It’s Obvious

Yes, I know it’s not Sunday. But this is too brief to hold back.

According to the Daily Mail (16th July 2018) lecturers at Bath University have been instructed not to use the term “as you know” to students, which could make students feel at fault for not knowing. This is seen as being an example of the fragility of the ‘snowflake generation’.

I do not feel qualified to comment on such language, coming as I do from more robust academic times. I do wonder if there is a basic body of knowledge that students should be expected to know, depending on context.

However, this does remind me of a very good old story about a mathematics tutor. He was giving a lecture one day, chalked something on the blackboard, then said:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is obvious”.

He stopped and looked again at the equation.

At least, I think it’s obvious.”

He grabbed pencil and paper, then disappeared. After a short interval, he came back, beaming, and said:

Yes, it is obvious.”

This probably says more about mathematics than lecturers and students. But it has the ring of truth about it.

It's Obvious

For your pleasure, the caption to this non-copyright picture reads:

Here is more obvious that the boundary is the union of two Mö-bands along the two borders of the vertical annulus.”

Of course.


Four Funerals and a Wedding

To my amusement, I recently realised that since my retirement I have only worn ties for four funerals and a wedding.

This was a strange thought, as I used to wear a tie every working day as a teacher. I always felt that dressing up for work concentrated my mind better. I hated non-uniform days, which I always felt were counter-productive.

Four Funerals and a WeddingTies were at one point the only way an English gentleman (I cannot speak for gentlemen in other countries) could express any individuality in dress, especially formal dress. Traditionally, ladies (or perhaps traditional ladies) had to spend ages choosing an outfit. It was easy for us chaps. Get out the good suit, pick a colourful tie and maybe a new shirt, shine your shoes and off you go.

There has been a move away from ties in recent years. Former England cricket captain (and all-round Clever Chap) Mike Brearley was famously against ties, even in the hallowed precincts of the MCC.

I can see his point. They really are a thing of the past. They really are only a decoration. However a letter to the Times this week noted that ties were becoming unfashionable, but advocated them for older men to cover their ‘chicken-like’ necks.

No comment.

I have also just read that neurologists have discovered that wearing a tie for as little as 15 minutes restricts blood flow to the brain. (The male brain, the report said. Do women never wear ties?)

I shall probably pick a tie and go thus attired to the few remaining formal events there will be in my life. I have a huge number still. Reasonable hire or purchase options are available.

The Fashion Police reserve the right to comment.

Drop-Dead Serious

My ire has been roused. My cage has been rattled. I’ve tried to keep this blog positive, but I must have a rant. Much good will it do me.

Two recent related news items have started this off- or re-ignited it.

The first was about an atrocious incident in Eastleigh. Ambulance crews were called to a report of a 13-year-old girl having a cardiac arrest. On arrival, they were bombarded with bricks, chairs and other missiles. They were injured. Two girls of 13 and 14 were arrested. At the time of writing there was no further news.

Following this was the news that paramedics in England are to be equipped with body cameras, to help protect them from violent attacks. Assaults have risen by 34% in four years, according to the Sunday Times.

This is of some concern to me, as Miss Oblique #2 and her partner are paramedics. I cannot tell any of their stories, for reasons of confidentiality; nobody has attacked them, but the disrespect they are sometimes shown is breathtaking. (As is the time-wasting.)

What do I feel about this? Furious? Incandescent? Mildly peeved? To be honest, above all I feel utterly bemused, confused and uncomprehending.

Why would anybody want to attack people who are trying to help others? Why would anybody want to hurt them? Why would they want to stop patients from being treated? Surely self-interest should come into play. Surely nobody would want to hurt a paramedic who was trying to treat their loved ones- or themselves.

I have, obviously, no answers or solutions. There is no logic or reasoning I can see behind these acts. Is it idiocy? Madness? Total lack of empathy? Evil?

The biggest question of all is: what good does it do writing this? I don’t honestly think it will make things better. I can’t imagine anybody who might read this who would approve of such acts. I would love to know if anybody can explain them, or find a practical solution.


Ambient Music- A Personal View

As I said last week, labels for genres in music are a subject of huge disagreement, but can be useful (and fun to argue about).

It is perhaps debatable whether “ambient” music is music or not. The term was coined by Brian Eno. He was recovering from an accident; he put on an LP of harp music, then collapsed into bed. The volume was far to low and one channel was missing, but he found himself hearing the music in the context of all the sounds around. It was a different way of experiencing music, as sounds that we “hear but don’t hear” (David Toop). You might even say “listening but not listening” (Mark Oblique).

Ambient Music- Brian_Eno_(Prague,_2017) Brian Eno

Erik Satie, that very eccentric French composer, had the idea of ‘musique d’ameublement’ around the end of the 19th century. It was designed as music to fill the space in conversation, to dull the clatter of knives and forks. When he experimented with it he had to rush round to get people to carry on with their conversations rather than stop and listen. It was an idea before its time.

Ambient Music- Eric Satie by Suzanne Valadon Erik Satie

The background music called Muzak® was also written to be just that: a bland background, usually of strings, to make a softer ambience in shops, cafés and the like. Nowadays it seems to be replaced by pop music played at a very low volume.

But were Satie’s ‘musique d’ameublement’ and Muzak really ambient music? You were not meant to listen to them; in the case of Eno he was listening, which drew his attention to ambient sound. At its most basic, hearing or listening to ambient music could be thought of as just being aware of sounds in the environment. In that sense, would it really be music? Isn’t music created deliberately? Discuss. (10 marks)

Before the term ambient was used, John Cage wrote or conceived his piece 4′ 33”, in which the performer opens a piano lid and then closes it afer 4 minutes and 33 seconds to signal the end of the piece. Is it music? Or is it abstract art? Or is it a con? (10 marks. Use a pencil.)

However, the idea of ambience has given rise to the creation of a lot of interesting (but sometimes bland) music. There is a lot of music labelled as ambient which I feel is far from it. The label seems often to be another term for relaxed, minimalist and chillout music (see last week).

Having said that, the best work can be challenging, lovely or fun. There is a great sampler from the late lamented ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ of Exeter which has a whole range. (See footnote.)

Ambient Music001

At the other end from Eno and John Cage are Kraftwerk, whose track ‘Autobahn’ verges on ambience, incorporating sounds that evoke a late night motorway drive, down to the radio. I just wish somebody would do a very long mix of it, so that you could drive for hours with it on. (I don’t however feel that just adding a few sampled sounds to a track make it ambient, though that is not what Kraftwerk do.)

Ambient Music002

A book called ‘Ocean of Sound’, by David Toop, has an absorbing take on the whole subject of ambient sound and related ideas, with far more erudition and insight than I could ever attempt. I recommend it, although some passages now strike me as what used to be called “purple prose”.

Ambient Music003

I’m not going to attempt a definition of ambient music. I like it that any discussion of it inevitably leads to me listening to the sounds of the world. I used to play music low in the car and listen to the other sounds (tyre noise, engines, other car radios) that go on around it. I don’t think you can appreciate ambient music on headphones.

For fun, ambient sounds I have recently enjoyed include:

  • the hum of the refrigerator accompanied by the hum of my laptop

  • the roar of power tools, with the tapping of a cold chisel as a percussive coda

Oh, look what I did there, completely without thinking. I made constructs of the sounds, in the fashion of musical compositions. It reminds me of how as a teenager, unable to sleep, I’d listen out for the dawn chorus (surely louder then?) and imagine the sounds as a piece of music. Blackbirds, by the way, are sax soloists, repeating neat phrases with variations. But I’m rambling.

Maybe there is a continuum or spectrum involving ambience:

Ambient Music004

…and so on. Perhaps “music” occurs somewhere in between 3 and 4.

Enough of this. Theo Travis and Robert Fripp have a new album coming out which apparently could be labelled ambient. Go listen to that.

Footnote: The ‘St David’s Ambience Society’ were an offshoot of the Future Sound of Exeter, who put on some great gigs. The offshoot was often known as the SAS, which led to their two taglines: “Chill or Be Chilled” and “Mess with us and you’ll be going home in an ambience”. Both they and the FSOE now seem to be sadly defunct, and I don’t suppose you can get the sampler.

Photo of Eno by Jindřich Nosek (NoJin) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

Minimalist Music- A personal view

As with so many genres, it can be hard to define minimalist music. Obviously genres overlap. It could well be argued that they are irrelevant, but it is often useful to have a label to attach for the purposes of discussion and to aid new discoveries. To make an attempt, I would say that minimalism involves repetition, often at length, of relatively simple musical phrases, which gradually change as the music progresses. This of course is open to endless argument; examples are very useful. Here are my experiences.

Like so many people of my age, my first encounter with anything vaguely minimalist was Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’. Some people are of the opinion that this was when minimalism became mainstream. For me, Tubular Bells is more symphonic, for want of a better word, or maybe a suite of connected themes. I still find it brilliant.

Minimalist Music 1

Around the same time, on the John Peel show, that wonderful source of inspiring (and infuriating) music, I heard ‘Fly and Collision of Comas Sola’ by Tangerine Dream. I remember this as swooshing electronic noises, more minimalist than Tubular Bells. At the time it was “interesting” but not really captivating, having much less structure that (say) Black Sabbath and other things I was familiar with. Having a listen to the inevitable YouTube posting of this it doesn’t appear to be minimal at all, as there is a lack of the repetition I associate with the genre.

At some point I bought, completely on spec, ‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ (1979) by Steve Hillage, just because it was by Steve Hillage. It was specially composed for the Festival of Mind and Spirit and was in a very cool transparent vinyl, which I couldn’t photograph very well here. This now seems much more minimalist, being gently moving arpeggios, sweeps and water sounds, although at the time I was disappointed by the complete lack of rock. Now I’ve got it on CD it seems, 39 years later, rather wonderful and beautiful.

Minimalist Music 4

Much later on, I bought (without having first heard it) Terry Riley’s ‘A Rainbow in Curved Air’. This came about because I liked (still like) the band Curved Air, and was curious about the name. Terry Riley is one of the “West Coast” minimalists, and is generally accepted as one of the originators of the movement (if it is a movement) as a whole. I think A Rainbow in Curved Air still sounds modern. It has repetitive keyboard figures, which move and develop beautifully. Minimalism isn’t just repetition. (Embarrassing story: I played three minutes of this to my brother before noticing I had put the speed on 45 r.p.m., rather than 33r.p.m.)

Later we heard Philip Glass, another West Coast minimalist, play ‘Glassworks’ with his ensemble on the TV, and later saw the film ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ with his music as a soundtrack. It’s more challenging music, often with a fast tempo. He has since even composed opera. We saw him with his ensemble a couple of years ago. The concentration his musicians require is astonishing. It’s all live- no sampling or looping here.

Minimalist Music 5

All this prepared me for modern electronic music, although I again didn’t get it at first. The style I am thinking of goes by various names: techno, trance and so on. “Electronic Dance Music” seems to be the current one. There are certainly elements of minimalism in this- repetitive yet changing figures, often in blocks of 16 bars. I love lots of it: System 7, The Orb and Orbital are key names for` the styles I like. However I listen to it, rather than dance, which was its original purpose- far removed from the generally accepted view of minimalism, (Citation required would be Wikipedia’s comment- but I can say what I like, heh heh heh.) From this genre “chill out music”. This is essentially EDM without the beats and is more cool and contemplative, more akin to classical minimalism. ‘Mirror System’, a Steve Hillage/ Miquette Giraudy mirror to System 7, is a great and lovely example.

Minimalist Music 6

Minimalism used to be an acquired taste- perhaps all tastes are. My mother-in-law (a good classical pianist who heard the opening of ‘Tubular Bells’ and could straight away play it) was bemused by a TV documentary on West Coast minimalism. It is certainly not an instant hit; it does need to be listened to meditatively or as background music, almost ambient music at times. But more on ambient music another time. Minimalism can be very rewarding, given a little patience and open ears. If you don’t like it, there’s plenty more music out there.

Footnote: Steve Reich and Michael Nyman are other major minimalist music names; the latter is especially accessible and might be familiar from film soundtracks such as ‘The Piano’ and ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’.

Funny Books

When last week I mentioned P.G Wodehouse and his writing, especially the Jeeves novels, it got a little worm running round my brain. Essentially: what is a funny book? Is it just personal taste, or is there more to it?

Funny Books 1

My personal likes start with the endlessly charming, laid-back approach of Wodehouse. I don’t find him a laugh-out-loud author, just gently amusing. Yes, before you start, he’s probably politically very incorrect and sexist; although his male characters are always subservient to the women, whether by authority or romantic attachment. Like all writers, he was of his time, but lines like: “if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled” show why he never fails to cheer me up.

Straight away I think of Terry Pratchett, but he cannot be considered as purely a comic writer. His books move people, including me, to tears as well as laughter. Very few books, however, reduce me to helpless giggling as much as his do. This is often to the bemusement of others in the room. Who else would have a character like Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who, despite sciatica and piles, manages to triumph by sheer experience and cunning?

‘Three Men in a Boat’, by Jerome K. Jerome (great name!) is the story of a Victorian boating trip. Oddly, my father read it to me as a young child. It’s got some parts which seem to me to be very funny, interspersed with travel writing and passages of what used to be called purple prose. It’s probably now outdated for most readers. A follow-up called ‘Three Men on the Bummel’ (that’s a bicycling holiday) is not as amusing. A favourite part: when they try to open a can without a can opener, beat it into “every shape known to geometry” and then throw it away. Sounds dull? You have to read it to get it, I suppose.

I’m already fast coming to the conclusion that humour in books is purely down to personal taste. What I find hilarious may well be completely unamusing to you, especially if there is a big age gap. As an example, there is a book I inherited from my father called ‘It Don’t Cost You a Penny’, the memoirs (allegedly) of an old soldier who became a batman in World War 2. The humour is of its time again: a Sapper Beer is hilariously known as Supper Beer. It would seem pretty racist to younger readers.

Funny Books 2

Michael Green, author of ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’ and many others of that ilk, as well as the now forgotten ‘Squire Haggard’s Journal’, was very funny, but I don’t know that you’d want to read his books continuously, in the same way as you’d read a novel. Similar is Peter Tinniswood, who wrote marvellously inventive books of cricket anecdotes, starting with ‘Tales from a Long Room’, allegedly by a very eccentric Brigadier. They are also books for dipping into, although probably short enough to read in one go, and probably books for cricket aficionados of a certain age only. Pratchett, working in the fantasy genre, and Jerome, whose books are at core Victorian travelogues, have more absorbing material: the humour is an integral part of a narrative.

Similarly, Bill Bryson’s books succeed both as humour and as absorbing travel books. He is another author who needs a “Do Not Read in Public” warning on his books, to avoid the embarrassment as you are snorting uncontrollably. I think he is probably more universally appealing than some of my other choices, though of course I have no evidence.

I am obviously attracted by humorous tales about teaching. Gervase Phinn, Jack Sheffield and others have written many of this ilk. I find them mildly amusing, not hilarious. Perhaps it’s all a bit too familiar for comfort. My colleagues and I wrote a brief parody of our workplace towards the latter part of my career. I still find it highly funny, but it’s very much for a niche audience, which consists almost entirely of the authors. I particularly liked:

“…..a bemused group of breakfast club children munching on the ‘Healthy Option’ of bacon, eggs, black pudding, sausages, baked beans, fried bread and hash browns.” Thanks to whichever of us wrote that bit. It might have been me. I don’t remember. (No. that option was NOT part of our school menu.)

I have written fragments of funny writing. (Well, I laugh.) Some of this is on my other blog:  Oblique Fictions (Well, I still laugh.)

So, there you have it. As usual, just a gentle ramble. My rather trivial conclusions are that humorous literature is very individual and often confined to its time. Consequently humour can easily become out of date. It’s very difficult to write a book whose only aim is to be funny; it’s much better to write a good story or travelogue and incorporate the humour.

Holiday Reading

Blame H. for this. She asked for recommendations for holiday reading. This got me started……

Holiday Reads

Initially I thought that there were two types of holiday read: the books you take away on holiday, and the books you read if you are lucky enough to have some extended time off (say, more than just a weekend). Of course, the two categories overlap so much as to make it pointless to distinguish greatly.

I am a notorious packer of books for holidays, although I have got better over time. When we went on an extended extra honeymoon with my in-laws (yes, really, my in-laws) I literally took a bag of books, to their muted incredulity. I now only recall a few books, which I would recommend to the right reader. First are I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I have re-read them and still find them absorbing: together they make a well-told historical story, based on fact but with Graves’s well known individual, not to say idiosyncratic views. On that holiday I also read Labyrinths, a collection of short stories by Jean Luis Borges. They are erudite fantasies. They are deep, dense and needful of concentration; but they are short and rewarding. The collection is very dippable. (Is that a word? It is now.) Please note that I have read that there are better collections of the Borges stories.

The Kindle, of course, makes it much easier to take a good number of books on holiday, but I Iike to have a physical book to take, particularly a new one. It seems so full of potential. It also can remind you of your holiday.

If you wish you can always take a pile of your favourites, or a Kindle full of them. Comforting books can enhance your holiday relaxation.The Jeeves books and anything else by P.G. Wodehouse works for me- after all, it’s a holiday, isn’t it?

Your holiday reading of course depends on your personal bookish interests. I have an abiding fascination with science fiction, and recommend The Martian, a recent best-seller (and the basis for a good film), written by Andy Weir. This is great hard sci-fi, in which engineering saves a stranded astronaut. I greatly enjoyed the technological aspects (others might differ), but it’s a gripping plot.

For fantasy enthusiasts there’s nothing like a holiday in the company of Terry Pratchett- but it’s good to find new adventures. As I have mentioned on more than one occasion, Ms Oblique #1 is a great provider of new reads, especially in the fantasy genre. I recently greatly enjoyed Cinder by Melissa Meyer. This is an updated version of the story of Cinderella; the heroine is a cyborg. There are others in the same vein.

There seems to be a feeling that holiday literature should somehow be escapist, should take you to different places. I picked Victoria Hislop‘s novel, The Sunrise, for this reason; sadly I just couldn’t get into it at any time, but others have recommended it for holiday entertainment. A good choice might be two books by Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books. The Summer Book is a short novel, set on a small Finnish island, about a young girl and her grandmother; The Winter Book is a collection of short stories. They are charming.

Naturally, you could use your holidays to catch up on those classics you always meant to read, but I would advise you to have some back-up material and not to persist if you’re not enjoying your reading.

As far as newer material goes, I’m not a critic and I’m really not extensively read, but of my recent reads I’d recommend:

  • The Song of Achillesa refreshing retelling of the Greek myth by Madeline Miller

  • Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith– just a good detective story.

If you haven’t encountered the crime fiction of Ian Rankin, a holiday would be a good time to start. Or is that a bit grim? The volumes of Collected Short Stories by the now unfashionable W. Somerset Maugham are altogether a more relaxing and escapist read. Period pieces I suppose.

Just remember: holidays are meant to be fun.