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Old Men ought to be Explorers

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January 7th, 2013

05:12 pm: TIME TO MOVE
I'm moving to a new blog, as I'm tired of the snail's pace and downtimes LJ keeps experiencing. Please note the new address, and drop by if you'd like:

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December 28th, 2012

06:26 pm: CHRISTMAS
A little late, as I was on the Swiss border with in-laws for the Day; but I still wanted once more to put up one of my favourite Christmas poems. It's by a young actress called Jill Furse, who died in 1944 at the age of 29. She was the wife of the poet and glass-engraver Sir Laurence Whistler, who wrote the biography of their brief marriage in The Initials in the Heart, a genuinely moving and lovely book. Here is a stage photo of her, and the Christmas poem.

Jill Furse 002


Beyond this room
Daylight is brief.
Frost with no harm
Burns in white flame
The green holly leaf
Cold on the wind’s arm
Is ermine of snow.

Child with the sad name,
Your time is come
Quiet as moss.
You journey now
For our belief
Between the rich womb
And the poor cross.

Jill Furse (1915-1944)

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December 24th, 2012

08:37 am: DAYSPRING

One of Thomas Cranmer's finest translations, and appropriate for this day.

Benedictus (the song of Zechariah), Luke 1:68-79

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel : for he hath visited, and redeemed his people;
And hath raised up a mighty salvation for us : in the house of his servant David;
As he spoke by the mouth of his holy Prophets : which have been since the world began;
That we should be saved from our enemies : and from the hands of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our forefathers : and to remember his holy Covenant;
To perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham : that he would give us;
That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies : might serve him without fear;
In holiness and righteousness before him : all the days of our life.
And thou, Child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest : for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people : for the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God : whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death : and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

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December 22nd, 2012


4 candles

advent four

Dark darker, cold
colder, movement
freezes. In night, lighted
doors close and go
dark. Streets gleam
houseless, hard.
Where is entry?

Four candles.

On bare hills, on
camel roads, something
has cracked open. Clouds
reveal stars. Stillness
is everywhere. A huge
holds its breath.


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December 16th, 2012

01:50 pm:   

advent three

Beauty of guns
betrays. Kills. Rapid
rattle cracks. Child's blood
flows into tears
of mothers. Crosses 
loom. What solace?

Three candles.

Camels stamp
and snort. A winter
dawn looms. Three
old men saddle up.
silent, intent, not quite
sure why.


PS: When I wrote this I had forgotten that today is Gaudete Sunday. However, in the circumstances Gaudere is a task more difficult, complex and paradoxical than a short poem can encompass. Advent, though, remains.

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December 15th, 2012


Marcel Duchamp "Urinal" (1917)

I have been watching Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New again, as well as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility; and so am moved to more thoughts on irony. Because – to begin with Jane Austen – her work is of course tinged with irony. I remember being told this when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, and finding it hard to believe, and harder still to digest. As a fan of Dostoyevsky and the Brontës I found Austen’s world suffocating, and after 50 to 100 pages of her, as I callowly told friends, I did not give a flying wossname who married – or tried to marry, or rejected -- whom. I have since acquired friends who loved Jane from an early age, though I have to say most of them are women. And I have learnt to enjoy her writing and recognize its irony. To me if not to others, she is like Horace, an author better liked when one has matured. (Similarly, I now much prefer Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky.)

Austen’s irony is difficult to capture on film because it is dry, delicate and verbal. Ang Lee did it well, in spite of some regrettable choices (what possessed him to take the hefty and un-pretty Kate Winslet for Marianne?) and some inevitable over-emphases. She is instructive for the present subject because her irony is cultural, but affectionate and untouched by cynicism. And she was one voice in a culture that had many, most of them unlike hers (ah, Pamela).

Hughes takes one through the development of art from the late 19th to the late 20th century. One indisputable fact is of course the influence of World War One, that destroyed a civilization, a generation. But what strikes me is that the beginnings come much earlier. In poetry, for instance, you see it happening as early as Baudelaire. In novels there is a striking dichotomy, that has always fascinated me and to the riddle of which I have never found an answer, between France and England. Nineteenth-century novelists in both countries wrote for ostensibly the same audience: the bourgeoisie. What fascinates me is that, given that fact, English novelists considered that their tales must end happily, while their French counterparts decided their tales must end unhappily. What, I keep wondering, made the French bourgeoisie enjoy tales in which a not especially likeable protagonist invariably ends up being destroyed by society? If one has enjoyed Dickens and Trollope, as well as the Brontës, one does wonder. One thing is sure from Flaubert to Maupassant and thence to early-20C irony, the road is clear, not long, and logical.

A special case is Matthew Arnold and his ‘The Scholar Gipsy’. This is one of the first indictments of Victorian ‘progresss’ and smugness – “light half-believers of our casual creeds”. But note that its attack is furiously passionate, utterly sincere, and entirely untouched by facile irony.

One of 20C (and even 21C) irony’s excuses is that it offends the bourgeoisie, which (supposedly) richly deserves offending. But this is the oldest, tiredest excuse. The Victorian bourgeoisie and its attitudes, that originally provoked this reaction, have not survived two World Wars; and continuing to try to kick them in the teeth is futile and ridiculous, the atavistic Pavlovian reaction to a zombie long dead. Anyone wanting to offend today’s ruling class would do so much more effectively by reciting, with tranquil sincerity, the Gospel of St John in a board meeting. Mooning and farting in the general direction of the powerful doesn’t cut it. Unless, of course, one’s goal is not genuinely to annoy but rather to create a sense of collective feeling-good among the supposedly virtuous.

So let me move to the kind of art shown at Tate Modern in London or numerous museums of contemporary art elsewhere. A life-sized dead horse hung in a marble court; a crucifix supposedly drowned in urine; attack helicopters decorated with pink bows; a huge sculpted arse with a ladder leading up to the hole. If these say anything, they say ‘You mean you still want art? Oh, man: art died a long time ago, around the same time as God. Wake up and smell the coffee.’

Which leads me to a serious consideration: in today’s society, the true subversion is no longer irony but sincerity; sincerity without anger. This is the one thing the cool, the cynical, the misanthropes, the disappointed and enraged, cannot stand. (On the other hand, does one want to offend them? It will not help. Sincere illusionless affection may be more disconcerting but more efficacious.) This may be one of the reasons for a lot of people’s hatred of, and a lot of other people’s impatience with, Barack Obama. It is extraordinary to have at the head of a superpower’s administration a man who is intelligent without alienation, serious without pomposity and sincere without anger. 

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December 8th, 2012

2 candles 

advent two

The waters rise, the wind
mounts to dire states.
Lines form, food
grows scarce, gas
lacks. Dark invades,
cold rules. Enters. Takes
over. What is promise?

Two candles.

The farmer pitchforks
hay into the manger.
Goes back to a
small fire. Ox farts. Ass
brays quietly, as if
awaiting something. 


hat tip image: Brandon Fletcher, alias Fudge

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December 2nd, 2012

04:32 pm: ADVENT ONE

advent one

Cold as Pilate, dark as the deep
on which the great wings brooded,
bleak as moraine the toe of winter.
Ant and grasshopper lie together
but only one will get up. Cancers flower
strangely. Pink-cheeked young
homeless sleep under bridges.
The old grow cold and colder.
Dark looms. What is hope?

One candle.

Something gathers beyond
horizons. Something stirs
inside her. Kicks. In the night
sheep bleat, a shepherd
dreams strangely. Something
gathers beyond stars. It sounds
like rehearsal. 


hat tip image: Detlef Henke

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November 25th, 2012



  Tonight, French TV showed Coppola's Rumble Fish (1983), which I have on DVD but had not watched for years. I remembered how staggered I was on first seeing it in a cinema. I'm not a Coppola fan, but this, I thought then and still do, is something entirely remarkable.
  In one sense, it reminded me of David Lynch's Wild At Heart: a film without any trace of Western (or any other) civilisation, dealing with thuggish semi-humans in a closed world. And yet it wasn't the same. The Lynch is a fantasy, admittedly without cultural anchors other than the Wizard of Oz, but a kind of surreal romance. The Coppola is a dark expressionist gem that uses (for those who can recognise it) Camus rather than Oz and draws you in by the sheer poetry of its images and the adolescent power of its relationships. 
  One thing that struck me at this viewing was the cardinal, the hinge, aspect of the characters. Dennis Hopper as the deadbeat father is straight out of the Beat period, a cross between a Johnny Cash character ("A Boy Named Sue") and William Burroughs; Mickey Rourke as the Motorcycle Boy is an early version of a Sixties hippie. Matt Dillon, in between, is a bear of very little brain: as Nicholas Cage (Coppola's nephew, in an early role) says to him, "Man if there were still a gang, I'd be running it. You'd be second lieutenant." Rusty James is totally Fifties: caught between the Beat culture and the hippie culture, he is simple, primal, mindless, and somehow very touching. Only the vocabulary gives the period away. 
  The film is of course stylistically very artful: a stark black and white influenced by Lang and Murnau, with racing clouds and handless clocks questioning time, and only the Siamese fighting fish highlighted in brilliant colour. At its first appearance this artfulness was thought precious by many and overdone by some; it now comes across as claustric and powerful. 

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November 21st, 2012


In the aftermath of the aftermath: Checking out the Debates on Thinking Anglicans, I saw that the motion had failed by a majority of 6 votes only. That reminded me of the recent primary for the presidency of the UMP, France's conservative party, where the winner won by only 98 votes out of well over 100,000. Such results are always contested, recounted, hated, growled at, so forth. But in strict democratic terms, they have to be accepted. Still, they do always lead to intensive debate, which is probably a good thing. One thing that can be said is that such a result shows that a) the voters are almost equally divided, and b) that on both sides, persuasion and arguments failed. What to do about it? A question that invites many possible answers, from Suck It Up to Change the System . . .

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