“The good news for the Pentagon yesterday was that its investigators had finally unearthed evidence of weapons of mass destruction, including 100 vials of anthrax and other dangerous bacteria.”
The bad news, as Julian Borger reports, is that the remnants of this abandoned germ warfare were found in a field in Maryland, about 50 miles from Washington DC. Aside from highlighting yet again the shamless hypocrisy of the US administration, this also may prove to be the source of the anthrax in the post-September 11 2001 letters.
If Soviet cinematic propaganda being subverted by ethnic thrash-folkists doesn’t do it for you (and if it doesn’t, you surely haven’t been paying close enough attention), then perhaps you’ll enjoy this half-constructed Tuvan myth about an Englishman named Proctor who erected a monument marking the exact centre of Asia.
My bet is that “Proctor” was actually the ubiquitous Sandy Arbuthnot.
Regular readers will be thrilled, no doubt, to learn that I spent yesterday evening watching Tuva’s own Yat-kha perform their live soundtrack to Storm over Asia.
Yat-kha were a three-piece on this occasion. Band leader Albert Kuvezin sat hunched up on the right, bringing thunder with his electric guitar and buzzing, subterranean bass growl. On the left, Radik Tiuliush added the scraping, whinnying noise of the igil (a form of two-stringed cello) and khoomei, the throat-singing I’ve gone on about so much. In the centre, pony-tail and beard clearly visible against the screen just behind him, Evginiy Tkachev looked reassuringly like a grizzled rock drummer, all bare arms and sproutings of hair, while covering percussion of all sorts.
Between the three of them, Yat-kha simply rocked the Barbican. I don’t mean that they blasted away for two solid hours. Far from it. For most of the film, Kuvezin’s folkish guitar doodling led the band gently from scene to scene, responding to the early Soviet propaganda-sized emoting up on screen, but saving the most eloquent passages for the long, slow shots of the Tuvan landscape, all empty plains and brutally rugged hills.
The igil turns out to be particularly good at imitating the sounds of a horse and of a hard wind whipping through a yurt. I doubt that this is coincidence.
The singing can also sound like the wind, or a ceremonial horn, or, frankly, nothing you’ve ever heard before. It was wisely kept to an elegant minimum in the first half, which for the most part told the story of a young herdsman’s misfortune in having a prize fur stolen at market by a rich English trader, then how he falls in with the local Soviet partisans.
The second, wilder, half of the film tells how he is captured by the occupying English, is sentenced to be killed, but survives to be identified (mistakenly) as a legitimate descendent of Genghis Khan. The English then attempt to set him up as a puppet ruler, only for him to finally escape and rally the Tuvan cause against the oppressors.
This rather ripe plot clearly caused political problems; the film was butchered by the Soviet censors, and the quality of image is awful in places where it has had to be reconstructed. Nevertheless, it’s a fine example of high Soviet film-making, with some blaring whip-cutting and sophisticated montage. Early on, as the herdsman leaves his yurt, unaware that he will never return, the hut slowly fades out of existence behind him, communicating his final leaving of home in the most concise manner possible.
There are two absolutely stand-out scenes in the film. The first records a Buddhist ceremonial dance. This starts with Yat-kha mimicking the horns and cymbals of the monks, then slowly builds through a stately procession to a whirligig masked stomp. It’s probably of some ethnographic interest, but in the film serves mainly as a foretaste of the storm to come.
The storm, which has been building with careful slowness through the film, finally arrives in its final couple of minutes, when the herdsman makes a leaping escape from the English encampment. Soldiers are sent rushing after him as he makes off on horseback. Yat-kha are racing, too, by this point. The herdsman screams vengeance on the thieves who have stolen his country, the intertitles flashing in and out of picture as he glares out of the screen at the audience. The soldiers are closing in.
Then, without warning he is accompanied by a raging Mongol horde. The wind is roaring across the plains, pummelling the soldiers, sending them tumbling backwards, tearing up trees, covering the land with seas of debris. By this stage, the band on stage are sounding like a horde themselves. It’s impossible to tell where all the sound is coming from, whether it’s from an instrument or those extraordinary voices. This bone-humming music, these cthonic harmonies from deep within this eternally stamped-upon people. After all the art, the careful guarding of folk tradition, the slow, slow horsetrot of nearly two hours of film, for a couple of minutes the Tuvans remember Genghis Khan and roar.
I’d never stopped to think before about the way the British use the word “overseas” to mean “foreign countries”. I suppose that Carribbeans, Australians and New Zealanders may also use it, but not (for instance) Canadians.
It’s a rather romantic euphemism, now I consider it. “Abroad” (as in “she’s gone abroad”) is similarly coy regarding the actual, physical existence of other nations that insist on being not the UK.
This is fun. Bored, and going from Laura-Ann’s tip, Peter Mandelson’s website has given my day a lift.
- Gasp at his detailed rebuttal of the famous story of mistaking mushy peas for gaucamole:
When my former boss Neil Kinnock recycled this joke at my leaving do from the Labour Party – this time with me as the unsuspecting dupe – it took on its own reality. The rest, as they say, is history.
- Admire his cunning Judo-style twist on why New Labour made so many mistakes in its first term:
Part of the reason for this was that we had not fully comprehended the scale and depth of the problems we had inherited from the Conservative government. We found a desperate lack of investment in our core public services, and had to tackle the social exclusion and poverty that 18 years of Thatcherism worsened in Britain.
- Gag at his undimmed ability for shameless fawning:
Sorry to be creepy but my chief ideological hero is Tony Blair.
- Wonder where the bleedin’ stuff on the Two-and-a-half musketeers gets a look-in
Still, the man lists Zola’s Germinal as one of the two books most influential on his career. He can’t be all bad, then.
Am I imagining things? I recall reading yesterday that Peter Mandelson had described the architects of New Labour as “the two-and-a-half musketeers”. In Mandelson’s description, Blair and Brown were whole musketeers, while he was the half.
I thought this was an extraordinary statement, a convoluted mixture of false modesty and braggadoccio, and I wanted to comment on it; not least the way that it’s properly nostalgic.
Recall: Dumas’ original three musketeers are old friends. The fourth, D’Artagnan, serves as the nostalgic force that keeps finding them and binding them back together. Recall also that the three musketeers are fallen idols, prototypes of the grizzled gunslingers found in so many Westerns. They have to be dragged out of their cups or rescued from tricky amorous situations before they can be recombined into the perfect fighting force.
I think that Mandelson may have something of that noble brokenness in mind when he describes himself as ‘half a musketeer’. There is little that is more romantic than the riven hero, the great man who, at half his powers, is just slightly less than the rest of us. We pity him, but with a touch of awe, because we sense the power that remains unused. In Mandelson’s mind, I suspect, it would only take a new crisis and the unexpected arrival of D’Artagnan to bring him back to himself — and to the fore.
Now, why can’t I find any mention of Mandelson’s Dumas fixation on the online news services? Please tell me I didn’t imagine the whole thing.
No cheap jokes about uphill gardening, please. This is just a water feature where the water appears to move against gravity. But do check out the 360 degree tour of James Dyson’s clever illusion currently drawing the crowds at the Chelsea Flower Show.
When I met up with Andy recently, conversation turned, as it will do, to the unclassifiable Peter Blegvad.
Andy told me about Blegvadian radio cartoons while I recalled seeing that he’s got a new album out with Andy Partridge (ex-XTC); you know, your average Greek myth transposed into Anglo-American avant-garde folk-pop-jazz-poetry kind of album. Nothing unusual.
Finding it, however, has proved to be an adventure. Finding anything Blegvadian is a peculiar journey into an artistic wonderland.
If this were not enough, he is also one of the very tallest men you will ever encounter. Doubtless this has influenced his output, but I doubt that even playing on the numinosity proximity machine will reveal how.
I occasionally go through a period of trying to do crosswords. I’m as good at it as I am at becoming fluent in new languages.
That, before you ask, means ‘not very’.
Thanks, then, to A Blog’s Life for a fine, concise series of explanations of cryptic crossword clue types.
This is one of the most famous cartoons ever, and certainly the most famous ever to have appeared in Punch magazine. I thought Punch was defunct (again), but the online site has hundreds of the cartoons available as a searchable archive (the picture links to it).
I’ve cropped the cartoon to avoid copyright infringement (this is a review and/or comment, of course). The original text ran:
TRUE HUMILITY (also known as The Curate’s Egg) - Right Reverend Host: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones!” - The Curate: “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you ! Parts of it are excellent!”
Hence the phrase “curate’s egg”. Don’t ever say you don’t learn anything here. It may not be useful, but it’s still information, and that’s good enough for me.
Help me out here, readers. I’ve managed to malign yet another writer, but this time even I can’t see how I’ve done it.
Have a look. There will be a prize for the first person to correctly identify my rash statement.
If he’s trying to pick a fight to drum up some publicity, he’s sorely overestimating the number of people who read this blog.
I imagine you don’t even look at Nigerian scam emails any more before deleting them. I certainly don’t, except this one caught my eye because of the names involved:
I am Mr.Frank ego, Bank manager of standard Trust bank of Nigeria.
I have urgent and very confidential business proposition for you.
On june 6, 1999, an American mining consultant/contractor with the
Nigeria National Petreolum corporation, Mr ken power made a numbered
time fixed) Deposite for twelve (12) calendar months, valved atUS$14.200,000.00
(FORTEEN MILLION,TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND US DOLLARS)in my branch.
So, Frank Ego is openly tempting you with the undeserved rewards of ‘ken Power? Makes sense to me…
UPDATE: My Favorite Nigerians collects and displays this stuff. “Nigerian spam, ultimately, is the essential art form of the early 21st century, and it is a work of both beauty and practicality.” If you say so. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with the name, but it’s another example of how blogs are perfect for recording banal material.
“Trusting to escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory, that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood —that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy, he plunged into war.”
That’s Kurt Vonnegut quoting Abraham Lincoln’s words in 1848 on President James Polk’s war against Mexico. Vonnegut was giving a Clemens lecture at the Mark Twain House in Connecticut, talking about shock and awe, war and the weather. Worth reading for the final handful of paragraphs alone.
You know you’re dealing with America when the fifth reader comment on the page complains that Vonnegut doesn’t deal with chem trails.
I’ve realised something extraordinary about the way I read.
Or, perhaps, I’ve had an extraordinary realisation about the way I read.
I tend to read two dissimilar books in parallel, and sense for links. I’m not consciously comparing them. Were they to be too alike in subject matter or attitude, I doubt I’d find the obscure thrill of pattern recognition. I’m think I’m seeking for ways in which they can unexpectedly (and, certainly, unintendedly) combine to suggest something strictly outside the scope of either of them (a bit like a third mind I suppose).
I always imagine that I have several books on the go at once. Thinking about it more critically, that’s not actually the case. I have several books started at the same time, but I will tend to finish two close together. I will finish the rest later, usually in combination with other books that I’ve started to replace the two I’ve just finished.
Perhaps I’m casting around for two books that will resonate together, sampling several until I find two that I suspect will offer something. Perhaps also I’m less interested in really reading the two books in question: I’m behaving like an overinterpreter, using the books for my own mental hobbyhorses rather than accepting their own narrative flow like a good reader.
At the moment I’m rereading Yates’ The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and have as my light bedside read J.C. Cannell’s The Secrets of Houdini. Now both of these are subjects I have time for and these are both classic works in their respective fields. I started the Yates because I really wanted to read The Art of Memory and wanted to refresh my own memory first. I chose the book on Houdini because I wanted something light and put-downable to read before sleeping.
But I was already reading a light bedtime book - one of the Ian Rankin novels. For some reason I set it aside and got on with the Houdini book. It was only when I got to the inevitable and substantial section on Houdini’s long war on Spiritualism that I started to see parallels with Yates’ subject matter.
In brief, Yates spends a deal of time defending the Elizabethan magician Dr Dee against charges of being a demonologist. She does this by attempting to put him in the context of a Renaissance tradition of Christian Cabalists stretching back via Agrippa to Reuchlin, Pico and ultimately Raymond Lull. She explicitly compares the campaign to discredit Dee with the labelling of Cornelius Agrippa as a black magician (he is generally agreed to have served as a model for Faust).
This is all a long way from Houdini, who was an autodidactic Jewish stage magician and, of course, one of the most physically astonishing men who ever lived. And yet Houdini, in his early penurious years, used to conduct seances and perform the very mediumistic tricks he later condemned and exploded as the work of charlatans. And, ironically, it was in his later years, when he was expending tremendous efforts to expose mediums wherever he went, that Spiritualists like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became convinced that Houdini must be a medium himself.
It’s an amusing story, and has been told several times in recent years in book and film, but am I mad to see a connection here with the way that heterodox protoscientific neo-Platonists like Agrippa and Dee were persistently labelled by outsiders as ‘black magicians’? Those looking in from the outside are happy to attribute more power than even the most self-aggrandising magician (oafs like Crowley excepted) would ever claim.
I know this doesn’t sound clear. The connection is raw and unworked in my mind. Perhaps that’s why it excited, set my scalp tingling. I’m not sure I’ve even captured it at all; it appears different when set down (as is usually the case). I need to reread, rethink, rework, before deciding if it’s something or nothing. But it’s a process I know. It’s just that I’d never before nailed down how that process starts.
More excellence for Movable Type that I need to find time to implement. Adam Kalsey’s Technorati plugin creates a new MT tag that makes for easy listing of sites that link to you. You’ll have to wait to see it here, I’m afraid, because it’s on The List somewhere below Painting Doors, Jogging and Extensive Sleep. Where do these people get the time?
Time for some Elvis links. After all, it’s now or never.
There’s a long and peculiar tradition of exotic Elvis impersonators. Most delightful of all was Tortelvis, the Sikh frontman for the endlessly bizarre Dread Zeppelin. In the early 90s they single-handedly cornered the market in reggae versions of Led Zeppelin songs sung by an Elvis impersonator.
A Blog’s Life locates the current king of Kings, ChineseElvis. Sample dry humour:
“In the event it turned out to be a fine night and everyone except Frank Skinner turned up, making it the hottest ticket in town.”
Elsewhere, by my lazy powers of synchronicity, I see My Ace Life points to the Return of the King petition.
Finally, let me point out that I’m not fixated by Elvis. I don’t even own one of his records. But if you can’t get enough, maybe you should Jack Womack’s Elvissey, which features the Church of Elvis and a time-travelling plot to assassinate the King. Not even Tortelvis thought of that one.
I tell you, that’s the last time I listen to Radiohead on the tube.
It upsets me what it takes to upset me.
It seems to require, more than anything else, an artistic juxtaposition. Understand what I mean here by ‘artistic’. I don’t mean an aesthetically pleasing juxtaposition. Far from it. I mean the sort of juxtaposition an artist would make. I’m afraid that plain old suffering isn’t enough to provoke a reaction. It has to be set off alongside something else, an ironic comment, an oxymoron, to hit home.
I was walking this afternoon through London Bridge station. As so often, an Eastern European looking woman was sitting mournfully by a wall. She had two red-faced, listless children with her. The younger sat up looking at nothing much. The older was laid out across her lap, motionless.
I’m reconstructing this scene because I wasn’t really looking. I was happily walking home, listening to some music, thinking about my Friday night. I, along with everyone else, pretended not to see the sorry scene.
I turned the corner into the new underground concourse in the station, where there is now a selection of small shops selling fruit, smoothies, coffee and the like. Two of the stalls were offering free samples to passing commuters.
I swung from blind happiness to almost incandescent, unfocused rage within a second, almost before I had a chance to think about it. What stays with me now is that I didn’t react to the woman and her children, or if I did, I filed it in that self-deceptive category city people create which says ‘You never know with these people.’ I didn’t react to the free food either, which is not nearly so shameful. I reacted purely and precisely to the physical proximity of the two images compared to the moral distance between them.
Thinking about it, maybe I did react along aesthetic lines. I can’t see any way of denying it.
Worse, to my shame, by the time I got back to where the woman and her kids were sitting, they were in the process of being moved along by station staff.
Reading J.G Ballard’s “Concrete Island” for the dozenth or so time… but I keep drifting off - rather thinking about Will Self’s comments on The Westway…
Westbound pink. Shocking headache.
Even at my most antisocial I cannot hope of inspiring general tension like a wasp trapped in the carriage can… panicking on an overland out of Waterloo…
I’m looping the letter sequence E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-A-E-D-I-A under my breath as quick-as-I-can… I’m sweating…
Unmistakably a London Underground diary. Can’t think how I missed it until now. As pugnacious and confused as the city itself.
(via London Underground blog)
The Secretary of State for Education, that corpulent vandal Charles Clarke, seems to revel in his reputation as a kind of whiskery Norman Tebbit. His latest broadside is an attack on, of all things, medieval historians, saying:
“I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.”
Clarke put his head on the block even further by questioning the liberal idea of education as an end in itself, saying that he thought the state should only pay for subjects of “clear usefulness”.
He’d do well to bear in mind that sometimes putting your head on the block only makes you a blockhead. ‘Clear usefulness’ is about as woolly and deceptive an educative aim as I can imagine. Presumably Clarke imagines that maths and economics (his own subjects at university) are clearly useful. They are - to some. They would be a complete waste of time for most people at tertiary level.
It’s seductive rubbish to suggest that a raft of ‘useful’ courses can be designed to apply very far beyond those professions which already demand vocational qualifications (medicine, architecture, law, surveying and so on are all more than adequately covered). For the rest of the land, what exactly would those ‘useful’ tertiary studies be? People management? Email skills? Your work mobile and you? Microsoft Word through the ages?
For most people the workplace is now ever changing, particularly in terms of its underlying technology, and all of this ‘clearly useful’ learning is going to have to be done in the workplace. There’s no point throwing money at tertiary institutions to teach (for instance) html skills, because by the time the second batch of students have finished the course, their qualification is already out of date.
I can still remember being taught ‘computers’ at primary school. This meant learning about punch cards (and, no, I’m not nearly of Clarke’s generation). God only knows what I could have studied at university that would have been ‘clearly useful’ to my career as it has progressed. Thankfully, my woolly, useless liberal education taught me to read, analyse, rethink, speak and write in ways I continue to find professionally useful. But I’m sure Clarke didn’t need to be taught any of that; he was born with it.
There’s another possibility, of course. It may be that Clarke is trailing a new government initiative to replace all humanities writers with IT-equipped monkeys. After all, they already got a Gibbon to write the history of the Roman empire.
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