But I can’t see it as part of the order of things that many of the teenagers I teach routinely tell me they get only around five hours of sleep a night, and these are not guys wasting their time on computer games and the like. They are simply busy fulfilling what they see as being necessary to fulfil. I suppose I'd lose sleep worrying about this, if I had any left to lose.
Monday, February 28, 2011
Sunday, February 27, 2011
The writer responsible for transporting me back to the eighteenth century is, of course, the incomparable Richard Holmes. I reckon The Age of Wonders has at least three to four exciting ideas on pretty much every page. And he's superb at communicating the ordinary humanity of the extraordinary thinkers he deals with. But what I've found overwhelming about the great astronomer so far (I'm now in Chapter 2) is his abundant energy - and that of his equally remarkable sister, by the way.
Which leads me to wonder (in more ways than one). Did folks back then simply have more drive than we do now as a result of the sheer difficulty of their lives? Did the relative lack of ways of idling away the time make for lives of greater accomplishment? Or is it just that we're looking at the most exceptional, those who made the best of the hands they were dealt? I get exhausted just reading about what Banks and Herschel got up to. I mean Herschel, an accomplished musician - that was his day job - found time to write an entire oratorio on Paradise Lost which only just makes it into Holmes's entertaining footnotes.
It probably wasn't a very good oratorio, but that's not the point (for me, anyway). Just as it is equally not the point that Herschel's ideas were sometimes spectacularly wrong. It's the drive to have the ideas, to create the music, to devise and assemble those beautiful telescopes (making one heck of a mess in the process) that counts.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Missing the missus, I've been seeking the company of Zappa with his Hot Rats, Louis Jordan & his Tympany Five in jump blues mode, and Papa Haydn with some of the Sturm und Drang symphonies. It sometimes happily occurs to me that I have odd (and loud) tastes in music.
Friday, February 25, 2011
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Anyway I finally feel I'm getting somewhere, though where that somewhere is I have no real idea, in that I finally got to open Richard Holmes's The Age of Wonder (one of the (very) few books I purchased in Manchester on our December jaunt), which I'm reading in tandem with Anna Karenina.
But what's this? you cry. I thought you'd binged on the Tolstoy in very recent memory!? Yes, indeed. About a year or so ago. But that was before I knew that the good (or bad) lady was going to be the centre of attention in my classroom for the early part of next term. So I'm back for more, like the moth drawn to the flame. Now I know just how Vronsky felt, eh?
Having said that, the good news is that Holmes's 'romantic scientists' are giving her quite a run for her money. Joseph Banks has just left Tahiti in Chapter 1 and I suspect memories of that memorable visit will stay with me for a long time.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Monday, February 21, 2011
So here's a thought: it'd be pretty incredible if there were really life out there, eh?
But then, here's another: it'd be pretty incredible if there weren't.
So either way, it's all a bit mind-boggling. Which leads me to mention the incredible lamb shank the missus just cooked for dinner, which puts both the former observations into some kind of perspective.
Sunday, February 20, 2011
The fact that there's quite a bit of generalising about Malay culture added to the piquancy of the tale for me and got me thinking about Conrad and race in general. No, that's a bit misleading. I've been thinking about this since reading Heart of Darkness again since it's no longer possible to read the novella in the relatively innocent way I managed when a teenager. After all, if someone of the stature of Chinua Achebe tells you Conrad is a racist and you need to have that at the forefront of your mind when reading him, you'd better listen.
I'm afraid I've not managed to come to any deep conclusions on the matter. Pretty clearly Conrad is a racist in terms of seeing the racial divisions of humanity in what might be clumsily termed an essentialist manner - I mean, he obviously think that race counts big-time (as would have been pretty much inevitable for any man, or woman, of his time.). But does this somehow compromise or invalidate his work?
What struck me on my most recent reading of that fateful journey into the Congo was the determination of Marlow (or Conrad? - it's a typically tricky one) to make himself see the suffering humanity of the Africans encountered though fully aware that he sees them in a kind of distanced 'otherly' manner. (That's dreadfully expressed, but it will have to do for now.) It's not very pleasant or edifying, but then I don't think it's supposed to be. But it is very real and disturbing, necessarily so.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
I also find it strangely useful to break off marking in the middle of an essay, do something else for a minute or two, and then get back to it. I started doing this because of problems with my back, seeking to ensure I didn't hold the same position too long, but I've come to find it psychologically refreshing. Usually it means I have to reread the bit I've already done but it helps me see the whole thing with fresh eyes somehow.
When I first started teaching one of the problems I found marking students' work was the pretty startling evidence of how often I'd failed to convey clearly what they needed to know. Now I've come to take that for granted such that when someone gets it right it's enormously refreshing. I can't think of that many jobs that have failure as a kind of built-in component. Banking, maybe?
Friday, February 18, 2011
And, all in all, it was an endearing read. I found myself really liking the guy despite - or possibly because of - his many faults.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The two stories I read at that point I suspect are not likely to attract too much attention and that's a pity because they're so darned good. I reacquainted myself with Youth, which ironically I last read as a youth, and got to wondering whether anyone has done the mystical lure of the Orient better than JC. The answer is no. There's more to the tale than that, of course (there always is in Conrad), the sheer unpleasantness of life aboard a merchant ship for one, but the level on which it operates as a gloriously nostalgic, melancholy mood-piece is unsurpassable. And the first story, An Outpost of Progress, which I'd not read before, seemed the perfect sardonic evocation of the depravity of Empire.
Perfect, that is, until you get to Heart of Darkness. This is the one I think the students who fall under the Conradian spell are likely to go for, and rightly. I can't remember how many times I've read it, but each time is new. I'm now on the final third, with Kurtz encountered in person, insofar as you can call it an encounter, and I'm stunned, again. It's as if Conrad is knocking on the door of some final meaning of things - but, of course, the door will remained closed. There are some texts that seem to take you beyond language, into the heart of things, I suppose. What a journey!
Monday, February 14, 2011
So what is there to like about it? Well, for one, it's a small film on a human scale, essentially about relationships. It's well acted, with solid performances from all, and a particularly good one from Colin Firth as the stammering monarch. He manages to play the man rather than the defect. It's a well-told, well-paced story that explores its themes intelligently with enough depth to say something useful about the virtues of behaving decently.
It also manages to steer clear of over-slavish appreciation of the various royals on show, though it gets a bit syrupy about the four at the centre. But then the point appears to be that they constituted a real family as Bertie sought to rectify the damage caused by his own dreadful upbringing.
I suppose it succeeds in depicting a chap, well a couple of them really, who managed to be what Mum and Auntie Norah and Auntie Bet would have termed true gentlemen. Not a bad title to aspire to. Better than 'king' any day.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
I wonder if what is getting in the way of Mr Humphries' understanding of the lyric is a lack of grasp of the Islamic frame of ideas here. Although Pharaoh features on an album that comes after the more overtly Islamic-themed songs following Thompson's conversion, like so much of his material it benefits from some insight into the belief system that the writer still adheres to. A grasp of that system can help us appreciate the metaphorical underpinnings of the song. (By the way, lyric apart, the music is gorgeous, featuring a languorous melody that seems to hang somewhere between English folk and a prayer-like chant, and an arrangement subtly evoking some lazy desert ensemble whilst remaining solidly English in its instrumentation.)
The Pharaoh here is a dreadful tyrant, yes, but, and this is the tricky bit, he's ultimately trivial - which makes him all the more dangerous. This is similar to the idea that lies behind the slogan that emerged after the revolution in Iran characterising America as the Great Satan. In a sense this might have been translated as the Great Trivialiser, Satan, or Iblis, being seen as ultimately a trivial, pathetic figure who just doesn't get it. (Think Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost in the later books.) So the Pharaoh in our song is everywhere and we are all Living in Egypt land. We are all aware of the dogs of money, of course, and the song alerts us to their magicians, seen every night on our tv and computer screens, telling us what's true and real. Their images make them men of shadow - but there's a grim possibility that that's what we too have become.
It's easy to think of, indeed to see, the idols that rise into the sky and the pyramids that soar. Those lying sphinxes are more problematic, and by their very nature more enigmatic. To some degree I think its our choice for whom we shoulder the wheel. As another great singer-songwriter pointed out, working in a rather different religious tradition, you've gotta serve somebody.
I'm thinking now of those who've had no choice for the last thirty years of those they've had to serve politically and the powerful sense of exhilaration many of them must now feel and many of us feel for them. I hope they don't simply find themselves blindly kneeling to worship a new pharaoh, of whatever ilk that may be.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
She immediately follows her observation by saying It's always that way, but Willy, of course, denies her wisdom. He's sure that some people accomplish something. Isn't that odd? She hadn't said they didn't.
So often we just don't hear each other.
Friday, February 11, 2011
I wish I were able to say I'd lived up to it over those thirty-plus years. But I haven't. Still it's something to aspire to, especially following those rueful moments of reflection on the damage done.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Monday, February 7, 2011
When I'm reading a cheerfully extrovert relaxed sort of work it seems obvious to me that that's what it is. There may be other shadings usefully colouring the fabric, adding variety, and you come to expect these, but they don't generally confuse the main issue. It all seems to me a matter of common sense. But I know that to others, some of whom I teach, it constitutes a sometimes impenetrable mystery. My job is to de-mystify, but I'm not at all sure how this might be done despite having spent over thirty years worrying at the problem.
Oddly, when you ask students to read something out loud they often get it right, even down to the subtleties. Perhaps the answer is to find ways of by-passing the intellect, to avoid over-thinking?
Sunday, February 6, 2011
I'm reminded, as I often am these days for some reason, of that line from Linda Loman in the greatest and most real and relevant of all American tragedies (and I hope I'm quoting it correctly as this is purely from (a bad) memory): Life is a taking leave. Yes, it is, isn't it?
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Friday, February 4, 2011
I was reminded of this today when starting to read Chapter 9 of Part 2, the one in which Charles operates to disastrous effect on Hippolyte’s club foot. As I realised what was coming, and remembered how uncomfortable I’d felt in the past when reading the chapter, I felt very inclined to skip the sequence. I don’t think there’s ever been a better description (if that’s what it is – evocation might be a better word) of utterly pointless, miserable, dreadfully almost comic, suffering in literature.
I suppose what makes it so painful, so powerful, is that the poor guy’s pains are almost off-stage, as it were. In the spotlight instead we have the folly of Homais, the incompetence amounting to idiocy of Bovary and the utterly self-centred machinations of Emma. And the attendant sense of horror that this is the way the world is. We know of the very real distress that’s everywhere around us, but to which we cannot choose but shut ourselves away – until it becomes our own, I suppose.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
So why the major and minor dictators of this world find it almost impossible to give up even a shred of whatever it is that presses their buttons remains an intriguing curiosity. But it’s nothing like as intriguing as what it is that motivates so many to put everything on the line for the good of others. On one side a distressing pettiness; on the other a life-expanding nobility.
Something of this is being played out, methinks, on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and other fabled places. If we are fortunate new myths will emerge.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
And here we are in the Malaysian capital having shed half a car load at Melaka – in terms of goods picked up by Yasser & Wan, destined for a good home in Alor Gajah. Travelling up on the afternoon of the Lunar New Year is to be recommended, by the way. Remarkably, thankfully jam-less. (I suppose a good half of the population are already at their reunion dinners.) And no hassle at customs!
Sadly lots of signs of flooding along the way though. Noi says that Rozaidah’s rented place at Alor Gajah suffered a bit. Compared to the mess some folks are dealing with the tribulations of our recent change of address weren’t even close to tribulating (assuming there were such a state.)
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Pleased we are able to get BBC World in the Hall. Their coverage has conveyed both the excitement and complexity of the situation. Took some time out earlier to watch a bit of Fox News that actually attempted to cover what was going on. Jaw dropping stuff, and I don't mean that in a good way. One commentator referred to riots on the streets of France, Greece and Egypt as evidence of Obama's support of corrupt regimes. Quite entertaining in a scary sort of way.
Interesting question - Why would anyone, anywhere assume it was a good idea for them personally to remain unchallenged in power for thirty years?