Sunday, 1 March 2020

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Over and Out

This blog isn’t used much more, and soon it’ll be replaced by a new website with some new projects on it. I really enjoyed blogging here, and learned a lot about what did and didn’t interest people. But it’s old and tired and the formatting was always annoying, and I’ve changed a lot since I started it, so it’s time to put this old site in mothballs and make a new one.

I’ve been thinking a lot about regeneration recently, not just because it's spring but for all sorts of reasons. I’ve had quite a bit of change over the last year. In 2017 I was very stuck in a rut, doing work I disliked, getting nowhere with my writing or anything else for that matter, fed up with where I lived in Bristol, its general decay and grottiness. I saved up and buggered off travelling for a month in the hope that it would shake me out of where I was.

The very last place I went, the day I got the train home, was Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I’d been in lots of churches but even so Notre Dame was a stunner, with it’s circular stained glass windows, ancient doorways and huge Gothic frontage. There was something reassuring about it, its solidity, ancientness, and sense of itself.

I sat there for quite a long time, but even in the section marked ‘prayer only – no photography’ there were tourists preening, waving selfie sticks, and yattering. Not just young ones either: as I sat there, a woman, who must have been 50 at least, extensively fluffed and rearranged her hair, shouting instructions at her grown-up son as to how she wanted to be photographed. I pointed out the ‘no photography’ sign to another woman who was wandering around taking photos, and she looked at me as if I was a moron. I decided it was a good job that I was going home; after a month of ducking other people’s selfie sticks I was itching to smash one over someone’s head.

Back home, I got a new job. But it was only temporary, and it was obvious that things couldn’t hold. The job was in the town centre, and to get to the office I’d pass the homeless, out of their skulls on spice, flat out on the dirty pavements. Pedalling uphill, back home, I felt the weight of pollution furring my lungs, and when I got a cold I coughed up dark grime that hadn’t been generated by my body. The weather, lurching between freezing and sweltering, adorned the sky with odd and unfamiliar patterns. My neighbour with whom I’d been friends was in an old people’s home, dying, and her empty house yawned at me, across the yard. The house was serially invaded by mice. Builders turned up to take the render off the walls, and after a hellish week of dust and banging, they left, and one thing became apparent: the house I lived in was falling apart around me, like an unreasonably literal metaphor for everything.

I decided to move back to the town I grew up in, a decision which weirdly I’d somehow taken halfway up a hill in Bavaria, a year previously.

As I packed my bags and got rid of endless boxes of things, they were rioting in Paris. I wasn’t even slightly surprised. I didn’t know or even care exactly what they were angry or unhappy about, or what they wanted: I was pleased that someone was registering a word, a footnote, a comment, on the general wrongness of things.

I really was surprised, just before Easter, to see Notre Dame in flames. It looked horrific, and I was devastated. All that ancientness, that sense of an old bole like the heart of a tree, all that history and devotion, gone up in flames. I thought of those women and their selfies, and I wondered if we deserved it, that we’d become so selfish and complacent and self-centred that we didn’t deserve to live in world where good things existed. But in the morning my moment of doom was displaced: it had survived. And I hoped we might think a bit more, after all, about what was worth saving. And I thought about the necessity of reinventing and renewing things, and of making them whole again.

That week I met up with a friend who I hadn’t seen for a while. We were talking about me moving out of town and other things going on in my life, and she kept making suggestions to how my life could go back to how it used to be, like she didn’t want the mental effort of rearranging how I was, in her head. And I realised I had really changed all sorts of things, over the course of a year or so, and she hadn’t, and didn’t like it when I asked her if she might or should or could. And I wanted to say to her, you do realise that we’re all in the shit, don’t you, and we have to radically, really radically reimagine how we do all sorts of things? Because we can’t go on like this, it’s making us ill. And I’m no longer coughing up gunk from pollution because I’m away from the motorway and the roads and can see birds and sky instead. But that’s me. Not us. We all need to reinvent ourselves, for something better and more generous. And I thought about Greta Thunberg saying that we need to make like the cathedral builders, and start the foundations before we even know how to make the roof. Because that's what they did with Notre Dame, and the end result turned out really surprisingly good.

Anyway, if you’ve read this, thank you. If you’ve read anything else I wrote here, and replied, commented or retweeted it, thank you. If you gave me a review ticket for something I reviewed here, also thank you. This site will stay up but there won’t be anything new added to it. A new one will emerge in a few weeks/months time, or however long it takes for me to get myself together on that particular task. But it will emerge, in time. Just like the rest of it.

Best Wishes


Friday, 25 January 2019

Review: Anglo-Saxon Treasures at the British Library

I have been to see the Anglo-Saxons exhibition at the British Library which is full of thousand-year-old books. The first thing I would like to say is that the standard of handwriting has collapsed dreadfully in a millennia, and you should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Right, having got that out of the way, onwards. Now I am partial to a bit of Anglo-Saxon bling and very much enjoyed the exhibition of Staffordshire treasures which came to Bristol in 2017. It’s an under-explored bit of our history, and a fascinating one. Because the Anglo-Saxons tended to build a lot in wood rather than stone, there isn’t a huge amount of their remains in existance, and we have to deduce their civilisation from other stuff they left behind, like their metalwork and books, both of which were made to an enormously high standard of art and craftsmanship. Both of these are on display in the collection of precious books displayed at the British Library.

To start with, the books on display are mostly bibles, some as old as the 7th Century. But it’s as Anglo-Saxon society starts to cohere into something that roughly resembles England that the stuff on show becomes more interesting, varied and abundant, producing history books, biographies, translations of popular European bestsellers, legal treaties and even fiction. Some of which were allegedly or reputedly the work of King Alfred the Great, or his grandson, Athelstan, a prolific gifter or books. And it’s here that the exhibition is both potentially most interesting and also somehow fails to live up to that potential. It offers the books ordered by the era and area of predominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and includes very briefly, the process of how these separate realms became formed into one: the Kingdom of England. And I couldn’t help feeling that the curators, or whoever had written the explanatory panels, had shied away from telling this fascinating, important and relevant story, for fear of coming over a little bit Ukip. Instead it was all about links to Europe and how it was a multicultural society, yes, blah blah. I know there’s no such thing as an apolitical take on history but I felt like this excesive squeamishness took away from some of the marvels on show – as well as the marvels which weren’t on show – which is the story of how the territories that became England emerged from the post-Roman chaos of the dark ages and formed themselves into a functioning, prosperous society with an intelligentsia and centres of learning.

It was also obvious how much at that time Christianity was a monastic religion, about great houses of the church, and arcane debates about Easter. The later kind of Chrsitianity which we associate with the middle ages, with its enormous Cathedrals and glittering, popular saints and miracles was a later, populist invention. Anyway, one of the jobs of these early monasteries was to produce books, and by God they were good at it. The artwork on display is stunning in its skill and luxury, and makes you realise that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in coveting a book as an item of art, rather than just to be read: it’s been going on for centuries. It’s also interesting to see how very good much of the art in the books is, with tiny fine line drawings that have none of the lack of realism of later medieval art, but show awfully real-looking people, sketched niftily in pen-and-ink, doing awfully normal things.

The exhibition also left me wondering about the technology of the book. Roman society ran on scrolls and tablets, but by the end of the dark ages the rectangular, bound manuscripts that we use today seemed normal. A letter, dating from the 9th Century, contains the remains of folds. I wondered how, and why, this technological shift had happened.

The star of the show was undoubtedly the only existing copy of Beowulf, and there was certainly some fascinating items on display and some amazing artwork to see. What it lacked was an easily understandable flow of the history behind the exhibition, that fascinating emergence of the state of England, a political edifice which still stands twelve hundred years after it was first dragged from the marshes and wrested from the hands of competing warlords. I could practically hear a roomful of curators screaming ‘Nobody mention Brexit!’ in a planning meeting, which seemed to slightly put a pall over things, since the fact that we’re still wrestling with some of the same issues around the boundaries and duties of the state, more than a millennia later, make the nation-forming struggles of the Anglo-saxons more relevant, not less.

A final note: it really was very busy. If you want to spend hours leering at the rare manuscripts, maybe try an early morning slot.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Travel Diaries... Watch this space.

Hey all, if you're wondering why I took down some of the travel blogs that were up here it's because I'm collating my travel diaries and editing them. Also because what with keeping a diary I didn't have time to do the blogposts justice. I went through Seven countries - Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Monaco and France in 30 days in the autumn so it was quite full-on travelling. 

I recommend keeping a diary with an old-fashioned pen and notebook to anyone. Not only does it keep you much saner than social media (you can tell it anything, without repercussions) you get to relive your journey later, including the bits you forgot. Writing in a notebook gives you permission to be anywhere, as people aren't sure if you're a researcher, a journalist, a writer, an escaped lunatic, an eccentric millionaire who might tip loads, or a health and safety inspector. If you're lucky they may assume you're a restaurant reviewer and give you a free glass of wine. It allows you to avoid eye-contact with jerks, members of your own nationality that you're keen to avoid, and over-zealous ticket-inspectors. Most importantly, it justifies your purchase of over-priced Italian notebooks as an absolutely indispensable work expense.

I also recommend travelling by train in Europe. It is vastly more interesting, cheaper, less stressful, and in every way, better than travelling by plane.

I am hoping to do a crowdfunder to publish the diaries at some point, as a small run of print books, so when I've sorted out how and when, and with whom, I will post the details up here. 

In the meantime here is a picture of St Ursula, my namesake saint and patron of Cologne. As a kid I wondered who St Ursula was, and my mother, who went to a Catholic school, mumbled something about her being martyred rather than marry a Pagan, and I concluded it was some sort of tedious Catholic anti-sex tale. But she turned out to be much much cooler than that. Anyway, she's got a pen to write stuff down , as well as an arrow to stab people with, which seemed to me an excellent combination.