Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Awakening and a Hedgehog

This week Radio 4 is running a dramatisation of Kate Chopin's once-scandalous novel The Awakening as its 15 Minute Drama. Someone has had the bright idea of framing the action by having it observed through the eyes of a black maidservant, who provides a running commentary in the kind of caricatured, eye-rolling style you might have thought would be frowned on in these PC times. However, as the white characters too lay on the stage Southern accents and intonations with a trowel, it doesn't seem entirely out of place. What it does do, though, is fatally distance the action of what is on the page an intense and challenging read - just the kind of novel that would benefit from the intimacy that radio can achieve. Unless things pick up in the last couple of episodes, this looks like a sad misfire.

And in other news... This morning, on the way to the station, I saw a hedgehog. Sadly it was a two-dimensional hedgehog, having been flattened by a passing car, but I was still glad to see it, as it was the first evidence I'd seen of a hedgehog presence in the area for a decade or more. When I was a boy, hedgehogs came as standard with every suburban garden, and they thrived in town (well, suburb) and country alike - but by the late Nineties, seeing one was becoming a bit of an event. And then there were none - or so it seemed. It's good to know they're still around after all, and I hope the next one I see is alive and well and taking care when crossing the road.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Guest Post

And I see that my birthday post on Edgar Guest is on The Dabbler today...

'Don't read much now...'

Among the clips of Philip Larkin in Great Poets in Their Own Words was one of the poet reading (in that decidedly posh voice of his) A Study of Reading Habits -

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my coat and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don't read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who's yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

This is Larkin in one of his blokey personas (as in Self's the Man and, in extreme form, This Be the Verse), moving from an account of childhood reading that is plausibly autobiographical to a middle stanza that hints at darker things (and contains what is surely the only known use of the rhyme 'fangs' and 'meringues') before the shadows close in for the final, terminally disenchanted stanza, to arrive at that bleak, and clearly far from autobiographical, conclusion. As ever with Larkin, the rigorous formal control of this awkward, unsettling material is masterly.
Larkin completed and dated A Study of Reading Habits on this day in 1960.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Maybe this time...

Regular readers will know of my penchant for that most elegant form of gentleman's neckwear, the cravat (search 'cravat' on this blog and you'll see what I mean). For some while I've been forlornly trying to spark a cravat revival, and kidding myself at intervals that it is finally under way. Well, now the revival has the force of the mighty BBC News website behind it, to say nothing of  light entertainment legend Nicholas Parsons. Yes indeed - 'the world's first Nicholas Parsons-driven fashion revolution is surely under way'. Let's hope so...

Graham Robb's Ancient Paths

I've been reading The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb, whose recent history The Discovery of France was such an eye-opener. The Ancient Paths - subtitled Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe - is, in its very different way, quite an eye-opener too. It's a book Robb really didn't want to write. 'The idea that became this book,' he writes, 'arrived one evening like an unwanted visitor. It clearly expected to stay a long time, and I knew that its presence in my house would be extremely compromising. Treasure maps and secret paths belong to childhood. An adult scholar who sees an undiscovered ancient world reveal itself, complete with charts, instruction manual and guidebook, is bound to question the functioning of his mental equipment.' That idea was so startling that Robb spent several years trying to disprove it, convinced that it couldn't possibly be right and that this kind of thing was the proper preserve of cranks and obsessives. But the more he looked, the more he saw to confirm and fill out his original idea...
 What's it about? In a nutshell, Robb argues - in depth and detail and with a wealth of corrroborative evidence - that Druids (yes, Druids) used their knowledge of Pythagorean geometry and the movements of the Sun to survey and map their world with extraordinary precision, enabling rapid and effective communication and transport across it. These Druids were not white-robed mystics but a highly educated and civilised elite, the products of a 20-year education, Greek speakers who mingled on more or less equal terms with the highest in Roman society. They - along with virtually all the more attractive and civilised features of the Celtic world - were erased from the record by the conquering Romans, who were at pains to portray their enemies as mere painted savages, and to destroy the more impressive evidence to the contrary.
 As I say, Robb lays out his case in great detail, with maps and diagrams galore, and long lists of place names (skipping is an option). I'm no expert, but it all seems pretty persuasive to me, and makes quite fascinating reading - if true, it really is quite revolutionary... If nothing else, Robb's findings support the very sound thesis that Everything is much older than we think, and much more complex. Thanks to the myth of Progress, combined with the fact that history is written by the victors and that so little material evidence survives from most eras, we tend to look back into the past as into an ever thickening darkness, in which the botched prototypes of the Enlightened Man to come grope and stumble about in benighted ignorance. It was never so.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Poets on TV

Last night on BBC4 I caught the second of two programmes titled Great Poets in Their Own Words. I'd missed the first, and this was the one covering the latter half of the 20th century. Essentially it was a compilation of archive clips featuring poets talking about their work. The Great in the title was perhaps redundant, as the nearest this got to greatness was Larkin (followed, a long way behind, by Heaney and Hughes?) Naturally an archive show like this is bound to favour the more flatulent and self-publicising among the poetic community - cue much footage of Ginsberg and co, a very drunk Berryman, the Liverpool Poets, Linton Kwesi Johnson... No Geoffrey Hill here, nor Richard Wilbur (I'm assuming Auden was dealt with in the first programme) - and a bit of Stevie Smith footage would have been welcome. Hughes and Plath featured quite large, despite a notable shortage of material (Plath never appeared on TV).
 But there was Larkin - who, for all his 'hermit of Hull' reputation, seems to have been on TV rather a lot, most notably in a BBC Monitor documentary, in which he was interviewd by John Betjeman (JB's only appearance, despite the masses of archive he left behind). It's strange and rather unsettling to see Larkin enacting his great poem Church Going for the cameras, and loping myopically about his workplace - what scabrous commentary was going through his head, I wonder, as he performed Philip Larkin, Poet and Librarian? It's probably as well we don't know...

Friday, 15 August 2014

Critical Thinking Nosedives

I see record numbers of young people are heading for university following yesterday's announcement of A-Level results, even though they showed an infinitesimal 'dip' in grades. Advanced Level is an exam with a 98 percent pass rate - a sad index of its intellectual rigour - and with top grades awarded to more than a quarter of entrants. Still - good luck to those who have chosen to go on to university, and let's hope they're doing the right thing for them.
What struck me about the breakdown of these A-Level results was that one subject was now being taken by a startling 46 percent fewer pupils year on year - a uniquely steep, probably terminal decline. And it was not, alas, Media Studies or even General Studies - it was Critical Thinking. I must admit I did not know such an A-Level subject existed - but as it does, it should surely be regarded by the universities as a serious core subject. If a university education teaches one thing, that thing should be Critical Thinking. No doubt, as taught to A-Level, it is a fuzzy option that universities are right not to take seriously - but there's no reason why it should be. Rather, it should be stiffened up and put right at the core of any education, especially at university level. Heaven knows we could do with a lot more critical thinking - not least among the products of our universities.