I’ve reactivated my bio page, following a period of semi-anonymity here. At least, it started out as a bio, but then became a response to that story about Odin changing into an eagle and doing a poo. Link here, or above.
I’ve also resuscitated my Twitter account, but I fear already that this has been a terrible mistake. Standard process:
In the morning, read a charming article.
look up the author’s Twitter account.
wail at the author’s abominable political opinions.
aimlessly click links in endless quest for comfort.
Some years ago, in a second-hand bookshop, I saw a silver spine with only the words ‘The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering’. The title and the seeming obscurity of the 1970s Village Press paperback was enough to secure my purchase, and I recognised the author, Arthur Machen, from his supernatural tales. I thought I’d chanced upon a forgotten curio in Machen’s oeuvre: the missing link between the flâneur and twentieth-century London. Only later I realised, to my great disappointment, that Machen’s book is recognised as a central text of psychogeography (e.g. by Iain Sinclair in Landor’s Tower, Merlin Coverley in Psychogeography, and several academic articles).
Arthur Machen, The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering (Village Press edition, 1974)
The London Adventure is ostensibly the third volume of Machen’s autobiography, but it fulfils this only insofar as any psychogeographical work incorporates memoir with the…
It’s not unusual for me to go several months without posting on here, but the period from July 2019 to July 2020 with only one post is a notably long gap.
I wasn’t absent from blogs in this time: I set up a new one in March. This was my response to a situation: I had been teaching a short course in an Adult Education college in London which was suddenly cancelled by the pandemic. I was unhappy about leaving the course, naturally, but unprepared to attempt the move into online video teaching at such short notice. (I have since been teaching very successfully online: it can work very well, although the social side of classes is much missed.)
The course was called, ‘The Urban Wanderer’, and it was a way to try to pick through the trends in the literature of walking the city which has become such a fashionable industry lately. When classes were cancelled, my response was to continue the course, as best I could through a series of blog posts, where I would set out my initial thoughts; and students were invited to respond with their own walks and comments. It was no substitute for the back-and-forth of classroom discussion, but satisfying in its own way.
I wanted to address the ‘big names’, which led to a rather Eurocentric/dead white male reading list, so I consider it as laying the historical groundwork, rather than giving a detailed picture of where we are now. I hope to have the opportunity to extend the course in future.
Here are links to my main pieces on that site, and I’ll shortly re-blog my favourite:
Picture, if you can, the world on 4 January 2020, when I sat down and began to write this post. I was three weeks into a news black-out that lasted almost three months. In this time, I avoided all news: radio, television, newspapers, internet. What news I heard was caught by accident from conversations or random online apparitions. For my mental well-being, it was bliss. Then there was this virus that I couldn’t ignore.
But in early January, I was in a reflective mood…
New Year’s Eve, and we spurned any year-in-review nonsense in favour of the oblivion of nostalgia on DVD. But we’re not immune to tradition, and as midnight approached, the FM radio went on for the chimes of Big Ben (the FM signal has less delay than the digital), and we had a look at the fireworks on the telly.
It was the usual expensive bombast, soundtracked by brief snippets of energetic music. I don’t think anyone was in the pods of the London Eye, but it would have been a terrifying view, surrounded by the explosions as the Mayor of London blasted the wretched old year into smithereens.
I’d like to know who chose (or ‘curated’) the music selection, because it really wasn’t necessary to play the riff from The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”, or, to give it its official title “The Theme From ‘O Jeremy Corbyn'”. In more optimistic days, Richard Seymour described it as ‘a sort of joyous battle cry’ (preface to the second edition of Corbyn, 2017, p. xiii). It was a complex sign, to be sure, and I’m not going to unpack here what it meant in 2017. At the end of 2019, though, it had certainly been loaded with many more emotions. Maybe it was endorsed by Sadiq Khan as an attempt to reappropriate the tune. Maybe it was played to laugh in the face of anyone who had the foolishness to hope that we could have a government that would take seriously the global challenge of the climate crisis, and the local one of health care (to name but two). Perhaps whoever selected it expected the audience to start singing along, unbidden, as they surprised themselves to recall how a political movement that proposed some mildly redistributive policies, led by a deeply principled man who is, at worst, arguably ill-suited to commanding a major political coalition, failed to stand up under the barrage of shit that materialised directly from the capitalist death-drive unconscious.
Yes. I like to think that’s what everyone thought, as they stood on the freezing banks of the Thames, about to step into the great chasm of 2020.
[Written in response to a ‘Tweet’ from a cycling journalist re. half-witted defences of doping in sport, which I took as a challenge.]
Sensationalist readers of ancient Maya astrology were excited in 2012. For here and now, it was foretold, was the end of the world. It was a prophecy seemingly designed to sell a lot of books, and fund a film or two – and quick! – because no-one will be interested come January. Sober readers of ancient Maya astrology pointed out that the end of the calendar simply indicated a new cycle.
But 2012 was still a significant year for the mythical energies harnessed: and rare, too, for a brief attempt at forging a national myth which was inclusive rather than combative. It was the year of the Olympic games in London, the ancient Greek festival revived as an international celebration of money, ruinous construction projects, jingoism, and sporting excellence.
For many in the UK, the abiding memory of the games is the Best-Face Optimism of the opening ceremony. While the lighting of the flame in Olympia, attended by women in chitons, recalls the past, the heritage, and the tradition, London’s assault of images conflated the Olympic rings with the Queen, with popular culture, with multiculturalism and with the NHS. It was a national myth without a mythology. A symbol waiting for a story.
The spell was undone by the utter nadir of the closing ceremony – as if normal service is now resumed. Here is that old, exhausted symbol, Churchill: a local hero, but hardly an international one, played by Spall who should forever hang his head in shame.
Between these symbol-laden spectacles, came the sports. The host nation’s ‘Team GB’ (so called because to invoke Northern Ireland was evidently to conjure a bad magik of disunity), did rather well, thanks to some serious funding, rigorous training regimes, and, in some areas, it has been alleged, the careful use of banned drugs. In the forefront of the successes was the cycling team. Cycling is the most mythically apt of modern sports: dedicated to the eternal return, and reaching beyond our mortal limits through the amplification of human power in the symbiotic relationship with the machine.
The victories were important: the success of the games, as many noted, was essential to counter the traumatic memory of the multiple suicide bombing in London in 2005. The atrocity occurred the day after the celebratory announcement of London’s successful bid for the games. There was also the matter of the transformation of large parts of Stratford and Hackney Wick – an erasure of history that Iain Sinclair has mined across his recent books.
The games which were almost-universally judged to be a success, and won over many hardened Olympic-avoider. In the aftermath, Jon Snow interviewed Iain Sinclair on Channel Four News, hoping to induce Sinclair to concede that the goodwill generated by the games was not to be traduced. It was an impossible position: of course we can see how the human efforts of the sports can transcend the infernal mire of corruption, competition, and Coe; of gentrification and “craft beer”. But this cannot be put into a newsworthy sound-bite.
[This video isn’t the one I remember, but it’s close enough]
In 2012 I remembered the day in 2005, walking home in the evening of the bombs, seeing the buses begin to run again down Upper Street. It was extremely moving to see them running again so soon — to see life continuing. And in 2012, I remembered too, sunny afternoons cycling around Hackney and Bow, my route being curtailed by the giant “Blue Fence” – the focus of Sinclair’s ire and woe, representing the communities, industries, and histories that were erased by the tide of tarmac. These were the wrongs that the games was set to ease: the foundational violence of the games that the games themselves were to allow to heal.
The British cycling successes from 2012, of the Tour de France, of Olympics of 2012 and 2016, blurs the teams of “GB” and Sky in the popular imagination, but it was in Team Sky, and its successive figureheads Wiggins, then Froome, under the direction of Brailsford, that cycling was – so the press releases would have it – moving into the light of clean riding and transparency after innumerable doping scandals, epitomised by the downfall of Lance Armstrong whose seven Tour de France wins were struck from the record.
And now Sky comes under renewed pressure. Both Wiggins and Froome have had accusations made against them, or infringements made known, or dubious exemptions brought into question; all accompanied by calls for Brailsford to account for his actions.
I’m not going to speculate on any individual case, even if I identify as ‘rocker’ in tribal opposition to Wiggins’s ‘mod’, and what I have to say comes in the broad brush of the outsider who does not understand the nuances of the situation. I have read about the constant alertness required of top athletes who are subject to unannounced doping tests: a rotten way to live, I think. And I have read about the TUEs (therapeutic use exemptions) that are used to permit an athlete to take a substance otherwise prohibited by rules of the competition. And the natural question is, why this and not that? What constitutes an unfair advantage? Why should steroids and amphetamines, like doughnuts, not be taken as part of a healthy diet? Would we want a sober Lou Reed, a sober Baudelaire?
My model for all sporting events is the ancient Greek tradition of funeral games, specifically the chariot race in Iliad book 23. It’s a serious and rowdy race, quite bad-tempered too. And like the cyclists’ team car, the gods are attentive, keeping an eye on their favourites, and lending a hand too. Apollo, we are told, has taken Diomedes’ whip:
Athene did not fail to see the foul play of Apollo
on Tydeus’ son [Diomedes]. She swept in speed to the shepherd of the people
and gave him back his whip, and inspired strength into his horses.
Then in her wrath she went on after the son of Admetos [Eumelos]
and she, a goddess, smashed his chariot yoke, and his horses
ran on either side of the way, the pole dragged, and Eumelos
himself was sent spinning out beside the wheel of the chariot
so that his elbows were all torn, and his mouth, and his nostrils,
and his forehead was lacerated about the brows, and his eyes
filled with tears, and the springing voice was held fast within him.
(XXIII. 387-97, translated by Richmond Lattimore)
The word Lattimore translates as ‘foul play’ is ἐλεφηράμενος, meaning ‘cheat’, ‘overreach’. This strongly implies a sense of fair play that is insulted or abused, which Athene then punishes. But she punishes through foul play of her own. What an unhappy lesson this teaches us: to hope for fair play is hopeless, because people will take whatever advantage they can get, or, if your opponent cheats, then you may as well cheat too. But that’s a fool’s game – to look to the gods for models of good behaviour. They are, rather, models of the sublime, of excess, of violence and arrogance, of pettiness, irrationality, rage and indifference. They brush away impromptu anti-doping tests as a thousand contaminated urine samples explode with the unruliness of godhead.
I hold truth and ethics in sport in the same regard as truth and ethics in art: not a priority. The athlete-artist gets a free pass to some extent. We print the legend, not the truth. So I don’t worry so much about doping in sport: it’s all part of the performance.
And then I realise the trap that has been carefully set for me: by arguing for greatness, for the sublime moment, I have come to endorse that worst capitalist desire of winning at all costs. It belongs to a world of “great men” and nationalism which I abhor.
And that’s the sum of my thoughts about sport: each swelling of pride must be punctured by smashed chariot fragment. It’s with relief that the liberal comfort blanket of the 2012 opening ceremony was negated by the crass insensitivity of the closing ceremony, and that our national heroes are suspected of being doped-up schemers. The symbol finds its story, only for the plot to crumble.
Last year I joined ‘Twitter’. I’m not terribly amused by cat gifs and I have no interest in Harry Potter or the tedious ultra-privileged neoliberal proclamations of its author, which rather restricts my appreciation of the myth-centred areas on that social media website. [NB I left Twitter shortly after writing this.]
Still, it gives good access to non-mainstream news, and gives me hope for the younger generation’s media savvy and freedom from press barons.
At the end of last year a debate struck up among some ‘Twitter’ users around the trend for highlighting personal achievements… things like ‘my top ten publications of the year’. Is it vulgar? psychologically damaging? feeding the market-capitalist obsession with ranking, competition, and quantification?
As readers, we need to screen a lot of this stuff out. That is, we need to screen out both (1) nauseating self-promoting posts; and (2) the endless hand-wringing about whether it’s a good idea to be proud of our achievements. This blog probably falls into the latter category.
Every position we make in public can be subjected to critical approval or disapproval, often extremely well-founded and articulated, thus causing us potentially to doubt each position. This feeds the most toxic side to social media, as is well-documented: the constant pressure to maintain one’s personal brand, to remain on trend and on message; in short, to conform.
This year I realised the extent to which this fear of vulgarity, this pressure to conform, had affected me. This is coupled, of course, with the keen appreciation that everything written online will outlive us. I thought I’d done pretty well in this area, keeping most of my positions private, carefully editing, revising what I’d put online in public places. Then a few weeks ago I re-discovered some old pseudonymous forum posts I’d made over a decade ago, one of which included a joke which I’d completely forgotten I’d made, and which shocked me in its tastelessness. The joke depends entirely on context, and is better left for when one can be entirely sure of the audience: it was deliberately in bad taste. I was glad of the forum’s edit function, for, even though the post was not connected to my name, it seemed a rookie error to have put it in public.
A lot of this anxiety really depends on whether we ever, later in life, expect to run for public office. At this point in my life, I have an unblemished record: no unspent convictions, no hate speech on record, no membership of unlawful organisations. A shame really, that I’m not destined for political prominence.
Still, to return to the wider topic of social media vulgarity: the pressures of self-branding are well-suited to a world of precarious employment and the ‘gig economy’. Constant hustling for work and meticulous life curation go hand in hand. I’m sure this is difficult for the naturally extrovert, but for the introverted it can be occasionally crippling.
And so it was, with these thoughts in my mind, and more, I didn’t bother updating my ‘Twitter’, nor my blog.
. . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . .
I drafted the above as a preamble for a summary of my publications of 2016-2017. Realising, I suppose, that I was guilty of both (1) and (2) of my “things on the internet to be ignored,” I stopped typing.
Robert Schumann sat at the piano to play a new composition to a friend. When Schumann had finished playing, the friend asked, ‘what does it mean?’ Schumann replied, ‘it means this’, and played the piece again.
I can’t remember where I first heard or read this. It’s been used in all sorts of treatises on aesthetics and whatnot. For me, it’s a superb example of what music has in common with myth: they are tautegorical. Tautegory is distinct from allegory. If allegory is a way of talking about something else — the meaning is to be unpacked or decoded — in tautegory, the meaning is what it relates. If there was another way of saying it, it would say it. With music, as with myth, we can talk about and around the piece — sometimes endlessly — but a description cannot replace the experience of the piece itself.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) introduced the term to modern aesthetics, when he defined the Symbol in Christian scripture as aei tautēgorikon: always tautegorical. Following Coleridge, F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) linked this explicitly to myth.
I don’t know if Schumann (1810-56) was familiar with Schelling’s argument (he was au fait with Romantic and Idealist literature, so it’s not impossible). And, of course, it may well be apocryphal anyway. (The story has also been attributed to Beethoven (1770-1827) and Schubert (1797-1828).) Nevertheless, it’s apt to associate it with the time of the discrete Romantic movements in poetry, music, and philosophy, and their investigations of the ineffable, or the transcendental.
The earliest published reference I can find to the anecdote is in Donald Whittle, Christianity and the Arts (1966, p. 52). This is cited in Leland Ryken, Culture in Christian Perspective: A Door to Understanding and Enjoying the Arts (1986, republished as The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, 1989, p. 129), where the alternative attribution to Beethoven is also claimed (p. 159, n. 6). The Schubert version, which is identical except that we are told that Schubert said nothing at all, but just returned to the piano, is told in Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz, Introducing Semiotics (1997, p. 27).
Coleridge writes about the ‘Symbol’ in Biblical texts as ὁ ἔστιν ἄει ταυτηγόρικον in The Statesman’s Manual (1816; page 40 in the edition here). This passing comment is helpfully glossed by JonWhitman as ‘always saying something identical with itself’. Schelling acknowledges Coleridge in his discussion of myth and the tautegorical in Philosophie der Mythologie (1842). NB, the full title of Coleridge’s work is The Statesman’s Manual; or, The Bible, the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon, Addressed to the Higher Classes of Society. It speaks for itself.
Hello friends. In the last ten years I’ve seen the streets of the places I know best, in London and Colchester, transformed by the unrelenting grip of power that has forced people to beg on these streets in previously unimaginable numbers. I’ve seen the consequences of state decisions that have pushed people I care about into Kafkaesque nightmares of sanctions, uncertainty, and precarious living. But in recent years I’ve also seen the strengthening of a force that offers realistic prospects to reverse this decline, and to take seriously the global environmental catastrophe (which we’ve all known about for decades). So I’ll be delighted to join you all on Thursday as we come together to transcend this sham of reality enforced by our favourite media outlets, and make a solemn pledge in support of a new possibility. And whatever happens on Friday morning, may our actions be guided by love and compassion.
We’ve come to the ‘Louie Louie’ of ancient music: a song that exists in uncountable versions.
W. M. Ramsay, a Scottish archaeologist, discovered a marble stele during an excavation at Aydin, western Turkey, in 1883. The stele has inscribed on it a complete song, with words and musical notation, in ancient Greek. It has been dated to around the second century AD, making it the oldest complete song on record. (The music I’ve covered hitherto has been fragmentary, or been widely open to different interpretations.) The stele is now in Copenhagen, in the National Museum of Denmark.
A stele (or stela) is an inscribed upright stone serving as a monument, usually a tombstone. This particular stele is dedicated by a man named Seikilos, and the words of the song are an exhortation to enjoy life and not to grieve, for time will soon demand that all things end.
You could spend hours online listening to the various interpretations of this piece of music, but, unlike the Hurrian Hymns, or the chorus from Orestes, the music is instantly recognisable as the Seikilos Epitaph in every version: the notation is not disputed. There are, however, disagreements about pronunciation. In my last post, I threatened to completely solve the problem of The English. I’ll deal with this in short order. I’m English, and when I hear English singers singing in ancient Greek, it’s pretty obvious to me that they are English. It’s especially obvious if they are affiliated with Oxford university or something like that, because they sound like they’re doing a Received Pronunciation version of Ancient Greek. It’s also worth remembering that modern Greek has a very different pronunciation to ancient Greek. So, to modern Greek ears, I can imagine that the English accent combined with the academic insistence on trying to cleave close to ancient pronunciation, sounds horribly cacophonous. Now, when Greek listeners, whose ears are offended, get behind their keyboards to complain online, the English interpreters, justifiably – with the weight of academic research behind them – get narked. And the whole thing gets ugly, and no-one comes out of it well. Basically, posh English people do sound silly when they put on foreign accents, but THAT’S FINE. Everyone sounds silly when they put on foreign accents. For those offended by any accents, dialects or pronunciation in these versions, may I recommend a clarifying dose of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by the Swedish Elvis Presley, Eilert Pilarm
Good. That’s settled. Back to Seikilos.
The earliest modern reappearance of this piece of music of which I’m aware is surprising. The 1951 film Quo Vadis, with Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero, includes a scene with Nero extemporising a song which happens to have a melody almost identical to that of the Seikilos epitaph (though the words are not the same). Thanks to my pal Tony for spotting this.
From the 1950s, recorded versions begin to proliferate, albeit slowly at first. Now the Internet gives us access to scores, possibly hundreds of recordings. I’m going to highlight three versions.
The Gardzienice Centre of Theatre Practices was founded in Poland in 1977, and, among its varied projects, hosted the Metamorfozy performance piece in the 1990s, and the Ancient Orchestra project from 2001 to 2004. The intention behind these projects was to recover the Dionysian elements in a music which had — they felt — been too politely Apollonian in its reception. (It’s worth exploring their Bacchic interpretation of ancient music at length.)
For the Metamorfozy album (2000), the Seikilos Epitaph was retitled after its initial words, rendered in Greek and Polish: ‘Hoson Zes / Dopóki żyjesz’
In 80 short seconds, it creates an atmosphere of remoteness and disquietude through a drone, some off-mic vocalisations, and a dissonant flute. The soft, breathy vocal enters the sound-picture like some sexy ghost, disturbing the air just enough to hit the right notes, before the whole thing fades out again.
The music lives, and Athenian ensemble Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody have taken the material of the Seikilos Epitaph as a starting point for a longer variation (titled ‘Oson Zeis’, also on their album Awakening the Muse, 2013).
It’s pleasing to hear this sung by Athenians with modern Greek pronunciation, merging the ancient with a modern pop and folk tradition. Consequently, the rendition possibly involves over-emoting to an extent that may jar with my revoltingly hip Londoner tastes, but I can’t blame them for exploiting the full melodic potential of their interpretation.
Finally, it’s those English musicians with the weight of Oxford academia behind them that I mentioned earlier. This version is distinguished by the musicianship of master aulos player Barnaby Brown, and practised interpreter of ancient songs, Stef Conner, singing and playing lyre. This performance is extracted from the Radio 3 Early Music Show (listen here at 50’38”).
This interpretation doesn’t waste any time. The rhythm of Brown’s double aulos gives the song such lift at the start, before unobtrusively fading to an accompanying drone for Conner’s voice. When the aulos it repeats the melody line after the singing, it provokes a strong rush of joy before promptly ending, well under a minute. Too short, like the life described by the inscription on the stele.
As we move on in time, the archaeological/historical record gets noisier. It becomes increasingly crowded with evidence, however hard to decipher it may be. I haven’t even mentioned Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian music yet.
Greek tragedies are not plays in the modern sense: they are gesamtkunstwerken: total artworks of stylised speech, chanting, singing, dancing to be performed in a place of geographical, social and religious significance during the City Dionysia festival. To read the text of a tragedy is akin to reading the libretto of an opera: it omits a great amount of vital information.
Consequently, it is always fascinating to hear how artists, scholars, and musicians attempt to recreate the sound-world of tragic theatre. I was alerted to this work in 2006 by a newspaper article by Robert Thicknesse, accompanying a radio programme on the power of a chorus. Thicknesse recruited composer Roxana Panufnik to set the final chorus of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos (in Oliver Taplin’s translation) to music based on the research of Martin L. West. I missed the resulting programme (In Chorus, Radio 4, 11 July 2006), which now dwells in the “pre-I-Player” archive. This commission, however, was a new piece of work based on ancient techniques, but there are examples of attempts at interpreting the surviving notation from the tragedy of Orestes by Euripides.
The play dates from 408 BC, and a few lines from the first choral ode survive with accompanying musical notes, providing melody, but not rhythm. The earliest interpretation of which I am aware is from 1979, by Atrium Musicae de Madrid (0’19” – 3’02” on this video):
This has all the clanging and dissonance one associates with twentieth-century representations of ancient ritual. The singing is a solemn chant. To my layman’s ear, it’s an evocative meeting of plainsong and minimalism. There are numerous other recordings available, all largely agreeing with this template, although some are closer to modern Greek pronunciation and folk melodies.
Modern Greek pronunciation and folk melodies became a bone of contention for some commentators on the recent scholarly reappraisal of the ode from Oxford University. The critics believe that the British interpretation is compromised for ignoring living folk traditions which, it is claimed, have continuity with ancient traditions. I’m in no position to judge on that, but I will return to problem of Englishness when I come to the Seikilos Epitaph in a week or so.
The scholarship behind this new version is, by all accounts, rigorously investigated and comprehensively evidenced. The major deviation from previous versions is in the rhythm: it is fast and lively, not solemn and stately. The following video is the conclusion of a terrific, brief documentary on ancient Greek music by Armand D’Angour:
D’Angour’s interpretations are discussed further on Radio 3’s The Early Music Show, from 28 January 2018: The Music of Ancient Greece (go to 26’30” for the Orestes ode).
It sounds true to me: remembering that the chorus is not to be heard in isolation, but has been extracted from a longer dramatic work from the festival of Dionysus. It reminds me of the Choephoroi (Libation Bearers) of Aeschylus. I’ve written before that this play, with its long grave-side laments, can be very flat on the page and in performance. But the performance at the Globe in 2015 was the highlight of that version of the Oresteian trilogy. The musical and choreographic direction of the chorus rescued scenes that in other’s hands I had yawned through.
Here, in the Orestes of Euripides, the chorus sings of the ‘swift-running winged ones, goddesses of madness’ — the Furies of Clytemnestra — who torment her murderer: her son Orestes. It is easy to imagine this being sung at the Theatre of Dionysus on the Athenian Acropolis, contributing to the audience’s appreciation of Orestes’ tormented mental condition.
Greek Text (Madrid 1979 version, lines 339, 338, 340-44)