Thursday, 27 December 2012

It's Christmas time

... so what better reason to potter back to my old haunts and hang out for a while? Since late October, when I last blogged, I confess to a mixture of overwhelming work and solid disinterest in blogging. It's hard to describe the place I've been in, but it might be word-fatigue or something like it. Language has been peeling off experience like some bad Foucauldian wallpaper. I've been needing different outlets. Blimey, I've even started baking!

Domestically, life is rather full. My wife and I are expecting twins in February so daily life has been more complex than expected. On the work front, I've been doing my own duties and filling in for various absent colleagues, so there was no respite there.

It all makes one wonder whether the old truisms about creativity and academia are true: that they are not compatible with family life! Then again, I feel they certainly are; I just haven't cracked the solution yet.

Spiritually and mentally - the reasons for which this blog began - I suppose I have been focusing on getting on with life, rather than blogging about it here. I hate blather more and more each day. The Twelve Days of Christmas are providing their own opportunity for some focal practices. Today, we celebrated St John's feastday with blessed wine and lamb's heart for supper. Why can't our days be always filled with such symbolism? My wife and I toasted each other the traditional St John's toast: I drink to you the love of St John, and while I took a swig, she just tasted a little, having committed herself to avoiding alcohol and caffeine while pregnant. I have a menu planned for the rest of the Twelve Days. Tomorrow, the feast of the Holy Innocents, we will have pigeon. On Saturday, feast of St Thomas à Beckett, we'll have a good English stew of beef shin - even though St Thomas was a Norman!

What is the point? Ultimately, it is about the depths of things. It is about the depths of things, when all we feel we have to hold on to are the fragments and ruins, the flotsam and jetsam; it's about being the rogue dandelion on the crumbling brick edifice of a wall set for demolition. How much our functionalist and pragmatic world clamours for us to live on the surface! How much we are stifled by living at such low altitudes!  

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars, as old Oscar said. I think, however, I prefer Gerard Manley Hopkins's version of the same idea. It's less cynical and less self-conscious.

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;       
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;       
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Monday, 29 October 2012


My friend and colleague Professor Paul Scott has just opened a blog at Cufflink Catholic.

Paul has been displaying a series of cufflink shots on Facebook for some months now, and it was only a matter of time before this extravagant procession of aesthetic cufflinkery broke forth in search of a new platform. The narrative of his initiation to cufflinks is a veritable rebirth story, told with a waft of fine incense and the respectable echo of memory. I recommend it to you.

Meanwhile, I stagger from pillar to post, but mostly from lesson planning to admin task, in search of research time, illumination and copy. Notable achievements of the last few weeks include an almost perfect tarte tatin which collapsed only when it was being extracted from the pan, a new, key insight which might provide the start of my next book, and another birthday. By way of a present, Mrs Sudlow finally gave way to my incessant pleading and bought me a kitchen blowtorch. I cannot tell you how happy this has made me!

So, go over to Cufflink Catholic and say hello (both of you). 

With Professor Scott's cufflinks and my new incendiary prowess, I'm reminded of Chesterton's famous dictum: give us the luxuries in life and we will dispense with the necessities. Like all Chesterton's sayings - such as 'If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly (even if you do it badly, in other words) - it is a paradox. What he means - says the blogger, indulging in a shameful act of overbearing glossaria - is that if we revel in the celebratory side of life, those things we consider necessary in the prosaic quotidian will be seen for what they are: frequently unimportant.

Monday, 15 October 2012

A fragment and a ruin

The last three weeks have been spent in a blur of work. It has been what we call preciously la rentrée (it sounds so much better that 'back to school'). I've been something of a fragment and ruin myself, staggering back home after lengthy days in dementedly boring meetings, or being spun in the hurricane of contemporary university bureaucracy.

These are heady days for higher education in the UK. While we have not a penny more to fund us, the students find themselves now paying anything up to £9,000 for a year's tuition, and so expectation seems racheted up several notches, even though we're still paddling the same somewhat leaky canoe.

It was with great delight that a few weeks ago I was asked to serve on something known as the Wellbeing Committee. The paradigms that prevail in this august assembly will be apparent even to the casual reader when you consider that their version of improving staff wellbeing involves free yoga classes, eye tests, blood pressure checks, etc. I confess to being thrilled to learn that they were planning to have a 'wellbeing bus' on campus in due course! What could be better? I am planning to launch my own suggestions at the next meeting: that staff wellbeing would be immesurably improved by regular 'bring a cake to work' days, flowers in the corridors, and quarterly carnivals (during which, for example, wet sponges can be flung at an 'enstocked' Vice Chancellor).

Meanwhile, life goes on in other ways. We enjoyed our local monthly farmers' market on Saturday and visited our new culinary discoveries: the Kitchen Garden Café for lunch and La Banca for supper. For our afternoon stroll on Sunday we took off to Evesham where Simon de Montfort met his end in 1265, all in the service of 'justice and truth', according to the celebrated Robert Grosseteste of Lincoln (but he was a big head, so what would he know?).

Yes, the bits are coming back together, the ruin is improving, and hopefully, I'll get blogging a bit more regularly now the dust is settled. No promises of course :-)       

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Liaisons dangereuses

My daughter is now at the age where everything is ripe for investigation, tasting, testing and exploration. Long gone are the days when you could safely deposit her on the bed, sort out the washing and then change her nappy. Deposit her on solid ground nowadays and she is likely to race off in any direction, and usually the one you least want her to - towards the cooling steam iron or the bookshelves (once again!), for example. Last Saturday was Food Saturday in this house. Today is likely to be Child Safety Lock Saturday, as I haplessly screw devices to the inside of cupboards to prevent our little safe cracker from getting out all the pots and pans! It can be quite cute of course when you see a small pink dolly being pushed across the floor in a colander. But adult laughter should never, never ... well ... hardly ever, come at the expense of a child's socialisation. I probably shouldn't worry so much!

But there's the rub. How much is too much worry and how much is not enough? My wife and I consciously try not to get too concerned. 'Only get up from your seat if there's blood' is our latest counsel of wisdom. That said, since I started writing this blog post, I have had to remove bits of paint from my daughter's mouth and was horrified earlier to find that she had slyly picked up the Metanium nappy cream after her nappy change and was casually sucking the end of it - with a mixture of dribble and sodium trioxide running down her chin. Cue panic? Or cue forced water consumption over the next half an hour? In my case, it was both: I panicked and she was made to drink the water (it's usually harmless by the way, as I have since found out).

There is some curious correlation between insouciance and braving risk, which goes in tandem with the correlation between anxiety and risk avoidance. Intellectually, I belong to the former tendency; emotionally, the temptation is to belong to the latter tendency. In the concrete I'm normally of the former tendency until something happens - like Metanium ingestion - at which point I become a fervent adherent of the latter for a few brief moments.

The risks are potentially huge but passing at this point in our daughter's life. I don't suppose she will be absentmindedly ingesting Metanium when she's fourteen. Currently, I'm most concerned about the unforeseen consequences of parental inattention - mostly mine. I read with horror a few months ago about the Milanese dentist who forgot to drop his daughter off at nursery and left her in the back of his car all day ... in Milan's heat ... she didn't stand a chance. Usually, these things are rare, but then when they happen, there's no foreseeing them. It's guardian angel territory.

Just to sketch in some detail for the long term, I bought this week Anthony Esolen's Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of your Child. I'm not planning to destroy her imagination, honest! Nor am I trying to frighten myself. But it all makes one wonder whether those old German imaginations were not right by basing all their stories in dark forests. The world is a wonderful, joyous place, except when it's not ...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Pleasures of a Late Summer

If I've not been the near the blog this week, it's because I've been enjoying myself too much to jot down anything resembling ordered thoughts. I won't say life in Birmingham is always as sparkling as it currently is, but the last ten days have fizzed with some abandon.

Just as Sky Sports gives ridiculous names to days laden with important games, so last Saturday earned the nickname in our house of Food Saturday! After the monthly Kings Norton Farmers' Market in the morning, we headed off mid-afternoon to the opening of a new community bakery two miles away in Stirchley.  Loaf has opened up in an old billiards shop and its cookery school nestles next to the new Stirchley community stores with organic and ecologically funky goods. There is a promising range of loaves - our favourite thus far being a spent-grain loaf made from grain previously used for brewing - and an interesting range of classes (bread baking, urban foraging, pizza making, etc.) which for the moment remain beyond our modest budget.

On Monday I wanted to make something special for the wife and so (after frantic scouring of various cook books) came up with monk fish, croutons and pork belly skewers alongside savoury rice. I love this way of cooking - which is rather "unkosher" according to Mrs S but nonetheless extremely tasty (and she didn't complain!).  The beans and courgettes in the rice came from our garden. The monkfish and porkbelly came from Sainsbury's! I hasten to add that this is not normal for our Monday repast but I have been on holiday this week, and, well ... as I said ... I wanted to do something special.

The special week continued on Wednesday with the arrival of an old friend with whom I went to see the final match of the England-South Africa T20 series at Edgbaston. I am hardly a cricket afficionado. I loathed cricket as a child after watching too many Geoff Boycott moments on the TV. I only took to it when living in a village in my early twenties, at which time there was little to do on the long summer afternoons but wander down to the cricket ground and watch the local cricketers getting slowly stewed at the bar before going out to bat against some visiting demon bowler. I am hardly now a fan of T20, preferring the slow-cooking of a four day match, but it has its own charms and - since England won - I couldn't fault it!

Sport, food: I promise I have not given myself over to the modern equivalent of panis et circenses. It's just that sometimes I think life has to be enjoyed rather than endured. Hmm, is that so novel? 

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Of time and space

The second half of August proved to be busier than expected, hence the hiatus in blogging.  Academics generally take one of two attitudes to the summer: do nothing so as to recover from last year's burn out, or work like mad because you'll never get anything done during term! The latter has been my approach this year, though I confess I'm looking forward to a week off next week before the rentrée.

So, it's been a period of wide-ranging reading. I have on my desk a variety of things. Georges Duhamel's Querelles de Famille, a reflection from the 1930s on the pollution of noise, waste, mechanisation and 'everything modern', has kept me entertained. Beside it lies Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage [sic], a rather amusing but challenging essay about the impact of electrification on the dissemination of information. McLuhan, who gave us the expression 'the global village', argues that electrification has tipped the balance away from visual to auditory culture. Now, there's a man who grew up with the radio! Surely we have tipped back in the other direction now, with our PlayStations, iPads, x-Boxes and 56" plasma screens. What still remains true from his analysis is that the instantaneousness - is that a word? - of communication changes the social matrix in which our actions unfold. Put in laymen's terms, this anticipates the age of social networking where we know more about our Facebook friends than about our next-door neighbours.

With these, I'm also ploughing through Philip Nord's France's New Deal, a recent study of how the modernisation which swept through France after World War Two - rationalisation, bureaucratisation, planning, technocracy - was by no means a post-war phenomenon but was thoroughly prepared during the pre-war years and even anticipated under the Vichy regime. Ooh, là, là!  This one of those touchy subjects which the French are still anxious about: God forbid we should do anything that the Vichy regime did! Yet, the Vichy regime was in some ways very modern. This is the grand irony of the counterrevolution: to be so opposed to the revolution that its hostility acquires a mimetic intensity. René Girard has written about this process at length. Perhaps I'll blog about it at some stage.

Otherwise, there is little to report from here, other than a rash of jam making, a visit from in-laws and a further crop, albeit small, of edibles from the garden.

For various reasons soon to be disclosed, Mrs Sudlow informs me I'm running the agriculture next year. Prepare, say I, for le plannisme!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Of clocks and cars

I'm currently reading Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilisation, the first major study in English of the long history of technology in the West, published in 1934. By an odd coincidence the introduction to my edition is written by Langdon Winner with whom I had to share a bathroom during a recent conference about Jacques Ellul, technology's very own Cassandra.  If only I'd realised! I digress ... In addition to being a revisionist historian of technology - he dismisses the idea that somehow all technology sprang out of the earth with the Industrial Revolution - Mumford was a pioneering student of urban studies, the geographical cousin of technology studies. The machine is not just a metaphor for the modern city; its rational organisation and systematisation is somehow a correlative of an economy and leisure culture which depend on technology as their prime means (and sometimes their prime end).
Lewis Mumford

What has engaged me most in the work so far is the centrality that Mumford gives to the clock in the history of technology. People think the steam engine changed everything, and Mumford does not entirely dismiss this thesis. But, he argues, it is really the invention of the mechanical clock (first records from the 1200s) which marks the watershed in our civilisation. Put another way, it is not so much the clock or what it can do mechanically which are revolutionary. It is its impact on human organisation which is the really significant thing. As the clock intersects with culture, time begins to be measured not by concrete or incarnate phenomena (sunrise or sunset) but by the abstract passage of one hour to another. The ultimate reference point for duration begins to shift from the eschatological to the chronological. Long before the steam engine makes its apppearance, clock-measured time means money, and ownership of a watch or mechanical clock is seen by the emergent bourgeoisie as one of the signs that one has made something of oneself. Time becomes readily divisable in ways it never had before, and rationalisation of one's abstracted hours becomes ever more possible.

All this makes me think of how much my own life is run on time - for professional reasons obviously but in many other ways too. I don't suppose it could be different. I'm glad of having my clock. I suppose I couldn't get as much done as I do if I didn't live by its organisational power. This does make me wonder, however, whether the clock is not an essential cog in the cultural machine that seems to be driving us ever faster and faster. The telephone, radio and TV have done their bit to that end, while email and the internet have sent us into hyperspace (or hypertime?). Meanwhile, on my shelf are one or two works of Paul Virilio, the inventor of dromology or the study of speed. I supppose I really should find the time to peruse them butI have much else to plough through - Bernanos, Gabriel Marcel, Gustave Thibon, Georges Duhamel, Marcel de Corte, Jacques Ellul - before I get to Virilio. The iron law of the clock, eh? Quite.


Meanwhile, I was convinced technology was attempting to take its revenge on me last weekend. We had friends to stay and they and my wife watched in bemusement on Sunday morning as through the window of our sitting room they could see our car's indicator lights flashing wildly while the horn merrily tooted about once a minute. Since I was at that moment upstairs, they wondered if I was sitting on the key fob - which for the record I wasn't. We drove to church and hopped out just in time for Mass, but before we could get ten yards from the car the tooting and flashing began again. Now it was no joke. It was attracting attention. The Birmingham Oratory's choir do not take well to their rendering of Flor Peeters's Mass being accompanied on the car horn (invented, I note by Birmingham's own Oliver Lewis). Bizarrely, by the time we reached the church doors, the tooting had stopped.

All afternoon, while we sat in the back garden eating and drinking, there came not a toot from the car. Yet when I returned home from the train station after dropping our friends off and parked up on the drive, the tooting and the flashing began again. In despair I spent twenty minutes emptying our rather crowded garage and gingerly edged the car through the ridiculously narrow aperture which the architect on his plans laughably designated as the door. I left the car door open to stop the horn tooting, but since we sleep above the garage, we found ourselves woken at 2 am by the sound of the car trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to lock itself. Happily we moved to the guest room and slept on!

'Are you sure the boot is fully closes, Mr Sudlow?' the Brummie mechanic patiently asked me on the phone on Monday morning. Yes, I was! So I took it to the mechanic's, and for a diagnostic test priced £53 + VAT ( @20%), they told me I needed a new key fob with a new remote control thingummy. Job's a good 'un, as they say where I come from. By 5pm the same day, I got my meek and mild car back, and the mechanic walked away with over £200 - for which achievement I quite unjustifiably posed to myself some awkward questions about his parentage.


The point of all that is simply put: technology bites back, as Edward Tenner said. Well, and Plato too. In Phaedrus Plato relates how King Thamus the King once entertained the minor god Theuth who had invented writing and was rather pleased with himself about it. But Thamus was having none of it (or none of 'ith', I suppose): 'Those who acquire writing will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful. [...] What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.' 

If only I could remember what my point was when I started this post, I'd be able to tell you who was right.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Too damn busy ...

... that's my excuse. What's yours?

But, seriously, folks, I promised pictures of the various Bakewell pudding disasters last week and here they now are. Read on at your peril ...

The first four disastrous attempts ...

After some refining of the recipe and my technique (loud belly laughs), I managed to make some progress ...

An individual portion of Bakewell Pudding

I thought I had cracked it with this one but here's just another angle to give you the full, sweet-sticky-goo effect. You'll like this. Not a lot, but you'll like it ...

What you have to know is that the introduction of frangipane (resulting from mixing ground almonds with your custard) into Bakewell desserts is a late development. Renaissance or positively early-modern! The real Bakewell Pudding filling should be egg, butter (melted, cooled and slowly mixed into the egg) and sugar with some almond essence for flavouring, laid over a spreading of jam. And no shortcrust pastry either! It's puff pastry all the way.

Anyway, my article on the Bakewell Pudding is done. The cupboard has been emptied of butter, sugar, eggs and puff pastry, and all the sinks are nicely blocked. I have gained about five pounds in weight - which I really could not afford to do. And I think I lost a molar in one discarded crust.

Hey ho. The sacrifices one makes for the cause of research!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Baking well

I have spent considerable time this week on a short chapter for a book about island foods. I saw the call for contributors some time ago, and reflecting on the fact that Britain too is an island, I wondered what I could suggest to the editors by way of worthy British munchables. Fish and chips seemed too much of a cliché, Eccles cakes would be just to weird for foreigners and, being a Mancunian by birth, it would practically be against all my deepest convictions to suggest Yorkshire Pudding. But, I thought, what about the Bakewell Tart? The editors liked my suggestion, and after much procrastination, I settled down a couple of weeks ago to look into the matter.

First tings first: the Bakewell Tart  is not the classic Bakewell dessert for a start. That honour goes to the Bakewell Pudding. The Bakewell Tart appears to have its elan only since its commercialisation in the 1960s by Mr Kipling whose various cakes have been advertised by the fruitily-voiced James Hayter. Youtube offers this little gem from what must have been a trying morning of recording adverts about fondant fancies.

 As I say, purists hold to the Bakewell Pudding as the authentic dish from the Derbyshire town, but its history is beset by half-myth not to say savvy creativity.

The basic story can be found in various places online. One tourist site puts the matter thus:

This famous delicacy was first discovered over one hundred years ago, when the landlady of the local coach Inn (the White Horse Inn) instructed the cook on what to prepare for her guests that evening.

The pudding after the meal was to have been her favourite recipe, but the instructions were not followed as intended, and hence the Bakewell Pudding was born.

The landlady was so overwhelmed by the success of the new dish, she instructed her cook to carry on making it in that way.

That was back in 1820 and the white horse (presently The Rultand Arms Hotel), became famous for its delicious pudding.

Other stories tell us the landlady was called Mrs Graves, that this incident happened around 1860, and that she passed on the recipe to a Mr James Radford who passed it to a Mr Bloomer, the baker. Today there is still a Bloomer's Bakery in the town and they produce Bakewell Puddings.

The truth of the matter is somewhat different . The White Horse Inn was demolished in 1803 to make way for the Rutland Arms Inn. The landlady was Mrs Greaves, not Graves, and by 1860 she had already retired to Manchester. The dish which she and her blundering cook were supposed to have 'discovered' - discovered? I love it. Just like someone once discovered the old Black Pudding Mines of Lancashire - was appearing in recipes in domestic coookery magazines from the 1830s onwards.

So, there you have it. Clearly something did happen in the Rutland Arms kitchen one day concerning the pudding but whatever it was has been lost in a tangle of myth. For my sources, I refer you to the interesting books of Paul Hudson published by Pynot and the fascinating site of Ivan Day, a food historian.

The pudding incidentally differs from the tart in various ways. It has puff pastry, not shortcrust pastry, and its classic filling is not frangipane but a kind of thick, almond flavoured custard / pastry cream. Your servant has been making various attempts at baking one and will post the horrifying pictures later on today. Meanwhile, here is a picture of a real Bakewell Pudding.

A Bakewell Pudding (not a tart!)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Richard Wilbur

A recent concatenation of circumstances too lengthy to explain brought before my eyes once more the name of the American poet Richard Wilbur about whom I have not thought in a long time. I used to have the following piece on my office door. Perhaps I shall do so again:

Having Misidentified a Wild-Flower

A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only. 

That said, I rather like this one too:


I read how Quixote in his random ride
Came to a crossing once, and lest he lose
The purity of chance, would not decide

Whither to fare, but wished his horse to choose.
For glory lay wherever turned the fable.
His head was light with pride, his horse's shoes

Were heavy, and he headed for the stable.

Speaking of which, I think I'll head for my stable also! 

Richard Wilbur's poems can be found here.  

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Olympian dreams

I said some harsh words about the Olympic opening ceremony a week ago. But I'm not for a minute one of the disgusted moaners who were featured on the BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday. I'm thoroughly gusted about the Olympics, as it happens.

Neither do I think that the current love affair being conducted between the nation and several hundred mostly obscure athletes is all about the hype. Of course, some of it is about hype. The Daily Mail's campaign highlighting the 'plastic Brits' will probably be overthrown this week - if it's not already - by default jingoism about British heroism. We're accustomed to, and (I believe) rightly cynical about, the warped image of the nation which is found in those pages (not to mention the pages of many papers right and left).

But, as I say, it is not just about the hype. I could cite the traditional British interest in sports over everything else, though I dare say this only accounts for a small proportion of the current national enthusiasms. I wonder if our system of universal education (or 'edumacation', as I prefer) explains such widespread attachment to these sporting events. I don't remember the sporty people being especially popular at school. This isn't the States, for goodness' sake!

Ultimately, I'm inclined to think that the real hook drawing in the national mind and heart is the story of struggle and victory which each event tells. Maybe it's because struggle in sport is 'safe' and so we can happily afford to watch its denouement without thinking it has anything to do with us. Or maybe - to be less cynical about it - we recognise something fundamentally good about struggle which is hardly represented by our MFI-sofaed, air-conditioned, rich-on-credit lifestyles. In either case, these games are drawing us in. And we are gung-ho for sports we have never even heard of, let alone ever practised.

I suppose another factor here has to be the digitalisation of the games. I recently heard about three Birmingham men who, in 1948, rode over a hundred miles on their bicycles to London to go and watch the Games. Silly buggers! Now, not only can you watch the main events on TV, like you could in the 1990s; you can watch any event you want just by swallowing the red pill, er ... pressing the red button (except ours doesn't seem to work). It makes me wonder what this wonderful world of choice leaves unsaid and undone, not to say unsayable and undoable. We know it's a universal, unimpeachable boon. I'm just wondering what the down side is.

Anyway, must dash. I think it's the semi-finals of the Tiddlewinks in ten minutes ...  

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

If a thing's worth doing ...

... it's worth doing badly. That at least was the opinion of G. K. Chesterton. This is no wilfully perverse paradox, although it is a paradox. I think what he meant was that even if you do something badly, it's still worth doing it. I suppose it is Chesterton's slogan for amateurism.

I have to confess to a lot of bad amateurism lately. We have various vegetable patches, but none of them are especially successful. The rocket is dying where our neighbourhood fox peed on them. I have recently picked up my guitar again after years of neglect. The sounds are painful, though not as painful as the sounds coming from my keyboard. Still, I'm determined to do these things: to garden badly, to stutter through pieces I used to play blindfold, and to labour away at the ivories in the hope that something vaguely musical emerges.

Should I bother? I admit that in an age of specialisation, in which we can buy so many professionalised products off the shelf, such an attitude looks rather eccentric. Why bother doing it badly if you can buy the finished, perfect product? I suppose the answer has something to do the failed promises of consumer power. We live in a context which lectures us constantly about the customer's prerogatives. Nevertheless, in this context, we undoubtedly have less space to contemplate what we lose by standing in the shop queue. There are some things money cannot buy, and that is a fact that most of us would readily agree with. And yet if we find something readily on sale, we are so often tempted into buying it, rather than doing / making it ourselves. In other words, we automatically assume that we can buy stuff: any stuff! Okay, I admit it - I have no shame in confessing to having a large collection of CDs and a fridge regularly stocked from Sainsbury's. And yet ... and yet...

Glenn Gould
... what do we lose thereby? It depends what we are talking about. Take the example of music (since we have already done so). It's a lot easier to have music by putting a CD on the stereo. You can have a near-perfect performance by the greatest musicians in your living room any time you like. A bit of nice music over dinner? Who could question that for a second? And yet, if our only contact with music consists in such practices, then our experience is in someways always narrower and poorer. We bypass the difficulties of mastering a score. We never find ourselves in the mysterious presence of an instrument. We never taste that odd sort of kinship that arises from barging through a tune in the company of a friend. Instead, we are forced to hear the same performance again and again, rather than listening to something which can change, mutate, and challenge us in different ways. Few recordings offer us the groanings and ramblings of a performer like Glenn Gould; most are sanatized for universal export. Those regular, identical bell peppers that we all complain about in the supermarket ... we have had the musical equivalent of those for many a year.

I'm not saying I enjoy bad music! I'm just saying that sometimes it's worth struggling. Beyond the convenience, is it not possible we're missing something that's worth the inconvenience? Excuse me while I go and contemplate the fox's handiwork ...

Sunday, 29 July 2012

The wobbly Olympic scenery

The London Olympics opening ceremony
My wife and I stayed up late on Friday night to see on TV the opening of the Olympic Games 2012 in London. I'm not an enthusiast of these kinds of occasions, but I do think such large-scale spectacles can be culturally revelatory, and I was looking forward to seeing how Great Britain would find itself portrayed by the director of the ceremony, the film maker Danny Boyle.

Several things stick with me, as I discussed with some friends on a Facebook thread yesterday (yes, I do that!). First, as one friend observed, amidst the portrayal of Britain as a once green and pastoral land of village cricket and agriculture which disappeared in the shadow of industrial might, there was not one mention of God (apart from the occasional hymn and the national anthem) and certainly no symbolism concerning the role of the Church in our island's story. Someone flippantly remarked that there was nothing for bikers either, but, as another answered, bikers have no significant role in Britain's historical and social genesis. Christianity does! And like it or not, so does the person of Jesus Christ. But no, these were airbrushed out of the picture here: this was a representation of Britain but a selective one, and the omissions were as significant as the inclusions. At one moment in the unfolding drama, a young girl and boy kissed, and behind them on a screen flashed a rapid series of images which included heterosexual couples, homosexual couples and a man kissing an ape. Xenophilia makes its public entry into British life! The inclusions are significant, just like the omissions.

The spectacle meandered onwards (view it on the BBC iPlayer if you are in the UK). After the depiction of the arrival of the industrial revolution, we saw one of the Olymmpic rings being forged (for as we know, the Olympics were inspired by bloodsucking factory owners who thought the working masses needed a little diversion ... weren't they?) and then lifted up on high to form part of the Olympic symbol. A new section narrated a couple of teenagers leaving a house filled with TV-watching adults and going out for the evening. Since one of them dropped her phone, they were chased by a group of boys through four decades of pop music (with accompanying dancing) until the boys caught up with them to return the phone, and we saw the moment of the kiss described above. The original house finally lifted up in the air to reveal Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world-wide web, typing at a desk. 

How all very modern Britain! Boyle's picture told us and the world about ourselves: we have a bucolic and industrial past, and we've swapped it for a suburban and consumption-shaped present, our principal consumable being that of mediatised entertainment. Heck, the crowd in the Olympic stadium were even part of the show!  

But, as I also said to our pro-biker friend, if this spectacle represents who were are in the sense of our national identity, we've become an existentialist nation: we are what we do. We are no longer a land aspiring for anything so naff as ideals or values to be striven for. We have nothing to offer except our sense of humour in a vacuum and our funky music (which is yours at a price). I've called this existentialist, but that's probably an insult to existentialists. At least existentialists are looking to affirm something by their doing. This spectacle showed us affirming almost nothing except ourselves (apart from a short section praising the National Health Service): how funny we are, how individual we are, how many well-known cultural references we can make (Harry Potter, James Bond, Mr Bean, Sir Simon Rattle). It was a procession of postmodern variability, spread thick with high-tech razzamatazz.  

The Rio Carnival
Of course, the next day almost nobody in Britain dared say a word against the show, or analyse its implications too much. We all had to say how wonderful it had been, how game the Queen had been for playing along with the James Bond charade (true enough), how generous the volunteers had been with their time. This was not the moment for raining on the British parade. A new mood took over in fact. Looking forward to the Rio Olympics, some commentators dared Brazil to match London's spectacle. Many wise heads nodded, seeming to imply that the Brazilians would struggle (naturally) to do half as well as the British had done. As if Rio were not the home of the carnival in the first place ... 

So, another friend said, you didn't enjoy it? Well, actually, I laughed out loud in places. And as a spectacle, it was amazing. But it was empty, as empty as our postmodern, consumerist search for who were are. Some of the foreign press picked up on this, wondering if Britain knew what it now was in a postcolonial age. That was a nice way of saying that much of what we saw in the Danny Boyle spectacle was not plausible. A nation's identity does not hang on what its youngsters do on a Saturday night, or at least, if it does so, that nation is in a sorry place.

All in all, in fact, it was rather like a hanging: there was something indescribably thrilling about it, but in the end, you know, it was a bit of a let down.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Focal things and practices

Dr John Senior
I suppose there is a romantic in all of us in one way or another; we are all irreducible individuals. I am not, however, what I would call a romantic, at least not by training. Using such grand, generic terms, I would say rather that my intellectual formation was 'classical' in nature. If I was going to be more concrete, I'd call it Thomist, and if I was going to be as precise as possible, I'd call it neo-scholastic, All that said, I'm haunted by the image that that great teacher of literature John Senior uses to denounce the neo-scholastic project: St Thomas, he says, is to the neo-scholastics as farming implements are to a formerly colonised island whose colonisers are all dead and whose natives have forgotten the use of the implements and now hang them in the trees to worship them.

As a classicist, I learnt that habit is good, but experience proves the need to balance habit by frequent reinitiation. As a classicist, I hold that principles are indispensible, but experience proves the need to balance principles by frequently reconnecting with persons. Hard on principle but easy on people, rather than easy on principle but hard on people. He who stands by raw habit and nude principle has hung what he believes to be the truth in a tree and usually worships it with blood libations (sometimes his own, frequently that of others). I suppose the question that arises, however, is why do we ever lose contact with the real in the first place, either through habit (in the moral domain) or through principle (in the intellectual domain)? I'm sure Gabriel Marcel would convict me of having the spirit of abstraction.

Professor Albert Borgmann
With this rather romantically-drawn backdrop - given the themacity of the perpendicular pronoun - I have stumbled recently into reading Albert Borgmann, the American theorist of technology, and found therein at least one happy illumination of the problem I have just described. Borgmann is preoccupied among other things with the conditions of our material culture and what has happened to it in our perceptions. He is concerned that the pretexts which urge our immersion in technology are in fact narrowing and unfulfilling. Like habit and a kind of narrowly applied principle (this is my gloss), our technological context invites us to seize and instrumentalise the  things we see and almost unconsciously consume them, even when, most worryingly, they are not for sale. Thereby, however, we find the depth of things is reduced severely. What we need, says Borgmann, is to push technology to the periphery of our lives and challenge its omnipresence with what he calls focal things and practices: objects and activities which help us reconnect with those things we have lost contact with through usage. These gather our world together, revealing its various significations, while disclosing their own depths in the process.

If that all sounds woolly, the way I see it is that Borgmann is providing a reason why dinner round a table with good friends, laughing and enjoying each other's company, is more satisfying in all ways than an evening spent on Facebook. It suggests why even people who spend half their waking hours steeped in World of Warcraft think it's cool when someone can get the guitar out and pick a tune. It also correlates with Jacques Ellul's belief that the technological society begins as a way of thinking about things, rather than in material production. Perhaps habits and principles, taken in a narrow sense - taken in some self-sufficient sense - are ironically the incipit of a world understood without reference to its deeper self.

We are all users of technology; this very blog is a phenomenon of the technological culture. But this need not be a double bind. I'm free to blog as long as I don't forget the reality of the reader. I'm reminded of some lines by French novelist Georges Bernanos who, when someone said he was a 'realist' because he sat in cafes and wrote about what he observed, answered:
Georges Bernanos
I write at cafe tables because I cannot go long without faces and the human voice about which I believe I have tried to write honourably. [...] I write in cafes as I wrote once in railway carriages, so as not to be duped by creatures of my imagination, and, through a glance cast on some passer-by, to rediscover the true measure of joy and sorrow.    

Beyond habit and abstraction, there is then some tangible thing with which I am bound to reconnect. Failure to do so seemingly comes at the price of an ever intensifying dessication of the mind and soul.  Bernanos's words were addressed directly to that school of French literature that thought it was being 'naturalist' and 'realist' by trying to represent things as they are. By some sad paradox, they were disorting as they were representing. Somehow, the confidence of a certain mindset in seizing and possessing what is, can lead to a strange payback arising from the infidelity of the knowledge - the inadequation - such a process produces. Our principles are good, but our use of them can distort both them and us. Realism cannot be realism when it is obsessed only with what appears. G. K. Chesterton calls for for stereoscopy: the real only appears itself when viewed through mental binoculars, rather than through any reductive and voracious systematisation of the mind.

These things - and the inspiration of this blog - were brought home to me again recently standing beside an enchanted fjord (in the picture above and around us) when I found its beauty impressing itself upon me. It was not teaching me what it was in itself, as if it were undertaking some exercise in realism. It is not entirely clear what that mysterious fjord was up to But I think ultimately it was reminding me of the depths of all things and, likewise, inviting me to stand a little more humbly before them. Borgmann has not listed fjord-gazing as a focal activity, but something tells me he would not dismiss the suggestion.

Monday, 23 July 2012

First day of the holiday today ...

.... so, thanks to my daughter for waking us up at 4am! But what to do? We are  - to use that appalling portmanteau - having a 'staycation' and will head for town later to potter in the shops and munch on some lunch. The temperature has reached a happy 25 degrees celsius (77F) which makes it nigh on sultry for us Brits.

The other possiblities are legion. I have a volume of Albert Borgmann on the table which has been awaiting my attention for some time. I also have a pile of unwatched films arising from the near total incompatibility of my wife and me over film choices. My office bookshelves are begging me to sort them out after seven months of disorder since we moved house. And, well, it's just so nice outside ...

The week looks busy otherwise. Tomorrow is billed as a daddy-and-daughter day while my wife disappears to a conference. Thursday involves a trip to Manchester to see my parents. Friday of course means the Olympics!

But let me not resort to the stereotype of needing a holiday after my holiday: away from me, all ye linguistic procrustes! I shall place the holiday under the sign of Pieper.

Just pass the cultural sun cream, would you?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

An afternoon in Tolkien's footsteps

We spent some time this afternoon at Sarehole Mill Museum a few miles outside Birmingham city centre. On the face of it, there is nothing really special about the place: an untidy carpark, a few old mill buildings and an ill-stocked cafe. Lift aside the mantle of modesty, however, and you will spy J. R. R. Tolkien's very own playground from the time when he was a lad of eight.

He had come with his widowed mother and brother Hilary to Gracewell Cottages next to the mill pond. They were living near family in south Birmingham after the death of Tolkien senior in South Africa. The two boys played all over the still functioning mill, among the millstones and pulleys:

They gambolled in the local fields from which they were regularly chased by a mad Birmingham farmer on which the character of Farmer Maggot was based. Nearby, they found Moseley Bog which itself provided the raw inspiration of Fangorn Forest.

Pictures of the mill from the early 1900s when Tolkien knew it suggest the area was little more than a village within easy reach of a large town. Now, it is one of the many suburbs which slide away with ungainly vulgarity from Birmingham city centre. The noise of the traffic likewise nowadays takes a little something away from the atmosphere's location.

And nevertheless, it is a special spot. Pictures of the mill capture something of its old world charm:

And in the summer sun, with the birds singing brightly and the vegetation humming under the heat, one could not help but summon up the image of Tolkien's young imagination being forged under these kind stones.

Blogging the agenda: agenda-ing the blog

I have been writing in a variety of fora for quite some time now but this blog is a new venture for me. It will be as much a scrap book of current interests as anything else. I have felt for some time the need to find a place where I can breathe a little, beyond the constraints which are placed on one by expectations professional or otherwise.

I am not drawing up anything as crude as a manifesto; I am simply wondering if I can recapture here the space, life and curiosity I recently felt standing on the banks of a Norwegian fjord in the broad daylight of a late evening in mid-summer. It was the kind of moment which recalls one to oneself, to the best of the things one has learnt and which lie in a jumble beneath the ashes of the daily grind.

Well, I can try ...

Welcome, reader!