Sunday, 27 December 2009

The bland youth of Waitrose

I'm struck by the faces of the teenage workforce that helps in Waitrose on evenings and weekends. Or rather, I'm struck by how I'm not struck. The faces seem characterless, unformed, blank, untouched by experience.

Waitrose is generally a middle class supermarket; my branch certainly is, judging not least by the number of Daily Mails they sell. Their teenage help seems to be in the same mould; I'd guess they were students from suburban grammar school sixth forms or a sixth form college. ‘Nice kids, but a bit boring’ is the description that springs to mind.

The contrast is extreme with the cockney teenagers I taught in a central South London borough. Their faces (boys’ particularly) were full of character, Dickensian, mobile, expressive; they looked like clowns, rogues, happy chappies, shrewd geezers, bon viveurs. A caricaturist would have had no trouble with them. They were adult faces without the wear and tear.; they had, you felt, begun real life earlier. In dealing with them you knew where you were by their faces.

What accounts for the class difference in youthful faces? I don’t know but some possibilities occur to me. Is the density of social encounters higher in working class areas? does a person interact with more others in the course of the day? Middle class students certainly do more homework and spent less of their evenings and weekend outside the home (and the sporting venues, music lessons etc to which they’re ferried). Where they aren’t is on the street and in the pubs, shopping centres and arcades. As a working class kid perhaps the range of your encounters is wider: for instance, being out more you might meet more adults other than parents and teachers: uncles and other relatives (extended families) for a start, and then all the shopkeepers, security guards, bar staff, dealers, teenage gangs and police whose domain is public spaces. Perhaps you need a repertoire of facial expressions for the range of situations, along with a stock of verbal responses; you learn to make your face reinforce your words.

Is there something in Bernstein’s ‘restricted code’ idea? If some people’s words express their meaning only in a general and not very differentiated way -- if less of the meaning they want to convey is contained in the words -- they may need to rely more on other channels. These include tone of voice, gesture, stance and facial expression. So in all these you learn to be versatile and, literally, expressive.

Contrast your grammar school student who lives a rather monkish or nunnish existence, isolated for hours in a bedroom at home or head down in imposed silence in a classroom. The semiotic traffic of such a person is relatively less with other individuals and more with symbol systems: written texts, mathematical symbols, diagrams; and at the meaning level with facts and abstractions, concepts and ideas.

The level of sheer life of our bookish student -- the intensity of his or her experience -- may well be no lower than that of our kid on the streets but, involving little interaction with people, has no particular call to find expression in the face. Behind those bland, unformed faces will be a great many exciting young thinkers, dreaming and grappling and interpreting and theorising like mad as they restock the baked beans. Meanwhile the minds of which those animated working class faces seem to be an expression are often, I think -- again relatively -- uninteresting and unformed.

The meaning of smoking

My kitchen window, on the first floor (level 2) of our flats, looks down on a road leading to the station. That’s where most passers-by are going to or coming from, often with cases on wheels that provide the first sound I hear on many mornings. Today itt’s cold out there and a man who just passed wheeling his case and looking underdressed was plainly feeling it. But he still had a cigarette on, which entailed keeping his hands, or, strictly, one of them, ungloved.

It obviously meant something to him to be smoking as he walked and shivered and I thought back to my own smoking days, when I too would have wanted to light up while walking in the cold. Or while working outside at gardening or building something. Part of the story is obviously addiction, though addiction is in some usage just a label for liking to smoke. But another part is the extension of our personal zone and the bubble of culture out into the alien environment. Instead of taking in nature in the form of its air we take in as our own smoke, the work of our lungs and their prosthesis, the cigarette. The cigarette, part of which, after all, is inside us, isn’t an external device but a bit of us. Like our own mouths, we can’t see it; it’s an intake channel equivalent to and as intimate as the nose.

Smoking is a defiant declaration of independence: ‘Wherever I go I can make my own environment, breathing my own stuff and not what nature offers and moving in a cloud of my exhalation. Between nature and culture I'm for culture every time.’ Hence the appeal of lighting up even in the most inconvenient circumstances -- up ladders, under cars, on mountainsides, on bikes. It’s an assertion of our self-sufficiency, the mastery of the human over the worst the world can throw at us, of our dominance over nature. (Having written that I'm aware there’s a gender dimension to all this.)

And as such it’s a stance that’s out of fashion. Now we think we’re rejoining nature. (’We’ being, I suppose, more the white middle class.) Once more (the last time being ancient Greece?) we’re animals with bodies that we’re keen to let the air get to, the more the better - just see us on the beach compared with our ancestors of two or three generations back. Any bodily residues on skin or clothing are removed by crazily frequent showering and laundering. Kids at my primary school in the 1940s would wear the same clothes for, it sometimes seemed, the whole winter, including in bed. Farmers, shepherds and navvies, who -- the first two at any rate -- I romantically thought in my teens should be expressing in their dress and mien something of their noble communion with nature, like Tolkienian Elfs or Ents or whatever they’re called, wore old suits and smoked -- and whistled not folk songs but hits from the Light Programme. Nor did they bother about getting soaked: the only rainwear was a sack across the shoulders: let nature -- which is, let’s face it, just a pain half the time when you’re trying to make a living -- do what it will: me, my clothes, my fags and my bits of tunes are all I need to be a king.

The price of symbolic reinforcement from at least one of these cultural appurtenances was cancer and wrecked lungs for some, a risk most of us have judged excessive. But I don’t underestimate the satisfactions of smoking in the open air or despise those who hang on to them. David Hockney, who I reckon a wise man, can’t be all wrong.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

QM final

One more on Shelley’s 1813 Queen Mab. But I shouldn’t be writing these: doing blog entries takes me a significant amount of time -- I can’t just dash them off. I usually write notes and scribble thoughts as I’m reading stuff but it would take a lot of work to turn them into anything more public.

The correct function for my blog, I've concluded, is to keep me writing in those periods when I don’t have a ‘proper’ writing job on the go -- which at the moment I do, which is why I shouldn’t be writing this. Hence the long interruptions to my blogging activity.

Shelley: one other thing he is good at is space -- interstellar immensities, constellations. The last part of section I (of nine) is a description of the journey of the fairy’s ‘car’ up from earth, through clouds and sky and across the extent of the globe and then out into space, further and further away. This is almost the end of the flight:

The magic car moved on.
Earth’s distant orb appeared
The smallest light that twinkles in the heaven;
Whilst round the chariot’s way
Innumerable systems rolled,
And countless spheres diffused
An ever-varying glory.
It was a sight of wonder: some
Were horned like the crescent moon;
Some shed a mild and silver beam
Like Hesperus o’er the western sea;
Some dash’d athwart with trains of flame,
Like worlds to death and ruin driven;
Some shone like suns, and as the chariot passed
Eclipsed all other light.

Spirit of Nature! here!
In this interminable wilderness
Of worlds, at whose immensity
Even searing fancy staggers,
Here is thy fitting temple....

That’s ‘the Sublime’, as theorised by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant.

Shelley ends the section with his metaphysical notion that that Spirit of Nature that pervades that ‘interminable’ space fills everything there is, so that ‘not the lightest leaf / That quivers to the passing breeze / Is less instinct with thee’. (Both space and time are interminable, infinite: for Shelley the atheist, there was no Creation and there are no bounds to space.)

Still QM

I was a bit dismissive of the verse. As I hadn’t had the chance to take the book back to the library, it was still lying around so last night I picked it up and started reading again and it was wonderful. (Never trust my first responses -- I keep telling myself that but I don’t learn.)

It’s not just the Blakeian outcries against injustice; he’s terrific too on, as it were, the physics and mechanics of phenomena that fall outside ordinary experience, such as Queen Mab (the Fairy Queen), her chariot or ‘car’ and they way they appear and move. In these passages there seems a specificity that’s unlike anything I can think of from earlier centuries and that I suppose reflects the keen new scientific awareness.

On p.4 of this 1990 facsimile edition (Woodstock Books, Oxford) there’s this -- isn’t it wonderful? (This is before the physics and mechanics -- I'll come to that.)

Behold the chariot of the Fairy Queen!
Celestial coursers paw the unyielding air;
Their filmy pennons at her word they furl,
And stop obedient to the reins of light:
These the Queen of spells drew in,
She spread a charm around the spot,
And leaning graceful from the etherial car,
Long did she gaze, and silently,
Upon the slumbering maid.

I'm surprised some marketing genius hasn’t seized on that and given us the Vauxhall Etherial.

That ‘leaning graceful’ is so good. ‘Reins of light’ I think is a new sort of detail characteristic of the new scientific spirit (later 18th into 19th centuries).

The poem is a mixture of familiar iambic pentameter stanzas and, less often and more near the beginning of the poem, a lyric form of shorter lines of which I don’t know the name, if there is one. It seems the pentameters are best suited for the more technical, if etherial, descriptions. Here’s a lovely pentameter stanza followed by a lovely lyric one. (I realise I'm not quite sure what ‘lyric’ means in poetry.)

The Fairy’s frame was slight, yon fibrous cloud,
That catches but the palest tinge of even,
And which the straining eye can hardly seize
When melting into eastern twilight’s shadow,
Were scarce so thin, so slight; but the fair star
That gems the glittering coronet of morn,
Sheds not a light so mild, so powerful,
As that which, bursting from the Fairy’s form,
Spread a purpureal halo round the scene,
Yet with an undulating motion,
Swayed to her outline gracefully.

From her celestial car
The Fairy Queen descended,
And thrice she waved her wand
Circled with wreaths of amaranth:
Her thin and misty form
Moved with the morning air,
And the clear silver tones,
As thus she spoke, were such
As are unheard by all but gifted ear.

Then we get her first speech, magnificent in its dignity. Feeble end there, and that extended Homeric simile form (’sheds not a light so... as that which...’) is something I'm glad poets eventually ditched. But I love the way the light from the fairy undulates and sways, and how her form moves with the misty air. She’s there but only ‘filmy’, like medieval angels that were a bit flesh but a lot spirit.

(Light, by the way, for the builders of Gothic cathedrals, was the nearest perceptible thing to imperceptible spirit and God. I learned this from my late friend Barry Bell, professor of architecture at Carleton University, Ottawa, who once asked his group, ‘Are you guys familiar with the works of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite?’ They weren’t and he want on to explain who this early Christian theologian -- thought, wrongly, to be the St Denis of the first Gothic Church, in Paris -- originated this theory of light.)

Barry’s a huge loss. Three or four years ago he was in his prime intellectually: he’d just got married, had moved into their new house in Toronto and was killed in a stupid accident. There’s a small group of dead people, beyond the immediate circle of loved ones, who I miss, and he’s one of them.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Queen Mab, more

Some corrections to my last posting (I should have read the introduction more carefully): the publisher of Queen Mab was Shelley himself, and he distributed only 70 copies to aristocratic acquaintances. He’d written it was he was 19.

However, pirate copies some years later got the poem widely known to a working class audience, with the result that it eventually became a bible for the Chartists.

The notes include the text of his pamphlet, ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, for which he’d been sent down from Oxford in 1811.

It seems Shelley didn’t know Blake’s work.

Friday, 11 December 2009

A. Mitchell, P. Shelley

A couple of us went to this and found it hard to take, not all of it but enough to make us opt instead for the bar to escape cringing and embarrassment.

Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies about Vietnam)’ is a good poem but the image I have of it being performed at protests by angry students who, unlike the speaker in the poem, were perfectly able with their education to be well informed about Vietnam sums up for me the self-indulgence and dangerous simple-mindedness of many such campaigners: let them try being prime minister or foreign secretary and balancing all the considerations that have to go into wise government. I'm aware that ‘It’s more complicated than that’ can be a regular cop-out to avoid principled action -- but I'm still glad that many of the people I see on protests aren’t running anything. Or the crowd on the stage at this event.

Poetry, including good poetry, can serve the self-indulgence of simple-minded ranters. There was some of that on Wednesday. Some good Mitchell and some good Blake were well read, but were also set to music in a way that seemed to me to be allowing the singers to get off on the highs of idealistic anger and utopian vision: nice experience for them, excruciating for listeners who see them from my sort of perspective as the childish and comfortable privileged still on parade in their advanced baby-boom years -- and disastrous as politics if what you favour, as I tend to, is ‘piecemeal social engineering’, at least in the normal course of things, until things have reached such a pass that there’s no alternative but full-scale revolution - with which you take your chances and which certainly don’t guarantee that things will be better afterwards or that all the death and misery will turn out to have been justified. And, yes, absolutely, that piecemeal engineering can’t be just technical tinkering without something of Mitchell’s vision of ends: there does need at the back of it to be something like his and Blake’s anger at injustice. But the following, for instance (Blake, anti-Malthus) doesn’t amount to a political programme:

Compell the poor to live upon a Crust of bread by soft mild arts
Smile when they frown frown when they smile & when a man looks pale
With labour & abstinence say he looks healthy & happy
And when his children Sicken let them die there are enough
Born even too many & our Earth will be overrun
Without these arts If you would make the poor live with temper 

With pomp give every crust of bread you give with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts reduce the man to want a gift & then give with pomp
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh If pale say he is ruddy 

Preach temperance say he is overgorgd & drowns his wit
In strong drink tho you know that bread & water are all 

He can afford Flatter his wife pity his children till we can
Reduce all to our will as spaniels are taught with art

From VALA Night the Seventh - Blake

I know that piece because of a talk by a person whose name I've forgotten at a Hazlitt study day; she read it alongside a terrific piece from Scott’s The Antiquary in which a fishwife reproaches the visiting laird who has upbraided her for enjoying a dram.

On Thursday I was in the lovely King's library on Chancery Lane -- the old Public Records Office, beautifully converted -- with a list I'd accrued over a time, on which was Shelley’s Queen Mab. My interest in this little read work (published 1813 when I think Shelley was 21) arose from Edward Reed’s From Soul to Mind, about how 18th century moral philosophy became 19th century psychology. Erasmus Darwin and Shelley shared a materialist philosophy in which humanity had no distinctive soul but all matter had some degree or sentience and was infused by the Universal spirit. No soul, no God -- these views were so heterodox, indeed dangerous, that they had to be written as poems -- supplemented by extensive notes at the end.

So Queen Mab sets out in allegorical form a deterministic philosophy in which everything, including the mind, is connected in ‘the great chain of nature’. As philosophy it doesn’t work. Most of the verse doesn’t either but in places it becomes powerful in a Blakeian way:

But the poor man,
Whose life is misery, and fear, and care;
Whom the morn wakens but to fruitless toil;
Who ever hears his famished offsprings scream,
Whom their pale mother's uncomplaining gaze
For ever meets, and the proud rich man's eye
Flashing command, and the heart-breaking scene
Of thousands like himself; – he little heeds
The rhetoric of tyranny; his hate
Is quenchless as his wrongs; he laughs to scorn
The vain and bitter mockery of words,
Feeling the horror of the tyrant's deeds,
And unrestrained but by the arm of power,
That knows and dreads his enmity.

More than a hint of threatened revolution there. And what about this for a good atheist rant, his note to the lines

Whilst round the chariot's way
Innumerable systems rolled.

The plurality of worlds, the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur, is in no danger of seduction from the falshoods of religious systems, or of deifying the principle of the universe. It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine, begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman... All that tale of the Devil, and Eve, and an Intercessor, with the childish mummeries of the God of the Jews, is irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars.

This could have meant big trouble for him and his publisher. Presumably he counted on no one but the initiated reading his notes.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Surbiton Station

Little time for blogging lately but pictures are quick so here’s a recent bunch. On sunny day in London white buildings look terrific: Portland Stone especially, but white-rendered too.

(Incidentally, one of the nicest buildings, the BBC, lovely Portland Stone with Eric Gill sculpture, appeared in a 1930s clip in Andrew Marr’s history programme, at the back of some shot: it was almost black, even though it can’t have been more than twenty years old. We forgot that British cities have probably never looked as sparkling as they do now after all the cleaning that’s gone on in the last -- what, twenty? -- years.

Those white 17th and 18th century churches are amongst the finest sights, but a match for them, in my view, is Surbiton Station: 1937, J. Robb Scott, Deco.

Here it is from the back, seen on the short walk down from my flat.