there are people you know — friends and family — and people you don’t know. In urban living, you have many more relationships with people you don’t know. How do you describe them? They are not people completely unknown to you, but you usually only interact with them in one context.

Do you call them acquaintances? Not really, because even acquaintances you might meet in other contexts. These relationships are primarily functional, you meet them solely because they perform a particular function. They are impersonal relationships, rather than personal relationships. Family and friends are personal relationships, and even acquaintances. I call acquaintances people I met at a conference once, perhaps chatted to them over a meal, heard them deliver a paper. Such a relationship is personal rather than functional.

But the cashier at the supermarket till?

That is surely a functional relationship?

In a small village you might meet them in other contexts, at church, or at the hairdressers, or at a sports club, in a pub, or even in another shop where they are also customers. But in the big city, chances are the only time you ever meet them is when they tally your purchases, swipe your card, or take your cash. You are unlikely to meet them in any other context. Sometimes they have a label with their name on it, but I have the uncomfortable feeling that that is mainly there so that dissatisfied customers can complain. And usually it is only their first name so that you don’t even know their surname.

But we have recently learned that two of our neighbourhood supermarkets are to close within the next week or so. The Spar is to become a Pick ‘n Pay, and one of the worries is that we may no longer be able to get fresh bread.

But when we moved here at the end of 1984 there was a branch of Checkers at the Queenswood shopping centre. It was later renovated and became Shoprite, but Shoprite and Checkers are owned by the same company, so it just meant a change in the decor. But now the site is to be redeveloped, and it will close. It will reopen as Checkers again, some time. But then we realised that some of the people who worked there had been there ever since we moved here over 30 years ago. What will happen to them in the mean time?

These are people whom we have seen once a month or more often for the last 30 years and more. Can one really speak of an impersonal, purely functional relationship? We have got used to seeing them, but as a a part of the landscape, but in more than 30 years they should surely be more than merely nameless functionaries. Surely we will miss them?

Samuel Mailula, worked at ShopRite/Checkers in Queenswood for 39 years

So when we went shopping this morning I took my camera along, and we asked where they were going when the shop- closes its doors tomorrow. It turns out that they will be moving to other branches. Two will be going to the Silverton branch, and the third to the Mamelodi branch, which is closer to where he lives, but he only has a couple of years to go until retirement. He is Samuel Mailula, and he has been working for Shoprite/Checkers for 39 years, so practically his entire working life.

Another one is Louisa Molobi. Val remembers her being pregnant several times, and now she is grey-haired, and perhaps one of those babies has now made her a grandmother, and that is how long we have known her. Now she no longer mans the till, but rather goes round to the other cashiers, sorting out their problems.

The third was Wendy Sheshabela, still sitting at the till, and somewhat apprehensive about the changes. The last time the shop was renovated, and made the change from Checkers to Shoprite, it did not close completely, they just closed sections of the store while they were working on it. But this time round the shop will close, and they will all be moved.

Wendy Sheshabela and Louisa Molobi, long-time workers at Shoprite/Checkers in Queenswood, Pretoria

There was a time when I was on the other end of such relationships, when I was a bus conductor in Johannesburg. That was about the time when I had the discussion with Dale White about personal and impersonal relationships, and as a new bus conductor I was a casual, so filled in for other conductors on leave or off sick, so rarely worked the same route twice, or at the same time of day. So I took fares and issued tickets, and passengers were just a sea of faces.

After I’d been there a while we could pick a regular shift in order of seniority, and so I had a regular route, four trips from the Joburg business district to the Turffontein Racecourse early in the morning. The first trip carried few passengers out of town, most were coming in to work, and so I remembered some of the regulars. There was an old night watchman, presumably going home after guarding one of the big dark deserted office blocks. He rather incongruously wore a badge proclaiming him a member of the Pepsodent Youth Club. On the next trip there were a couple of pretty Indian school girls. I only worked on that route for about a year, I only saw them in that context, and I never saw them again. But I still remember them.

It was one of those urban functional relationships, but it was not, surely, entirely impersonal. And when, as in the case of the people at our local supermarket, we have been seeing them regularly for more than 30 years, we probably know them better than our next-door neighbours, whom we hardly see at all, except occasionally driving past in a car, darkly waving behind a window reflecting the sun.

I use a genealogy program called Legacy Family Tree. I’ve been using it since 2002, and in entering information about a person one could tick a box labelled “This individual never married and had no children”. This would then appear on certain reports, so that you could, know that there was no point in looking for possible descendants. I so marked my uncle Willie Growdon, who died in a motorbike accident at the age of 25.

But the newer version of Legacy Family Tree that I am now using has changed the wording, so that it now says that Uncle Willie had “no relationships and no children”. And that looks so very sad. Abandoned by his parents at birth, never knew his siblings, had, no friends, never had a girlfriend, had no acquaintances, no human contact at all. So is our language, and our social networking, devalued.

No, Legacy, you got it wrong. We are most of us in all sorts of relationships, personal and impersona, to varying degrees, but it is only when we are about to lose them that we begin to appreciate them, as we do the staff of the local supermarket, and realise that human relationships are important.

 

 

 

Akismet and persistent spammer

For the last few days someone calling itself MichaelDes or MichaelDus has been desperately trying to post spam comments on one of my blogs, and I’ve been getting notifications of each attempt.

Normally such things are just marked as spam without any notification, so I’m wondering why the Akismet spam checker isn’t handling these in the normal way. Any other bloggers having problems with spam comments from MichaelDes?

I’ve set my mail reader to automatically delete the notifications, but I still have to go to the blog and mark the comments in the moderation queue as spam.

Five Children and It (book review)

Five Children and itFive Children and it by E. Nesbit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I had heard about, but never seen, until my eye lit on it in the library this week. It’s good bed-time reading, because each chapter is almost a self-contained story.

I suppose coming so late to it, probably many people have had an opportunity to read it before me, and it is too well-known to need much children — four children and their baby brother discover a Psammead, a very ancient sand fairy who grants wishes. And, as I’m sure many others have said, the theme “be careful what you wish for” runs right through the book. In each chapter the children spent most of their time, energy, and, sometimes, money, trying to undo the damage that their wishes have caused.

It is interesting that most of the best books for children that have lasted have been fantasy books. Most of the children’s books from before the First World War have probably been all but forgotten, but many of those that have lasted and been reprinted have been fantasy books.

Another thought is that the children in the story, and therefore many of the first readers of the book, would have been of the generation that fought in the First World War. They grew up in a kind of idyllic world that was to vanish in their generation.

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The mystery of the Solar Wind (book review)

At our literary coffee klatch a couple of weeks ago Tony McGregor brought along a book called The mystery of the Solar Wind, which he said was about pirates in the 22nd century, so when I saw a copy in the library I grabbed it and brought it home to read.

The Mystery of the Solar WindThe Mystery of the Solar Wind by Lyz Russo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a bit conflicted about this book. On the one hand, I found it compelling reading, an interesting story, of pirates in the world a century in the future. On the other hand, there are too many rough edges, and it feels unfinished, like a rough draft that somehow escaped into the public library. The copy I read has no ISBN and is not listed on GoodReads, and the cover is different from all the editions that are. Its date is 2009, and it reads like a publisher’s proof copy sent to bookshops in advance of publication.

Some of the rough edges may have been smoothed out in a later “proper” edition, but I still wonder why this one was found in the public library.

It is set in a world in which two superpowers, the Unicate, which seems to be a kind of expanded and corrupt Nato, and the Rebellion, based in the south Pacific, are fighting for global dominance, and there is the Southern Free, in Africa, which appears to mind its own business and doesn’t come into the story much. And apart from that there are the pirates, who acknowledge none of the world powers.

The Solar Wind is a pirate ship, whose Hungarian captain seems to have an incongruously Slavic name. It is a wind-powered ship — ships using mineral oil as fuel are a thing of the past — though it does have fuel cell and nuclear auxiliary drives.

The protagonists are the Donegal siblings, Ronan, Paean and Shawn, orphans who joined the ship at Dublin, fleeing from the Unicate after the death of their mother in suspicious circumstances.

But there are puzzling quirks and plot holes. The pirates explain to the Donegals that they are not the bloodthirsty villains of popular perception, and go out of the way to avoid harming their enemies, until there is a sudden and totally unexpected outbreak of gratuitous violence and mass murder, which would certainly in our day be regarded as a war crime. And what kind of person gives a twelve-year-old a rifle to shoot people escaping a sinking ship in a lifeboat? Was it that the Donegals were only beginning to become aware of their real nature of their hosts? No, it seems to have been a turning point when they became loyal to them.

There are mysteries that are never explained, and the reader is simply left hanging. There are strange uses of words, some of which could be explained by language changes over the next century, except that they seem strangely inconsistent. “Anna bottle” can be accepted as a 22nd century expression, but exclaiming “Cor” seems so 1960s London. One sentence spoke of things being connected “by vice of a three-toed print”, and I tried to think of a three toed print holding things together like a vice, but the imagery failed. Perhaps it was meant to be “by the device of a three-toed print”, which would be evidence for my suspicion of its being an uncorrected proof copy that escaped to the library, but even that would make no sense in the context.

Something I also found odd was the reference to female characters by their hair colour — “the redhead”, “the brunette” (with black hair nogal). That seemed to belong to 1936 rather than 2116. And since the male characters weren’t referred to in that way it seemed rather sexist to me. It was also confusing, because there were two female characters with red hair, so one had to work out which one was being referred to.

One of the books we also discussed at the literary coffee klatsch was A high wind in Jamaica, which was also about children and pirates, though the setting was about 250 years earlier than The mystery of the Solar Wind, so I can’t help making comparisons. In A high wind in Jamaica the children (who are mostly younger than those in Solar Wind) are inadvertently captured by pirates, and actually turn out to be considerably more bloodthirsty than the pirates, especially when the pirates are themselves captured and put on trial, and the children are called upon to give evidence at their trial. But the bloodthirstiness of the children as as nothing compared to the imaginations of the adults at the trial, who embroider the evidence given by the children into something utterly remote from the reality.

At the time of writing The mystery of the Solar Wind is  available free on Smashwords.

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From hipsters to hippies: 50 years

Fifty years ago hipsters got abbreviated to hippies, and the world seemed to change, at least for that generation. Things changed visibly, and sometimes in strange ways. Young people dressed in bright clothes, and the drabness of the postwar years was exchanged for a kind of spring-time exuberance. People spoke of the Prague Spring, but spring was appearing in many places.

Warning: This post is full of boring personal reminiscences of that time, so now’s the time to stop reading if you don’t like that kind of thing.

Steve Hayes at Merstham, August 1967

In August 1967 I was halfway through my studies for a postgraduate diploma in theology at St Chad’s College, Durham, England, and was spending the summer vacation with the family of Mervyn Sweet, who had been the Anglican parish priest when I had been an undergraduate in Pietermaritzburg. They were housesitting a mansion in Merstham, Surrey, for a doctor who was himself on holiday in Spain. The house looked a bit like the house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — the kind of place where anything could happen.

I stayed in a garret at the top of the house, reading and studying for a supplementary church history exam I had to write, and coming down to swim or play tennis or listen to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

We watched top of the pops on television. On 13 August 1967 the cream was on the top: (1) San Francisco, by Scott McKenzie (2) All you need is love, by the Beatles (3) Death of a clown, by the Kinks, and what was underneath was real trash — Tom Jones wailing about something, and Vicki Carr who sang the most incredible mawkish mush about dying because he didn’t phone her. “All you need is love” stayed on top for several weeks and even Mick Jagger was in the audience singing with them, with flowers in his hair.

And on TV (black and white, in those days), a psychologist tried to explain changing styles of dress. As I wrote in my diary on 17 August 1967:

… we watched a television programme on long-haired boys, and a psychologist said why he thought their hair was long and their clothes so colourful — their parents were a hangover from the age when it was fashionable for men to dress like bankers, to show that they could offer security to their wives. Now the state looks after everyone’s security, so there was no longer any need for that.

Also the ratio of boys to girls was increasing, and so boys had to make themselves more attractive to girls by dressing in a more colourful way. They also said the previous generation of Englishmen had had compulsory military training, and so were more likely to fit into society because they felt society needed them, and with the present generation of youth it was not so — an interesting light on South Africa, where more and more whites are being called up for military service and a generation of conformist youth is being bred, and the short back and sides is considered a desirable symbol of young fascist manhood, like at Natal University among the Rhodesians, in whom the process had been more advanced — they were for the most part a close-cropped short back-and-sides rugby-playing type.

They had little to do with girls on a human level, and were happy with their segregated state behind the high wire fence of men’s res. Their attitude to girls was “fuck and forget”. True, they went to more parties and dances than John Aitchison and I ever went to, but meeting the opposite sex in such circumstances is an insulation rather than a catalyst. They only relaxed among males, and so their virility is really a sham. In fact they were afraid of not being able to hold their own in female company, so they relied on the security of that all-male ghetto, William O’Brien Hall. I went to bed and began to read Incognito by Peter Dumitriou.

Whereas in the 1950s the prevailing motif in clothing had been uniformity, especially for males, by the late 1960s diversity prevailed. While The Kinks satirised the “dedicated follower of fashion”, there wasn’t much fashion to follow.

The Beatles 1987

In the December vacation of 1967/68 I spent some time with some Dutch Augustinian friars in Breda and Nijmegen. They thought they were being “with it” by discarding their habits for business suits, and were distressed to find that I didn’t possess this latest item of relevant gear. They sent one of the fathers out with me to the shop to buy me one, and on the way to the shop, trudging through the snow and the slush, I talked him out of it. But on TV a DJ appeared wearing a monastic habit.

Even as a child I hated the idea of business suits, and dreaded the thought of growing up and having to dress like that, and so the “anything goes” freedom of the late 60s was a great relief to me. And it seemed that I was not alone, The hippie spring of 1967 seemed to express the repressed desire of a whole generation. It wasn’t just the Beatles music, they dressed the part as well.

The young Frank Sinatra

Yet this generation seems to be nameless,. People talk about Generation X or Y or Millennial or whatever, but the have no name for this hippie generation, or for the business suit generation that preceded it. But if the Beatles were the musical icon of the hippie generation, the musical icon of the business-suit generation was Frank Sinatra, whose childhood ideal was exactly the opposite of mine. When he was the age at which I dreaded growing up and having to wear a business suit, he was already wearing one by anticipation.

A couple of days ago a college friend from those days, Robert Gallagher, sent me this reminder of what else was going on at that time:

More of 50 years ago, in 1967

  • The number of American troops serving in Vietnam increased to 475,000
  • Peace-rallies and Protests increase
  • The Boxer Muhammad Ali stripped of his Boxing World Championship for refusing to be inducted into the US Army
  • Israel goes to war with Syria, Egypt and Jordan in the Six Day War and occupies more territory
  • Rioting in Detroit with America’s National Guard brought in
  • Charlie Chaplin opens his last film, ‘A Countess From Hong Kong’
  • Twiggy becomes a fashion sensation and mini-skirts became shorter with paper clothing a short lived fashion
  • The Discotheque
  • While The Beatles release ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band’, The Rolling Stones are involved in various drugs’ busts (thanks to ‘The News of The World’) and imprisonments, and release the single ‘We Love You’, with prison-door-slamming sound effects
  • The ‘Summer of Love’ and the birth of the Hippies
  • Donald Campbell killed on Coniston Water
  • Britain’s second Polaris nuclear submarine ‘HMS Renown’ launched at Birkenhead
  • The first North Sea gas pumped ashore
  • The supertanker ‘SS Torrey Canyon’ runs aground off Land’s End and bombed by the RAF
  • Anguillan-born Norwell Roberts the first black officer in London’s Metropolitan Police Force
  • ‘Puppet on a String’ by Sandie Shaw wins the Eurovision Song Contest
  • Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ Old Vic premiere
  • Harold Wilson announces the United Kingdom has decided to apply for EEC membership
  • The Roman Catholic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King Consecrated
  • Celtic F.C. becomes the first British and Northern European team to reach a European Cup final and win it, beating Inter Milan 2-1 in normal time, with the winning goal scored by Steve Chalmers, in Lisbon, Portugal
  • Francis Chichester arrives in Plymouth after completing his single-handed sailing voyage around the world in his yacht, Gipsy Moth IV, in nine months and one day
  • The first scheduled Colour-television broadcasts on BBC2, with Wimbledon Tennis
  • Parliament decriminalised Consensual Adult Male Homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act
  • UK Government announces closing its military bases in Malaysia and Singapore (Australia and United States do not approve)
  • The Welsh Language Act allows the use of Welsh in legal proceedings and official documents in Wales
  • The British Steel Industry is Nationalised
  • Astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Antony Hewish first to observe a Pulsar
  • The Inquiry into the Aberfan disaster blames the National Coal Board for the collapse of a colliery slag-heap which claimed the lives of 164 people in South Wales in 1966
  • Pink Floyd releases debut album ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
  • Dunsop Valley Lancashire enters the UK Weather Records with the Highest 90-min total rainfall at 117 mm (As of August 2010 this record remains)
  • The ‘RMS Queen Elizabeth 2’ (the QE2) launched at Clydebank by Queen Elizabeth II, using the same pair of gold scissors used by her mother and grandmother to launch the ‘Queen Elizabeth’ and ‘Queen Mary’respectively
  • The Abortion Act, passed in Parliament
  • Charles de Gaulle vetoes British entry into the European Economic Community again – British troops leave Aden, which they had occupied since 1839, enabling the new republic of Yemen
  • Tony O’Connor the first non-white head teacher of a British school appointed head of a primary school in Smethwick, near Birmingham
  • Concorde unveiled in Toulouse, France
  • BBC Radio 4 panel game ‘Just a Minute’, chaired by Nicholas Parsons, first transmitted (still running under the same chairman 50 years later)
  • Ford Cars announces the end of ‘Anglia’ production to be replaced by the ‘Escort’
  • Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri’s poetry anthology ‘The Mersey Sound’
  • Hilary Annison and Robert Gallagher Marry.

And now?

The last of those who were in their twenties in the Summer of Love will be reaching their seventies and retirement.

Remember the motto?

Don’t trust anyone over 30.

 

 

The Rule of Four (book review)

The Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We were rushing off somewhere else when we called at the library to change our books so I grabbed this one off the shelf rather quickly. The blurb compared it with Umberto Eco, but it also compared it with Dan Brown. There was no time to look for another, however, so I just took it and hoped for the best.

When we got home my son, who had worked in a bookshop, recalled that it had been compared a lot with Dan Brown’s books about 12 years ago, so I was prepared for the worst, but was rather pleasantly surprised. Umberto Eco it isn’t. I gave five stars to Foucault’s Pendulum, and one star to The da Vinci code, but i think this one warrants three=and-a-half.

The rule of four is about four friends, final year undergraduates at Princeton University, two of whom are majoring in literature, and one of them, Paul Harris, is studying the Hypnerotomachia while another, the narrator, Tom Sullivan, is the son of a student of the same book, though he himself is working on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It appears that the Hypnerotomachia, is a real book about Poliphilo’s dream struggle for the love of Polia, so it’s not a fictional one like the one mentioned in The da Vinci code, which my son said people kept coming into the book shop to ask for, and would not believe him when he told them it was a fictional work in a work of fiction. Even when I got to the end of this book, however, I found it difficult to pronounce the title.

Paul Harris believes that the Hypnerotomachia contains a secret code, and much of the plot of the book is devoted to discovering what it is, which I suppose accounts for the similarity with The da Vinci code, but it is not nearly as facile as the latter. The plot also involves academic rivalries which lead to murder, and at some points that is rather unconvincing, and the narrative seems to jump about rather inexplicably.

It none the less kept my interest to the end, even though some parts seemed rather implausible. The book has several illustrations in it, and it would have helped if a map of the Princeton campus had been included among them.

I find I rather like books of this genre — books about literary studies of other books, or authors, where there was some mystery about them that needed to be solved. There didn’t seem to be a list for that genre on Good Reads, so I created one, and hope others will add similar books to the list, so I can add them to my to-read list.

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Random thoughts inspired by Enneagram

This morning Duncan Reyburn spoke about Enneagrams at TGIF, and here are some connected and some disconnected thoughts inspired in part by what he said.

For those who don’t know, Enneagram is one of those personality type thingies, and you can get a sample of it here to find out roughly where you fit in.

If it’s any help, my main type is 5, with 9 and 4 as subsidiaries. And on the Myers-Briggs scale I’m INTP (I find the Myers-Briggs one more helpful, as these things go).

As we sat waiting for Duncan to begin Val recalled that I had been rather disconcerted to find myself labelled as a type back in the 1970s. It was actually a jocular piece written by a journalist in the Sunday Tribune for women who felt the need for a piscine cyclist in their lives.[1] She described varieties of nubile males and what I found disconcerting was that her description of one of the types fitted me right down to the last detail. The detail I remember best was the car I drove — an ancient rust bucket with an empty cold-drink bottle rolling around on the floor (picture here). I think it included a beard and scruffy clothes as well. Actually it was rather flattering, in that she said that was one of the better catches available in the pond, But it was the thought that there were enough of us around to be so closely described that I found disconcerting.

But that was totally unscientific, so back to the Enneagram, and more unscientific thoughts inspired by it.

Duncan spoke about mythology and mythical monsters.: The contrast in Genesis 1 between the forces of chaos and the forces of order, and the notion of mythical dragons symbolising chaos. Duncan cited psychologists like Freud and Jung showing that myths and dreams of dragons represent our unconscious, and that the monsters are not really out there, but in our heads.

Now I may have misunderstood or be misrepresenting Duncan at this point, but I question that assumption. I think that it is a peculiarly white, Western and modernist way of looking at it. This business of seeing things as taking place “in here” in our minds, as opposed to “out there” in the world is very much culturally conditioned. Should we let Western psychologists like Freud and Jung have the last word to say about it?

As J.V. Taylor (1963:44f) puts it, in his book The primal Vision: Christian presence amid African religion:

But though these [dreams, thoughts etc] may infect the body with sickness and delude the senses with hallucinations, we believe them to be rooted within the sufferer’s mind. Dreams are only dreams, for we know their fantasies are confined within the wall of the dreamer’s brain.

We are in danger of forgetting that all this is only a figurative way of speaking. The spatial concepts of inside and outside cannot be used literally of something so elusive and abstract as the self; yet in Europe we have allowed them so to dominate our imagery that we have almost identified the mind with the brain and imprisoned the self within the walls of the skull.

But there have been other ways than ours of picturing this unimaginable Self. Some philosophies, notably the Hindu Upanishads, include on the ‘inside’ much that we can only imagine as being ‘outside’, so that even the transcendent Absolute is to be sought only within the innermost cave of the heart. But in the imagery of primal religion, on the other hand, the self is thought of as spilling out into the world beyond the confines of the experiencing body, and echoing back again from other selves. Africans would assert with St Augustine that ‘we live beyond the limits of our bodies’.

So I think that just as physicists something think of light in terms of waves, and sometimes in terms of particles, so we can sometimes see things as inside, and sometimes as outside our heads. Mythical dragons may refer to things within us, but they can also refer to things outside.

As Anderson (1990:256) puts it:

An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard – might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.

And that’s something I do like to get really postmodern about. I’ve said more on that in this article Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

Duncan spoke of films of sea monsters, like Jaws. They give chills to audiences in Pretoria, though they are dry and far from the ocean. Why? Because the monsters represent our Unconscious, which threatens to swallow us. Hence the need to face our monsters, because the monsters are not necessarily evil, but can sometimes take us where we want, or need to go. Jonah, for example, was swallowed by a sea monster, but the monster put him back on track.

St Jonah

Films like Jurassic Park are apparently about land based monsters, but are really about divorce. The external monsters force dysfunctional families to face their internal monsters and become reconciled, and in the end it is the biggest, strongest and most fearsome monster, Tyrranosaurus Rex, which keeps the real threat, the velociraptors, at bay.

And that made me think that yes, it was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of apartheid that kept South African Christians on track before 1994. It was opposition to apartheid that made many Christians and Christian bodies more conscious of their core business. And after 1994, they lost their way, and started floundering, and were caught unawares when the velociraptors of corruption charged in. One evil spirit exorcised, but seven others rush in to take its place. But apartheid was not unconscious, and was not simply in people’s heads. It did not remain within the confines of the skulls of theorists. Apartheid changed the landscape of the country and moved thousands of people from one place to another. It was not simply the Freudian unconscious. So yes, we do need monsters to keep us on track. But monsters and the track are not just inside our skulls.

And Val said that while Duncan was speaking about Jonah, the Ode of Paschal Nocturns was running through her head.

Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale. He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial. Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber, he called out to the guard, “By observing vanities and lies you have forsaken your own mercy.”

And it struck me that Duncan had cited someone as saying that Christianity belonged to No 2 on the Enneagram, but really needed to practise the other 8. And I recalled that there are nine odes in the Canon, but we only ever sing eight of them. We never sing Ode 2.

 


Notes and references

[1] The current saying was “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

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