Bubble problems

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Entirely predictably, I’ve let this slip a bit since getting back to Cambridge. The world of the university, in a rather hackneyed turn of phrase, often referred to as a bubble. This is a pretty accurate description though, at least for me. It’s as if entering the boundaries of the university puts the rest of the world on hold, or at least more difficult to access mentally. Between you and any ‘outside’ concern or desire,  there’s always an essay, a translation, or the threat of one. Either that, or some piece of bureaucracy (invariably involving emails, and lots of them). And the weird thing is that simply getting out of the city, piercing that wall, puts you in more direct contact. In less pretentious terms, it helps you realise that Cambridge is not the centre of the universe.

Right, clichéd rant over. So what’s been occupying my thoughts, through the barrier? I’m still reading Howards End, and still loving it. But mostly I’ve been thinking about walking and folk songs. There is a thin trace of connection between the two. The first I am dying to do some more of in the next holiday – it’s like the opposite of the impression of Cambridge I gave above. Walking in the Lake District, which is what I hope to do at the end of March, is pure openness and freedom. You can wander off the paths, peer over edges, encounter a stranded sheep or two, swim in a lake if you want. There’s nothing between you and your thoughts, just as there’s nothing between you and the sky (this sounds overly poetic and Forsterian – I definitely assimilate the style of whatever I happen currently to be reading). And the English Lakes are, well, so English, a part of the national imagination thanks to poems, paintings etc. They appeal to the same part of me as the things I talked about in the last post. Again, an encounter between the personal (the cold in your fingers, the wind in your face, the water seeping into your boots) and the immense exterior (the imposing mountains, the imposing names: Helvellyn, Skiddaw, Blencathra, Scafell).

There was an idea I found in Sartre’s What is literature? which really struck me (this study business does have its uses). Sartre writes that the poet considers words as things, that for him or her language is a ‘structure of the exterior world’. This is a different instance of the feeling I was getting at just above: it’s treating all words the way we treat those strange names of hills. Marvelling at the sound of them, not understanding the effect they have on us. That (tenuous link alert) is  partly why I’ve been enjoying folk songs so much lately – the primacy of the language, the sense of national tradition. Two current favourites:


I will declare a vested interest in the choice – I am ever so slightly in love with Laura Marling.



Pomp and circumstance

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

My last few days have seemed very English. A bizarre thing to say, probably, but I have enjoyed a succession of near-parodic (and therefore brilliant) expressions of “national character”, for want of a better phrase. If this all sounds a bit vague, that’s because I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to say yet. This is one of those moments where I’m writing to try to work out what I think.

Anyway, Exhibit A was The King’s Speech. The film was described by one Times reviewer as “a perfect storm of Englishness”, and I can kind of see where she was coming from. It’s about class, keeping up appearances, stiff upper lips and, of course, the royal family. You even get Churchill and the Second World War thrown in for good measure. So far, so naff, you might be thinking. And The King’s Speech could have been a succession of awful clichés, a pretty dry film really. The premise in itself (monarch gets speech therapy) is not especially brilliant. Luckily, the acting, script and cinematography make the most of it as a simply human drama – the story of a buttoned-up, shy man who is forced to overcome his stammer and take on an enormous national role. You realise when watching it that his privileged status didn’t really do anything to make him happier.

Poor bloke


Of course, the truth is that you couldn’t have one without the other – the human drama probably wouldn’t be as moving, or as funny (and it is both of these, to a huge extent, in places) if it weren’t set against such a familiar (and grand, and therefore un-human) backdrop. Turning clichés and stereotypes into genuine, recognisable people and situations is difficult, but extremely powerful when it succeeds. Stephen Frears’ The Queen is a another good example of this. Of course, there are other reasons why these films are so popular and successful – the royal family do exert a particular sort of mystical fascination on the British people (and, perhaps even more so, on foreigners). But then that fascination itself arguably derives from the bizarre mix of ceremony and soap opera which is forever relayed through the media.

Exhibit B (this sounds lame) is Howard’s End, which I started reading yesterday. I read A Passage to India for AS English, and absolutely adored, but then strangely haven’t read any Forster since. Anyway, to be brief, because it’s late and I’m tired, there is a similar mix of pointless upper-middle class manners and worries, and Forster’s incisive, heartbreaking comments on human nature. The former makes the latter all the more affecting.

There is also a wonderful passage on train stations, which appealed to my romantic side and chimed with something I’d thought before:

Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.

This is a fantasy, of course. Liverpool Street doesn’t have the same inclines any more, and you can get to the fenlands from King’s Cross these days. But it echoes how I feel about England – I think I love it for all the silly little clichéd things, like the royal family and tea and Sunday lunch, and the pointless traditional bits of my education at places like Tonbridge and Cambridge. What I wanted to say (and I haven’t done it very well) is that those peripheral, small things can have a profound effect on more fundamental feelings and actions. That’s why, I think, patriotism will always remain in some form, and will always remain near impossible to understand.

P.S. I’m just about keeping the New Year’s resolution alive, I reckon…

Technical beauty

January 5, 2011 § 3 Comments

I want to learn how to write a villanelle. Or any sort of formal poetry, in fact. What I tend to do is just group together my thoughts into something which sounds vaguely rhythmical – a method which has its limitations, to say the least. I have few good habits when it comes to writing, very little in the way of self-discipline. I’ve been having one of those days today when I doubt whether it’s worth even trying. Then I found these, both villanelles and both stunningly beautiful. I won’t dull them with any commentary:

One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster, 

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three beloved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) a disaster.

Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Sylvia Plath

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Watching the (foreign) detectives

January 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Sunday night I watched the BBC’s new detective drama, Zen. Despite being disappointed that it had nothing to do with Buddhism (Zen is a Venetian name, apparently), I really enjoyed it. It’s amazing how the detective format is so enduring – I guess it’s a particularly flexible basis for a good story (there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict, after all). It probably fits in nicely somewhere into Christopher Booker’s theory about the seven basic plots…in fact, come to think of it, it can quite easily contain elements of all of them (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth). Whether or not you subscribe to Booker’s theory, and there are good reasons not to, it still seems clear that the possibilities are pretty broad. Detectives deal with life and its conflicts both professionally and personally, and a great deal of fun can be had by mixing the two. How many TV coppers have had personal demons to deal with, whether it’s drink, a troubled marriage,  or a murky past? Or perhaps the more revealing question is: how many haven’t?

Anyway, back to Zen. It seems to me to be a clear spiritual successor to Kenneth Branagh’s turn as Swedish cop Wallander in the last couple of years – a foreign detective story, set and filmed abroad, played out in English (which is slightly unsettling, somehow). It even has the same sort of funky title sequence. While I certainly wouldn’t put Zen at the same level as Wallander (which, if you haven’t seen, you really should, if only for Branagh’s performance), it’s very enjoyable. It’s very stylishly shot in Italy, and despite a frankly ridiculous plot, it has a great script and casts an interesting light on the corruption and conflicting pressures of the police system. And yet, for all that, I think my favourite thing about it is its lightness of tone. Where Wallander makes heavy work of coping with a senile father, a failed marriage and an estranged daughter, there is something more than a touch comical about this Italian thirty-something still living with his mother, who seems to take everything in his stride. In fact, Rufus Sewell is so cool about everything that it’s slightly annoying:

Italian cool

Swedish angst

It’s also funny to hear the vast range of accents delivered by the “Italian” characters of the show – from Zen’s boss, a loud booming northerner, to Scots and Irish, and Rufus Sewell, who sounds like…Rufus Sewell. It probably doesn’t help that the love interest is played by Caterina Murino, as far as I can tell the only cast member who is, in fact, Italian.

Still, all a lot of fun. And God knows it’s more relaxing than inching my way through Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant or a French medieval epic, which is what’s on the cards otherwise. I’ve never been that good at dividing up my time into work periods and leisure periods – everything seems to blur together until I’m not really sure what I’m meant to be doing. It doesn’t help that in my time off I generally feel as if I should be doing something “worthy”, like writing (I write poems and other small things, when I can make myself do it). Montaigne would tell me to chill out, let life happen, no doubt. Not a bad idea at all, especially since I’ve only got ten days until I go back to Cambridge, and any normal sense of time and perspective is likely to evaporate.

New year’s resolutions…

January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here’s my first. I’ve decided to have a second go at blogging, and to try to post at least a couple of times every week. Why? Because I think it’s important to record events and thoughts as they happen – it is terrifying how easily we can forget things which, at one stage, were hugely important to us. I can never forget the way Zadie Smith puts it: that she writes in order not to sleepwalk through life. The process of writing is also in itself a healthy one, I think -it clarifies, orders, and illuminates, at least some of the time. I often have to force myself to do it, , but I never regret having taken the leap.

All very well, but why inflict my (hopefully not too rambling) musings on the rest of the world? The answer is that everything I put on here, I think is worth sharing in some form. This is not a private journal – the Internet is hardly the place for that. A blog, as I see it, is an expression of a particular view of the world, in a form which invites comment and debate. So I write for my own benefit,  but also in the hope that some of what I write might be interesting or useful (or provocative or annoying) for others.

Bearing that in mind, I should move on to something more concrete. One of the books I was given at Christmas was this:

I love that title. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer. Elegant, but also completely straightforward – the book does what it says on the tin. I haven’t read much of it yet, but it looks to be fascinating, taking Montaigne’s life and Essays and using them to sketch out a series of ways of approaching life. It’s an idea that works brilliantly: for example, Montaigne’s work is pretty relevant to what I mentioned above – the idea of personal writing being a way towards a fully lived life. The book opens with the following paragraph:

The twenty-first century is full of people who are full of themselves. A half-hour’s trawl through the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages and pods brings up thousands of individuals, fascinated by their own personalities and shouting for attention. They go on about themselves; they diarise, and chat, and upload photographs of everything they do. Uninhibitedly extrovert, they also look inward as never before. Even as bloggers and networkers delve into their private experience, they communicate with their fellow humans in a shared festival of the self.

Bakewell suggests that Montaigne was the grandfather of the blog – the first person to write as himself, about himself, extolling rather than disguising the subjectivity of his perspective and the small details of his life.  That first paragraph isn’t quite as damning of blogs and the like as it first appears – yes, they are always to some extent vain, to some extent a plea for attention, but this does not mean that they are negative things as a whole. A “shared festival of the self” hardly sounds too bad, after all. Being “full” of yourself, as long as you are aware of the limits of that self, might be positive – it implies, at best, a full participation in the world, and a recognition of your place in it. At that point, the smallness of that place ceases to be important.

Where Am I?

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