Monday, March 28, 2011

Heading for paradise. Or Basingstoke or Reading

As my beloved is abroad in Blighted Blighty and dependent upon the railways, this seems relevant enough.

Robyn Hitchcock, 'I Often Dream of Trains', Live

It has long been a goal of mine to someday be as cool as Robyn Hitchcock. I think I'm never going to achieve that, sadly. But, still, I'm glad that he has.


This is also very good.

'Trams of old London Blow my mind'.


It's an accomplishment to take words and extract the meaning from them

Like many of the YouTube videos available of concerts, this one could have benefited from a steadier hand and from fewer people around the person filming who scream stuff.

It also ends rather prematurely and abruptly.

Still, it's a good performance of a great (ahem...) song by a great band.

The Mountain Goats, 'The Sign' (originally by Ace of Base), 9:30 Club, Washington, DC

And hey, it's filmed at the 9:30 Club in DC, where I used to spend a good amount of time.

That's reason enough, I think.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

And we have no idea where

This video of Iman al-Obeidi being silenced and taken away by Gaddafi's thugs is one of the most harrowing things I've seen in a while.

I, for one, want to know what happened to this woman.

Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?

Sometime during my primary schooling in the late 1970s or early 1980s I became aware of something called 'The Dark Ages'. The term, as well as the period that stood behind it, always appealed to me greatly since it 1) seemed to involve a lot of things that were sinister and, well, dark and 2) featured a large quantity of swords and bloodshed, things of which I was unduly fond of daydreaming about in that rather warped period of my mental development.

(I suppose I sort of imagined the Dark Ages to be roughly like the covers of Robert E. Howard's 'Conan the Barbarian' books that I was reading avidly at the time.*)

With regard to its name, I think we have to admit that this rather murkily defined era between the Collapse of the Roman Empire to some later time during the Middle Ages when Things Got A Bit Better, had done rather well in terms of what we might call 'general badassness'.

Of course, 'general badassness' is (sadly) not a recognised scholarly criterion.

In any case, as my education continued and I reached university, I discovered that the term 'The Dark Ages' had fallen quite out of fashion based largely on the boringly sensible argument that the period was not, in fact, completely dominated by moody swordsmen and relentless slaughter. More generally, evaluating particular societies or ages as 'better' or 'more civilised' had become not so much the Done Thing.

Thus, in accordance with such principles, out went one allegedly misleading -- if adolescently appealing -- term of art.

As I've focused on the 'modern' period (subject to its own set of sometimes-sensible-sometimes-silly battles around naming and periodisation) it hasn't subsequently really been much of an issue.  

Nonetheless, I was pleased to read Tom Shippey's review of Robin Fleming's Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070 in the current (or last, can't recall now) London Review of Books. It's behind the subscriber wall, but just a few short excerpts may give you an idea of why my adolescent heart leapt for joy.

First, Shippey confirms the tendency to reject the old label:

In every TV programme about Anglo-Saxon England someone is always wheeled on to say, in effect: ‘Dark Ages? How can anyone call these the Dark Ages? Just look at the amazing jewellery/magnificent artwork/superb illumination.’

Shippey, partly based on Fleming's book, gives a number of reasons to doubt this more optimistic perspective. Such as the fact that, as Fleming notes, 'Levels of trade in second-century Britain, then firmly under Roman imperial rule, were not reached again for 1500 years.'

Which sounds amazing, but remains a bit of an abstraction. Happily more details are at hand. As Roman society waned, everyday life became a bit grimmer:

Villas were not maintained; principal rooms were converted into barns or corn-dryers; the Oxfordshire kilns and the Wealden ironworks stopped producing; the Roman sewers of Canterbury clogged up and were not fixed; in Cirencester the forum was kept clean but the stone flooring, which had worn paper-thin, was not replaced.

The hobnailed boots which Romano-British peasants had worn – and often been buried in – disappeared. No nails for boots, or for coffins, and so ‘the British slipped in the mud and buried the people they loved directly in the cold, hard ground.’ As pottery disappeared, teeth got worse with people chewing grit picked up from open hearths. In the fifth century the inhabitants of Cadbury in Somerset were scavenging cremation urns from 200-year-old cemeteries to cook with.


Bone lesions in the skull and round the eyes indicate childhood anaemia; lines on tooth enamel come from malnutrition or parasite infection; lines of increased bone density show that a child stopped growing for a while; bone plaques on the shin go with leg ulcers, a result of injury or infection. Yet another sign of post-Roman decline was the replacement, in urban centres like York, of brick and tile by thatch and timber, much harder to keep free of fleas and lice and dangerous micro-organisms.

One striking thing about this story -- among many -- is the apparent disappearance of knowledge and technology that was common beforehand. And this, not as the result of a single overwhelming apocalyptic catastrophe but rather what seems in retrospect as a gradual, but determined, slow-motion collapse.

Turning back to the 'How can anyone call this a Dark Age?' question noted earlier, Shippey writes:

It’s true that the jewellery at Sutton Hoo would cost megabucks if you asked a modern jeweller to duplicate it. But less commonly noted is the pottery flask found in the same burial. It was a high-status item for the time, wheel-turned and so probably imported, but the finish is rough and the material porous: three centuries earlier a Roman villa-owner wouldn’t have had it in the house, and even one of his workmen would have thought it unremarkable. Nails, pots, tiles, bronze and copper coins: it’s the absence of useful low-cost items in bulk that make a Dark Age, and their loss is not compensated by the ability to manufacture elite bling. [Emphasis added.]

And, as the review also notes, there was no shortage of blood-letting and invasion. 

Apart from all the various insights I've gained from the review, two things have become clear.

First, I've never thought about hit this way, but I never want to live in a society that has lost the ability to make clay pots and forge iron nails. That, dear reader, is the absolute minimum that I am willing to accept.

Second, I am going to go back to using the term 'Dark Ages'. There are worse ways to relive one's youth.

Now, where did I leave those Conan books....

*I am, of course, aware that Conan's various adventures took place in the Hyborian Age, but as an adolescent I didn't go in so much for attending to such pedantic details.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Checking in and checking out ....*

"How I enjoy the thought of a Royal Personage being sea-sick in crossing the Channel!"

I don't know which historical event caused George Gissing to write this in his Commonplace Book, but it seems a timely comment - not so much because of a certain royal wedding over which Telegraph readers have been fretting for ages now, but rather because I'm halfway on my way to an academic event in which the author of the above quote plays a not insignificant role.

Toodlepip, everyone!

*Title refers to this song.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Let's begin again

Thanks to 'random play' on my mp3 player, the following came up today.

And it reminded me of how much I love the album that this comes from.

REM, 'Begin the Begin'

Friday, March 18, 2011

Money speaks for money, the devil for his own

John Darnielle sings Billy Bragg.

Man, this is like nirvana.

'There is power in a union', by Billy Bragg, sung by John Darnielle.

And as to the 'Wisconsin' reference: here, here and here.

Here's hoping

My general agreement with the UN security council's decision to authorise the use of military force against the Gaddafi regime is, at the moment, tinged by sadness on two issues.

First, it may be too little, too late, though this doesn't negate, in my view, the point of trying to salvage what one can from this not at all optimistic-looking situation.

Second, I'm disappointed not only that the Luftwaffe will not be taking part (except, perhaps, as crew in AWACS planes) but also that Germany didn't use its vote on the security council in favour of the operation.

Yet another embarrassing misstep by an increasingly embarrassing government.

Ah well.

Far more importantly: here's hoping that the bombs fall only where they should and that the aircrews make it back safely.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'll put a gun up to my head if you treat me this way

Just feeling a bit nostalgic tonight.

Please allow.

What a long, strange trip it was

Owsley Stanley -- LSD pioneer and Grateful Dead sound technician -- died a few days ago.

Being a long-time fan of...well...let's just say the Grateful Dead, I found this sort of sad.

But I noted an interesting fact of Mr. Stanley's biography, via the obituary in the New York Times:

Mr. Stanley was previously a ballet dancer and a member of the United States Air Force.

Yeah, I suppose that's the kind of thing that leads to a life as the king of hallucinogens.

RIP Owsley.

Just connecting ...

Two related statements from today's online edition of Der Spiegel.

In the top story about the Fukushima catstrophe:

"Inzwischen hat ein Ingenieur, der am Bau beteiligt war, schwere Mängel bei der Konstruktion der Anlage eingeräumt." ("In the meantime, an engineer involved in the construction of the plant has acknowledged major construction flaws.")

In a less prominent (but oddly related) report in the "Uni-Spiegel" section (which deals with anything related to education) we learn that

"[i]n Informatik, Naturwissenschaften und in Ingenieurstudiengängen brechen besonders viele Studenten ab: Fast jeder Zweite hält nicht durch, jeder Vierte verlässt die Uni sogar ganz ohne Abschluss." ("In IT, the natural sciences and engineering, a particularly large number of students abandon their degrees: Nearly every second student gives up, every fourth fails to graduate at all.")

Well, one must be grateful for small mercies. Given the current "Fachkräftemangel" in Germany chances are that even a technical dimwit like me would be hired to design a nuclear power station and situate it slap-bang in the middle of an earthquake-prone area.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oh, language!

Read in the window of a Washington nail salon:

"Receptionist need it."

Heard, during boarding, on the plane from Washington to Frankfurt:

"Let me first get situated."

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Vorwärts, und nicht vergessen

Women at shooting practice, England in the 1930s (Via)

In honour of the 100th International Women's Day, the Guardian has created a list of the top 100 'inspiring' women.

Some of the choices make me applaud, others less so; but keeping with the theme of brotherly solidarity with the sisterhood, I won't go into that.

Anyway I just wanted to say how fortunate I am to have one inspiring woman in my own household.

And there was something I recently ran across that I thought might be appropriate.


'Champions All', Pathé newsreel film, 1920s.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Musica politica

Don't know how this one sneaked in on my otherwise carnevalesque (ha ha - you don't seriously believe that, do you?) mood this evening. I had completely forgotten that this is vaguely about PTSD - but don't ask me why I had to think of it.

Kenny Rogers (whose looks have improved with age), "Ruby"

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these

There's an upcoming Mountain Goats album, All Eternals Deck.

This, 'Birth of Serpents', is one of its songs.

I like. Very much.

Hope you do to.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Copy, Paste, Delete*

I'm sorry.

However: if someone who has committed blatant intellectual fraud (g) and been caught out in the most thorough and pathetic manner (g) finally accepts the fact that his position has become ultimately untenable but nevertheless still not only tries to depict himself as a victim (e) of the media (despite the support of the nation's largest circulation newspaper) but also manipulates the real tragedy of soldiers' deaths to relativise his crimes, then I think he's lost all claim to anyone's sympathy as well as any justification for receiving an opportunity for a 'political comeback' any time soon.

And a chancellor who tries to downplay (g) the genuine and legitimate outrage -- not only of her nation's academic elite but also of several leading figures in her own party -- at the arrogant posturing of such a fraudulent poser as merely 'hypocrisy' (Scheinheiligkeit) (g) has also, in my estimation, demonstrated a lack of honesty and seriousness.

Still, I'm feeling pretty good, in that, remarkably enough, I live in a country where a posse of outraged academics can bring down a popular defence minister on the basis of intellectual rectitude.

Which is not what I expected (e).

In some way, that's a good sign.

Compared to Italy (g) we're doing quite well.

*Title taken from Der Spiegel. (See, KT, it's not that hard to cite your sources.)