Secrets from Mexico

Way back in the Autumn, as the leaves fell (or were untimely ripp’d from their trees) there was rather a lull in the production of blog posts.  During this hiatus, we here in Southampton enjoyed Mexico Week!  (Please insert your own andales and arribas, as you see fit and your conscience allows.)

I think Mexico week may well have been more widely observed across these Isles and certainly 2015 was a big year for Anglo-Mexican cooperation: no I hadn’t notice either, but apparently it was.

I made it to two main events during the week – which was focused around El Día de los Muertos – both of which yielded unexpected secrets (OK, spoiler alert: one of the secrets was not that unexpected)Winding backwards through time, the second event was a concert of Mexican-composed guitar music given by Morgan Szymanski: with added artworks inspired by each piece.  This was an excellent concert and the CD purchased therefrom is now my preferred choice of lullaby music, when played at low volume as I attempt to breach the high walls Morpheus has placed around his citadel.

Prior to the gig, there was a free workshop in danzón, which whilst Cuban in origin is actively pursued in Mexico.  There was also a chance to attempt some mambo.  The event was graced by a very good live band, comprised (I think) of students from the university.   It was at this workshop, and despite the best efforts of the teachers and my fellow learner dancers (several of whom were from Latin America and all of whom risked physical injury), that the final nails were hammered into the coffin of my hopes to be a dancer.  I have no natural rhythm, I can merely count and then mechanically attempt to reproduce the four, very simple steps involved in danzón.  I’m pretty sure that the Japanese have built robots that could out-dance me – and look more human while doing so.  On the plus side, the dread level of concentration required to produce even this dismal performance left my a sweaty and exhausted wreck: so this my offer an alternative method to encourage sleep.  Not for me the counting of sheep, but the imaginary attempt to reproduce a simple dance.

I pin my remaining (undead) hopes on freer forms of dance: I’m rather tempted by break-dance at the moment.  I think my gymnastic skills could be used to conceal (or at least, distract from) issues in other departments.

The first event was a lecture on Art and Power in Mexico by Dr Jago Cooper: who in addition to his sterling work on BBC4 documentaries is also in charge of the Americas at the British Museum.  Whilst his talk on Mexico was very interesting, the highlights (and secrets) came from the insight into how BBC4 documentaries come to be.  We learned that on BBC4 the academics are allowed to use more and longer words than when aiming at the thickies who watch BBC2 and are even permitted the use of subtitled interviews!  Even so, the word count is surprisingly low: at about the level of an undergraduate essay.  The History department is also rather restrictive on the subjects about which documentaries can be made: apparently, no-one is interested in the Americas (please don’t tell the Yanks or the special relationship will become an even more ironic appellation than is already the case).  If you want to make history documentaries, you better pray your subject area is on the National Curriculum!  (This make explain the TV obsession with the Tudors and National Socialism).  As a result, all of Jago’s work has fallen under the purview of the Art department.

I was reminded of this fact when watching the closing credits for one of the episodes of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s excellent recent BBC4 series on Spain (yes, it did include long words and subtitles).  These revealed that the series was made by the Religious Affairs department: though I suppose he may of had a few pence out of the History department as he did mention the Armada.  This has now become a new project for me: try and guess which unexpected BBC department has been convinced to make any History series I’ve been watching.

My belief that BBC2 history shows will have been seriously dumbed down to avoid alienating its apparently brain-dead audience might explain a degree of inattention when I was (nominally) watching Joann Fletcher’s new series on Immortal Egypt.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that she stated, quite categorically, that Hathor was (among other responsibilities) the goddess of Lovejoy (and I can assure you that I have no trouble at all with the Barnsley accent).  I assume that Hathor’s TV-based brief runs wider than just Lovejoy: but does she extend to other antiques-based programming or lovable wide boys from eighties TV comedy-drama.  I.e., does she offered divine protection to Bargain Hunt or Minder?  Could Hathor have been the never seen, but always feared, ‘Er Indoors?

Now, how many of you can honestly say that you saw that conclusion coming?

Ground zero

The Place:  Beneath the clock, Waterloo Station, London
The Time:  11:04 am (BST), Sunday 28 June 2015

The moment that all of creation had been leading up to (in common with all other moments) finally arrived on Sunday.  My blog soul brother and I finally met face-to-case, mano-a-mano (quite literally, hands were shaken) and what had only been virtual was physically instantiated.  Men (and women and many of the great apes) will count their manhood (or woman or ape-hood) cheap who were not there to witness that momentous occasion.  The earth itself was rocked upon its very axis – can it be a mere coincidence that today a leap second must be added to the day to restore temporal equilibrium?

As I waited ‘neath that clock (I will admit that one of us was slightly late – our thanks to Southwest Trains for making this possible – but even the most skilled of CIA interrogators would be unable to extract the name from betwixt my unwilling lips) – so resonant with previous historic encounters – I will admit that my heart rate was racing.  Had one (or both) of us been using a body-double for our blog presence?  Would we be able to live up to our screen personas?  Could I reasonably offer to remove a smut from his eye in this day of third rail electrification and modern diesel multiple units?

At this point, in an attempt to build quite unnecessary suspense, I will take a brief digression into the realm historic.  As research for this post, I discovered that our first encounter had taken place in late March when my brother followed GofaDM and I alluded to this fact (and his apparent lunacy) in the following post.  However, it was only early this month that our literary bond was truly formed and the level of inter-blog interaction reached its current peak – a level which has (at times) now exceeded the comment nesting capabilities of WordPress and forced us, fugitive, into the arms of Gmail (and beyond).

OK, I shall release you from your tenterhooks and return from this narrative suspension.  My blog soul brother and I get on ridiculously well in the flesh – and did so pretty much instantly.  It was like meeting up with an old friend, but even better as it was an old friend who has yet to hear most of my anecdotes (and vice versa).  Despite his protestations as to his conversational skills (allegedly atrophied by writerly isolation), he was more than able to hold his own against the word torrent that I am capable of generating.  We must have spoken pretty much without cease for three hours outside the Royal Festival Hall (I’m sure the commemorative plaque is being fitted even now) enjoying first the fresh air and then hiding (and filming) the unforecast and rather heavy rain.

At this point we had to make our way to Angel to join the walk which was very much the inciting incident for this narrative.  In Iain Banks’ novel Walking on Glass, one of the primary characters – Graham Park – walks from Holborn up towards the Angel on 28 June – and both being fans of the author, a replication of this walk organised by the writer of The Banksoniain (an Iain Banks fanzine) had given us the excuse to come together.  The walk was moderately diverting, passing through many scenes in the book and in the life of Mr Banks (and also fragments of the life and works of Douglas Adams – and, indeed, mine own).  I learned a number of things, but primarily that when it comes to climbing the mountain of literary obsession I am still back at basecamp (actually, I’m probably still at home preparing a day pack and selecting inappropriate footwear).  We wound up at the Hope and Anchor (which Iain referred to using a name rhyming with Hopeless Banker) in the northern reaches of Upper Street (not far from a bar which once barred entry to my brother-in-law).  I rather doubt that our fellow walkers imagined that we had only known each other for a small handful of hours when the walk began: I suspect some thought we were an item (and that I was punching well above my weight).

When historians come to write the history of the twenty-first century, I think they will recognise this first meeting as a turning point for humanity.   Of late, geologists have been pondering when (or if) to switch to a new geological era – the Anthropocene – but I think this discussion has now been superseded.  On 28 June 2015, we passed from the Holocene into the Blogocene era.   It was truly an historic day – and at this stage, it was far from over!

The Blog Soul Brothers will return in:   AWKWARD?

Repeating history

Famously, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Despite the fame of this statement, in the lists of famous quotations it seems that nobody quite said it – though Edmund Burke was probably the first I could find to express a similar sentiment. 

Based on John Kay’s contributions to a Point of View, even those who do learn from history are still doomed to repeat it.  He always strikes me as a very wise chap, though his pronouncements are rarely cheery for those of us trying to hold on to the last vestiges of hope for the future.  Nonetheless, I strongly suspect that he is right in all the essentials of his argument – belief that human nature will change any time soon is bound to lead to disappointment.  Even from my own more limited reading of history, the problems facing the world today are surprisingly similar in their fundamentals to those of 100, 200, 300 or even 400 years ago.  We have more technological toys and our mastery of the physical world is greater, but the people using them are pretty much the same as their ancestors – despite what we might like to think.  I suppose this may let our current political masters somewhat off-the-hook for their singular ineptitude, but they could at least attempt to learn some lessons from the past.

However, it was listening to Aamer Rachman on the Comedian’s Comedian podcast which led to the the genesis of this post.  He was a very interesting chap and I have been inspired to try and catch him live when next he visits these shores, however, his key observation (at least in relation to the subject in hand) was to note the rather strong racism that pervades Game of Thrones – the current TV and “literary” hit.

I have watched GoT (well, the first three series so far) and do find it quite entertaining (as does Mr Rachman) but cannot deny that he has a very good point.  Before continuing, I should warn readers that there may be ** SPOILERS ** coming which you may wish to avoid if you are even further behind the GoT curve than I.  

I would not want to accuse the author or producers of GoT of being actively racist in their choices, but merely suffering from the lack of imagination that afflicts so much fantasy (and, for that matter, science fiction).  So much speculative fiction (as I described it on my early CVs to conceal its exact nature from potential employers) basically rehashes the recent history of this planet (5000 years or so) in a more magical or technologically advanced realm.

Thus in Star Trek, the klingons seem to be the vikings slightly rebranded – and the citizens of the north of Westeros fit into a similar mould (perhaps with a hint of Angle or Saxon about them).  The Romulans are even named after Rome and borrow many of its conventions, and the southern Westerosi also seem to have many features of Rome or Byzantium about them – even down to the use of a clear analogue of Byzantine Greek fire in the battle of Blackwater Bay.  Westeros also has clear parallels with medieval Europe in its political shenanigans, while fear of ice giants and endless winter is lifted straight from Norse mythology.

If we head over the Shining Sea, we come to a fantasy take on Asia.  The Dothraki are channelling the Mongols and we have Barbary slavers and rich, advanced cities as once lined the Silk Road on the Earth Mk 1.  No sign, yet, of China – nor any indication of a Westerosi equivalent of the myth of Prester John – but I fully expect its equivalent to appear in the fullness of time.  As in the history of Western Europe during the medieval period, GoT shows little sign of any influence from its version of Africa – indeed what lies south of the seven kingdoms remains a complete mystery.

I think I’ve made my point and so will just say that it would be nice to have more fantasy worlds which do not so slavish follow the path-dependencies of our own, where those of Western European descent can still imagine they are in the ascendent.  Some do avoid repeating history, even choosing to have an Africa in the ascendent – far from an unlikely outcome given the tendency of humans to cling to continuity and, as a result, prove unable to leap-frog the legacy of past mistakes – or choose worlds and histories which diverge wildly from our own.  However, I fear these have a greater struggle penetrating the popular consciousness in the West – as a species, we are (perhaps) over-fond of the familiar.

Anyway, while I’m sticking the boot (fairly gently, I hope) into GoT, there is another matter I’d like to remove from its current resting place atop my sternum.  I have the strong feeling that George RR Martin’s writing has something of my way of playing chess about it.  He knows how to start the game and, like me, can probably manage the end game given a couple of rooks – but does rather flail around in the middle hoping that inspiration will strike.  There are times when it strikes me that he has run out of things for a character to do, and so manoeuvres them to their death – much like I might use an exchange of pieces to try and create some direction to my mid-game doldrums. Unlike in chess, he can create whole new pieces as a method to invigorate proceedings, but this just makes the clutter on the “board” worse – hence the need for occasional massacres to clear out some of the dead wood.  I feel that somewhere in the sprawling saga that makes up GoT, there is a trilogy (or perhaps a novel) trying to break free – if only they could find a decent editor.  Then again, history is even less well-structured or focused (especially to those of us living through it) – so perhaps GRRM is repeating history in more ways than I had originally been hypothesising.  And, it is great fun trying to deduce which characters have run out of “plot” and are about to be knocked-off!

Testing Times

The testing of our children and young people is a popular topic for discussion by the media and intervention from our rulers.  I have always assumed that this is because everyone (or almost everyone) has had the experience of being educated (even if for some of us, it lies in the distant past) and so we all feel that we have a valuable contribution to make to the debate.  As this post will show, I am (apparently) no different.

Over the last week, the examinations we inflict on those in their teens have once again been in the news.  Firstly, the Education Secretary seems keen that we re-instate the O-level (I’m not clear if he also favours the return of the CSE – or just plans to write off those that are slightly less academically inclined at 14 to save time later).  This appears to be on the basis that exams are becoming easier: an idea that is trotted out every few weeks, and usually without the bodyguard of evidence which might have been anticipated (if only by the inveterate optimist).  As a chap of more advanced years, and who took – and passed – a frankly ridiculous number of O-levels, I would quite like to believe that we had it tough in my day.  However, as a chap who also spent a little time (but almost certainly more than Mr Gove) working in evidence-based research on education this is quite hard to demonstrate.  The evidence is rather confounded by the switch to both continuous assessment and modular examination from an approach based purely on final examination.  I ought to declare an interest here, as I owe a lot of what I like to call my success to being able to recall information on various days in June during the 1980s.  Nevertheless, I suspect that real life works rather more on the basis of continuous assessment (though come the Day of Judgment I may be proven wrong) – though, as I’ve said before, a good memory can be quite handy too as it is often mistaken for intelligence or thought.  The switch to modular examination means that far fewer exams are either failed or completed with poor marks than in days of yore, as students rarely carry onto the final examination stage if the earlier modules went badly.  This would tend to increase average marks, even if the exams had remained exactly as difficult as before.  I suppose the difficulty of making comparisons might explain why folks rarely bother to provide evidence for their viewpoint but (presumably) rely on faith, which means that rather more of our education system is using faith-based schools than the official statistics would suggest.

The desire for soi-disant harder exams, often goes hand-in-glove with a desire for such revolutionary Victorian ideas as learning more dates in history (other dried fruit did exist in the past) and memorising poems.  These ideas tend to be pushed by folks with a Y-chromosome, which I think smacks of self-interest.  As a fella myself, I’m pretty sure that men feel they have the edge when it comes to collecting and obsessing over lists of facts: be they football results, the combat effectiveness of chaos marines or details of rolling stock.  The approach can be useful, particularly in a pub quiz, and a few dates with a bit of basic chronology does help give events in the past a little context.  Personally, I think it would be quite nice if I knew a little more poetry off-by-heart (though the people I chose to recite it to may be rather less grateful).  Then again, as I managed to waste a fair chunk of Sunday evening reading about Isaiah Berlin’s thoughts on positive and negative freedom – not for work, nor even the OU, but just out of curiosity having encountered a tiny fragment of the topic on the web – I may not be the best person to ask.  I suspect, in general, the need to squirrel away loads of “facts” in the brain is far less relevant now than when I was a boy, given how much easier it now is to look things up (though it is also far easier to find things only masquerading as facts).  In these modern times, perhaps the study of history is best seen as a method to understand the human world and how it came to be this way and how to evaluate the usefulness of different sources of information.  Perhaps by understanding history, rather than memorising when it happened, we might be slightly less prone to repeating it?

Those not suited for these new harder exams are, at best, pushed at vocational qualifications.  The government, spurred on by “business” (whoever they might be), always seems very keen on vocational qualifications – and on specifying what they should be.  Unfortunately, the choices foisted on the young are generally for the vocations wanted today (or more often yesterday) and fail to recognise that needs might have changed by the time they actually acquire the qualification a few years down the line.  This is where I feel education triumphs over training: a decent education should equip one to cope with a whole range of possible futures, whereas training can leave one ready only for a “future” that no longer exists.

The final, current news item in this field is the story that exam boards are competing for students by dumbing-down their exams.  Perhaps not hugely surprising as students, teachers and schools are all led to believe that their futures depend on obtaining high marks at examination.  Even less of a shock when you know that exam boards are here to make a profit and so compete for entries.  We appear to have a system where it is in everyone’s interest (except the nation as a whole or those with an interest in learning) for the exams to be as easy as possible.  I wonder who can have created such a system?  I rather think it may have been previous Secretaries of State for Education acting on faith rather than evidence.  It is good to know that such a successful approach from the past continues to inform policy today (does sarcasm work in print?  Should it have its own font?).  I’m beginning to think Mr Gove might have a point about the poor quality of teaching (particularly in history and mathematics): though as he is my age (OK, marginally younger – but I’m much better preserved), it would appear his criticisms should be aimed at the system of O-levels and the old Exam Boards rather than at GCSEs!  The GCSE generation have yet to have their opportunity to wreck the education system with initiatives from above, so the jury will have to remain out for now…

Ynys Enlli

is what my forefathers (or at least the Welsh ones) would have called Bardsey Island,  a place I rather fancy visiting one of these days.  However, given the rash of productions of his plays and documentaries about his life at present, I think perhaps the whole of Great Britain could be considered “Bard see island”.  Given that 2012 does not seem to represent any particular anniversary for old Will, I assume this is driven by the Jubilee and/or Olympics.

Not that I’m complaining (about the Shakespeare: the Jubilee and Olympics themselves do little for me, but I don’t begrudge others their fun – which may make me unique in the blogging community) – for a start, I’ve enjoyed several of the documentaries spread across Radio 4 and BBC4.  Talking of TV history documentaries, I felt compelled to watch the first quarter of Simon Schama’s recent contribution to the oeuvre without being able to see the screen as I was fighting with a model at the time in pursuit of my day job (for the avoidance of doubt, the model was of the computer rather than the human variety).  This highlighted the extent to which many (if not, most) of the visuals from TV history documentaries are unnecessary: the radio with a fairly short, synchronised slide show would be sufficient unto the material, and probably rather cheaper to produce in these days of declining budgets.  Surely, this sort of approach should be readily achievable in this modern technological age?

As well as taking in a couple of productions the plays by each of the National and the Globe, I have also seen the RSC’s take on the shipwreck trilogy at the Roundhouse.  This wonderful building, I discovered yesterday, used to be an engine shed with a turntable to rotate steam engines (or to play very large vinyl records).  There is little need for such turntables these days as most modern rolling stock is symmetrical (and development of the MP3 player) – with no real distinction between bow and stern (to borrow the nautical terminology).  The only exceptions I could think of are the Class 91 Electric Locomotive and the Class 82 Driving Van Trailer (DVT) – and I have seen a 91 back-to-front – so I wonder how they turn these round?  Also, would a pair of DVT socks help when driving a 225 rake south?  (Yes, that was a joke for any train spotters who have stumbled here by mistake).

Back to the Bard, I saw the shipwrecked based plays in the order The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest and finally Twelfth Night.  It was rather interesting seeing three plays with similar premises, and sharing the same production, basic staging and cast.  All could be recommended, though my favourite was Twelfth Night and coincidentally this made the most extensive use of the ‘ocean’ which formed part of the set.  This also provided the answer to a question which had been puzzling me for some years.  In a piece about Greenfleeves (a passing melodious roundalay), Michael Flanders mentions a number of plays from the 16th century – including something I have previously interpreted as Gorba Duck (he introduced perestroika to many a pond, you know).  However, now I know it was the play Gorboduc (thanks to the surtitles provided at the Roundhouse for the hard of hearing, or in my case, understanding) by Norton and Sackville.  Subtitled Ferrex and Porrex,with hints of Antigone in the plotting (I’m thinking it wasn’t a comedy, for laughs you should look to Ralph Roister Doister) it was considered quite controversial back in 1562 – but sadly would not have been in existence (and neither would RDD) when Henry VIII (allegedly) took a brief break from wife-swapping to pen Greensleeves (yes, I am fact-checking the beloved dead).  Still, I’m willing to forgive Flanders and Swann for taking minor liberties with history given the enjoyment their output has given me over the years.

Anyway, documentaries and plays by the Bard of Avon are stacking up on my PVR thanks to the BBC and Humax, so I ought to watch some of them.  If the first 45 minutes of the RSC’s all black production of Julius Caesar is anything to go by – which were quite incredible, and not a sign of Kenneth Williams (whose portrayal I have relied on heretofore), though I have yet to reach the famous Infamy speech – I am in for a treat!

Scottish politics, again?!

I know.  If I love Scottish politics so much, why don’t I move there?  Well, I might – then you’ll be sorry, but not as sorry as the Scots.

Scottish independence has been much in the news, even this far south!  Before he went off for today’s love-in with M. Sarkozy, our own PM was even talking about it.  I don’t claim to follow the full range of arguments he marshalled but I do think he was suggesting that we would both be richer together than apart (this the day after he’d half-inched the Scottish idea for a minimum price for alcohol).  A recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland suggested that not much has changed in the last 300 odd years – being richer was reported as a primary driver from the Scottish side for union back in 1706 (the Darien expedition had not gone so well).

One of the options short of full independence is rather unattractively called Devo Max.  I assume this must be the calorie-free version of Devolution (there’s probably also a Diet Devo for the ladies).  Given the current obesity issues that are popularly supposed to afflict our Scottish brothers, I can certainly see that this might have some appeal for those north of the border.

The issue that the Greeks (and others) are having with a Euro whose value is set for the convenience of quite different economies is only too familiar to the Scots given the rather London-centric currency they have been stuck with for several centuries now (they do their best, poor lambs, by making their bank notes much more colourful – but I don’t think it’s really helping).  So, I presume the Euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party will be throwing their full weight behind Alex Salmond and his desire for freedom from remote government that doesn’t respect local customs and conditions.  I fear, however, that they will be of only limited assistance north of the border: the Poll Tax is still too fresh in Scottish minds (well, let’s face it if Bannockburn is still fairly fresh, and that was nearly 700 years ago).

My big question for the referendum is: who gets custody of Berwick?

The Eyes have it

I enjoyed news this week that Peru are planning to send 1500 varieties of potato to a (self-styled) doomsday vault in Svalbad.  I am probably not alone in wondering if they should also have sent some marmalade sandwiches – and, perhaps, an extra hard stare to keep them safe from ne’er-do-wells en route.

The post doomsday drama seems a popular feature on our television and cinema screens (I believe Outcasts is the latest stroll down this well-trodden path).  However, none of these (to my knowledge) has involved a trip up to the Arctic circle to gather “seeds”, followed by chitting.  For those less green-fingered readers, to chit a potato is not (as my schoolboy-self might have imagined) to place it in detention but instead to place the seed spuds somewhere cool and light to encourage strong, sturdy shoots before planting.   I suspect post-apocalyptic society would be a much happier place with the prospect of new potatoes on the horizon (and mayhap the hope of chips to come) – especially, if the Svalbad facility also contains some seeds which when grown could provide a tasty accompaniment.  I well remember the very child-like joy of thrusting my hands into the “sack” where I grew my spuds last year (for the very first time!) and being rewarded with white gold.

Little could Sir Walter Rayleigh when he (allegedly) brought back potatoes to these shores – and before he went on to start bicycle production in the city of my birth, Nottingham – have imagined his “discovery” would aid the restoration of civilisation after some future cataclysm.  Apologies for the hedging (and any inaccuracies) involved in the last sentence (though, hedging as a craft skill is in decline, so I am pleased to give it some prominence in this blog), but I would have to admit my knowledge of Sir Wally is a little shaky.  When I studied history it was (a) a lot more recent, (b) rather smaller in volume and (c) covered only the period from the English Civil War up to (but not including) the outbreak of the First World War.  As a result, I think I missed all of the history currently taught to our young people or used as the basis for television documentaries – starting as I did after the Tudors (and so the period when pirates – like Rayleigh – were British and preyed on the Spanish potato galleons) and stopping well before the Nazis.

The humble spud has, it would seem, conquered the world.  It underpinned the Industrial Revolution and according to Engels (a biography of whom I am currently reading) it was the equal of iron – though, I would have to admit it left fewer bridges, railways or steamships in its wake and no great potato-linked characters to equal “Iron Mad” Wilkinson.  It is grown and eaten on every continent (except Antarctica, where I believe frost, blight or maybe Colorado beetle prevents its successful cultivation) even if we don’t consider its inexplicably popular fried forms: chips and crisps (or “French” fries and chips for our US readers).  By the way, I am thinking of creating my own range of healthy, organic chips (probably to be sold through Waitrose, perhaps under the Duchy Original’s brand) aimed at the Twitterati and the Radio4 audience under the brand name of Stephen Fries – surely, even the most staunchly (or, is rabidly the right word?) Republican of our friends across the herring pond could not object to chips so-monikered?