Wednesday, 30 March 2011

'The Ruin of Britain'

This morning's radio show on Phonic FM - having been thinking about King Offa in the previous show but one about Geoffrey Hill's 'Mercian Hymns' - circled around Gildas the Monk's 'The Ruin of Britain' from the C6th, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The discussion was about different aspects of a historic conflict, that of the wars and battles in Britain between the Welsh/Britons and Scots/Picts, and Roman Empire and then leading on to the Angles/Saxons/Jutes. The invasion of Rome, the rule of Rome, Roman and Romano-British Britain, and the way that Gildas' account - deeply political, a polemical sermon basically, favoured the Romans. Then the way that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle charted successes and less of the failures, the way it was written often long after the events it details, in many places, even though it's written in the form of an annual diary...the way that Gildas refers to things which 'everyone knew' and yet as one of very few records, of course, now we don't know! The gaps and the missing names, the obvious partisanship of historical texts...and we ended with 'The Ruin' poem from the C10th Exeter Book, as a classic re-imagining of the Roman times from a Saxon poet. It was really interesting - or at least, as topics and periods which we ourselves have discussed many times, it was great to actually try and structure a discussion to explain to folks who Gildas was, why these texts matter, why it is that they're so interesting, and of course, most importantly, what they can teach us now - not only about our own past, the past of the places we call or think of as home, but also about current conflicts. How things have very different versions depending on who is doing the telling! It's a point that's always worth drawing attention to, and more timely than usual just now.
    One can argue for ever about whether one can or cannot learn from history, when technology changes even if humans don't, when history repeats itself but not in exactly the same way...but what is true, it seems to me, is that history can illuminate situations as well as give context to a geography.

   It sometimes seems quite amazing to be given the opportunity to present a show where the whole kaleidoscope of arts, history and culture are available as subjects. Well, with a finite knowledge base, given shoehorning time for research into the day's tasks somewhere, anyway... My co-presenter always remembers his various and varied areas of knowledge, in a most impressive way. Whether post modern philosophy, the history of philosophy, the history of the English Civil War or the history of maths, he can lay his hands on the key names, dates and facts in a few moments... I on the other hand can read dozens of C19th novels, or study C18th garden history, philosophy, have a detailed knowledge of follies and folly landscapes or Tudor banqueting, Icelandic Saga facts, and then...after a while, it all becomes rusty. I know that I have known whatever it is, but can I recall it quickly or without preparation? Sadly not. Whether Expressionism, multimedia theatre as documented by Richard Kostelanetz, concrete and code poetry, the English Civil War, Anglo-Saxon poetry or Anglo-Saxon kings and culture, Surrealism or theatre history, sundials, astronomy, hydraulic automata, all of them passions and hobbies at different times and still. But could I now tell you the plot of Fanny Burney's 'Camilla' as distinct from 'Cecelia' and 'Evelina', or the names of other key characters? Or the actual difference between Trollope's 'Can You Forgive Her?' and 'He Knew He Was Right'? Disraeli's 'The Election' or 'Sybil'...? Errrrrmmmm.....

   I know I have known these things and read them, but... However, luckily, whatever the faults of this morning's show, at least Deor didn't do what he often does, which is ask me a question the answer to which I can no longer remember, will remember much later, or couldn't possibly remember on only the one cup of instant coffee I've had time for! Doesn't matter what you know or how much, radio is a strange beast and a tricky medium...I'm much less inclined to criticise presenters on most stations now. Whatever I do or have known, nine times out of ten I sound like an idiot at some point on these shows, and if not 'erm', then radio picks ups your stopgaps and stock slang like nothing else. 'Wow', 'absolutely', 'I mean' all get picked up and stick in the ear. Ouch! That and sounding like you've got brains made of spaghetti. But these topics are so worthy of the attempt - it's worth it.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Philosophy Show

It's always really good to do something which you've been meaning to do for some time, and this morning's  installment of 'Widsith and Deor Present...' on Phonic FM on modern philosophy, was just that. Philosophy is a passion of mine, if in a hobbyist/slacker way. I love the history of ideas, the way that philosophy forms the backdrop to most if not all other disciplines, the way in which it critiques assumptions and looks at the scaffolding of language and culture that most of us take for granted. I love the way it makes you look at the world in a whole new light, and can make you change for the better. And I love the crazy quirky tales of how some books were written or recorded or lost and re-found, the wacky lives of many philosophers, ancient and modern, and just the whole way it seems to light up art and literature.
   So it was great to do a show just devoted to discussing it. We talked of how modern philosophy was probably to be charted from Nietzsche; Foucault's remarkable and eye-opening take on how the idea of sexuality has changed with technology and conceptions of what society's all about, from hanging to health care. Of Heidegger's Being and Time; of the difference between the Continental and analytic (or ordinary language as it used to be called) traditions in philosophy; of Deleuze's idea of the Event, very fruitfully I thought, and of course, of how the Stand Up Philosopher's performances came about! And we played one recording (a great piece, though the sound was a bit echo-y), and Deor performed the other. The show, punctuated with wonderful music from Debussy, Bizet and Britten, went all too quickly. We could have discussed just Foucault for a whole show, and we didn't have time to talk about the book I'd brought along, Foucault's beautiful and dynamic homage, art/criticism, work of philosophy 'This is Not a Pipe' - about (of course) Magritte, one of his favourite artists. There was also a lot more that could have been said about what it means to turn the history of thought and philosophy into theatre, but we did touch on the fact that of course, once philosophy was essentially oral, and changed its character with the printing press and so on. We could have gone on all day! But apart from anything else, it's in the nature of radio to have bite sized chunks of subjects. When you present a show, on any kind of radio station, it gives you some insight into why presenters and DJs sound as they do, and why programmes get studded with music or are only certain lengths.
    However, we also managed to record it, so it should soon be up on the 'Widsith and Deor presents...' site (link to the right).

    The Stand Up Philosopher will be appearing at the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival of philosophy and music in Hay-on-Wye, which runs during the same period as the Hay Literature Festival (26th May - 5th June) and the show is on the  on the 3rd of June, so do come along if you can!

Check out the HowTheLightGetsIn Festival of philosophy & music at;

Sunday, 13 March 2011

'Geometrica' - the chapbook

It's always amazing to see a stage of completion in a long cherished project, and the printing of 'Geometrica' (my latest chapbook) is just that. I would have written a blog about it at the turn of the year, but things have got in the way, and blogs about events seemed more of immediate urgency (if a non-current affairs blog can be urgent).
   However, I have at last scanned the cover! of it. And I must say, it looks to me like the best thing I have ever done. It's always a difficult balance as an artist - what you most wish to pursue, and what 'the market' is most interested in. There are surefire sellers - 'Porlock' being an obvious example. As an all ages historical adventure novel, it caters for a huge range of folks and occasions, and the most recent reason given for buying a copy was a guy who was taking a long plane journey and wanted something to read on the flight! Then there are the slightly niche but still targeted areas of creativity - 'The Books of..' being the example here. Political satire mixed with poetic commentary, the readership is never going to be as wide, but it goes down well at green fairs, respect festivals, and would sell at demos, marches, outside the Leftfield Tent at Glastonbury and suchlike.
    'Geometrica' on the other hand is (and for someone who works compiling information for and attending the live lit scene it feels that way) for the literary few. Written with a seriously unfashionable view that poetry is only sometimes meant for 'expressing shared and common experience'. Evidently 'The Books of...' are meant to make you think - to illuminate the News and the issues which it throws up, in another light. A common experience of the hearsay that is the News, but other takes on it. But some poetry is meant to throw a light on uncommon experience or things from the past that one cannot know, or only from old sources. My ideal (as like many poets I would rather have been a visual artist) is to express in the medium of words - form, colour, shape and structure. In this case, geometric shapes, and/or things expressed through geometry. 'Decagonal' for instance refers to a ten sided shape, or ten pointed star, and is inspired by the beautiful History of Science Museum in Oxford. The Museum is full to the brim with sundials, astrolabes, armillary sundials, and all manner of exquisite historical scientific instruments from a time that looks as if art and science weren't so very distant from one another. Amongst its many treasures, it also boasts a polyhedral sundial and a moondial! The latter as the name suggests, being for making out the time when there is a moon visible, and the former an extravagant 'conceit' of diallists, i.e. a bit of showing off by those who construct sundials, in that it is a three dimensional geometric shape of many faces, each one with another sundial, of slightly different type and function. One exhibit is in a many sided display case, hence the idea for the name 'decagonal'. It seems to be a wonderful way of expressing relationships - a monogon/henagon is a circle, a digon a line between two points, (in 'degenerate and Non-Euclidean' maths) and then things really speed up! Triangle/trigon, square/quadrilateral/tetragon, pentagon, hexagon, septagon/heptagram, octogram, enneagram/nonagram, decagram,  hendecagon, dodecagon...I am mixing up sided shapes with pointed shapes, but you get the idea. (Eg; octagons are eight sided shapes, octagrams are eight pointed stars.) I have always thought that this is a fantastic way to explore relationships in an angled/abstract way. The love triangle is commonly used, but less well trodden are looking at five couples as a decagon, or a group of six close friends as a hexagram. In 'Geometrica' I have not used this in any way as a tight construction/correlation, let alone attempted an algebra of relating! But this was a kind of backdrop, an idea in mind when writing the pieces for the collection. For various reasons, probably to do with a preoccupation with the C17th, philosophy and geometry are intertwined together for me, artistically/creatively, and so many of the pieces were written at philosophy conferences. I suppose the connection for me being that the former attempts to comprehend the world, and the latter to symbolize it, to be horribly simplistic.
   To relate philosophy and geometry in poetry is like thinking of abstract art/Expressionism and architecture as synonymous. But if one thinks of Kandinsky and Feininger's paintings and Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings, and then thinks of when architecture has been portrayed by art in three dimensions by artists in the form of the sets for the film 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari', then I hope it makes more sense, or becomes clearer why I would choose to do so.
   However people may prefer 'The History of This House in Twenty Objects' when finished, or other works entirely, still 'Geometrica' is the thing I most care about, and am most glad to see in print. The visual textworks (unfinished yet in terms of enough for an exhibition) come close, but really, this chapbook is my joy and pride. It matters that people like it and buy it, but ultimately, like much art that is made in many of the artforms, it just had to be done. It occurred because it IS the work about which I care most, and because of the kindness of various libraries and resources for putting the historic images which I desired to complement the text, within my reach.
   And so the text is studded with timeless images from the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Wentzel Jamnitzer (master of the dodecahedral image), a fragment of the famous Flammarion woodcut, a piece from Andreas Cellarius' justly famous star atlas the 'Harmonia Macrocosmica', sundials and other wondrous things.
   There have been times when I thought it would never be finished - the right images, rejecting many poems originally intended to be part of it, re-writing, editing, changing last verses at last minutes, for some time the stasis of no longer getting to philosophy conferences once many of my contacts in academia had lapsed due to study periods ending at institutions, and might as well have been writer's block, for all that they were surmountable with anything other than persistence and trial. But here it is at last, and I never tire of looking at it, which is (rather than egotistical) I prefer to think, just as well!
   Thinking of not having access to the major manuscript libraries, and more importantly a password for the Humanities Index or Jstor (the resources that allow access to all the latest papers and research articles in countless branches of knowledge, and that ceases to be open to you when you are no longer a member of a university), I am immensely grateful to the University of Heidelburg, George Hart the geometric and polyhedra artist, and others who have permitted public access to their wonderful art and visual culture archives. Sites such as the Gallica Digital Library / Bibliotheque Nationale de France make research into more of a joy than endless frustration, and it's a real privilege to have somewhere I can thank them for making the completion of 'Geometrica' possible, (not to mention a dozen other branches of research for writing and the simple pursuit of knowledge).

Check them out at;

Gallica Digital Library;

University of Heidelburg Art History section;

George Hart, polyhedra and geometric artist;