OK, OK, I give up: On abandoning ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ by Nicholas Crane

To start with, if anybody wants to borrow this book they have only to come and collect it. I’m afraid to say that I have given up.

dscn6455I bought it on the basis of a glowing review in the Guardian. They call it a “magnificent book, ranging from the ice age to the present, (which) considers the influence on the countryside and cities of climate, geology and a long history of immigration”. (Hey… doesn’t Nicholas Crane sometimes write for the Guardian?) It’s always a pleasure reading a new book, and I started it with enthusiasm and pleasurable anticipation. As so often with this blog, I’m trying to sort out my own thoughts. What made me give it up?

Perhaps I’m in the wrong mood for this type of book. I have been reading a lot of fiction. However, I feel it’s more than that.

Firstly, it’s a dense read; I’m not sure exactly not sure what I mean by that, but I find it packed and dry. Occasionally long lists, something in the style of Peter Ackroyd, grate. Mr Crane tries to make it come alive by envisaging how people interacted with the landscape; sometimes, in my opinion, he goes too far, so we get a sentence like: “Killing an animal was a process of transformation; the cosmos was indivisible from self”. Another minor irritation was “the idea of an elongated sacred space- let’s call it a temenos”. Why are we calling it a temenos? I find this style less than absorbing.

The more I think about this, and the more I revise and re-revise this blogpost, the more muddled I get. You could well argue: “It’s beautifully written and well researched. You need to concentrate more, Mr Oblique.”

One Amazon review calls it a “superb addition to our knowledge”. (Another reviewer says it “promised much and has failed to deliver”, noting the absence of maps and diagrams, but likes the style.)

I really enjoyed Nichols Crane’s first book, ‘Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe’. I like his work on TV and enjoy his journalism. I WANT to enjoy reading this book. I could best sum my problem up by saying it does not come alive for me. Why can’t I get into it? Is it me? Answers, please.

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Oddball Reviews #1: ‘The Space Ritual Alive in Liverpool and London’ by Hawkwind

This is the first in (hopefully) a series of reviews of ‘albums’ or CDs.  As usual I will write them as and when I feel like it. They are mostly self-indulgent.

Hawkwind, for the enlightenment of some of my readers, especially the younger ones, are best described as a space-rock/ heavy metal band, probably most famous now for the period in which Lemmy was playing bass. At the time of writing they are still going strong.

This album is the live recording of their ambitious Space Ritual tour, which involved dancers, a light show and poetry. Actually their concerts had almost always involved a dancer, a light show and poetry. The dancer was one Stacia, a lady for who the word statuesque is obligatory. She mostly danced naked, which for some reason seemed to appeal to many teenage boys. The light show was by ‘Liquid Len and the Lensmen’ and was astonishing even by today’s standards. A huge screen showed projections (of slides, not computer generated) along with strobes, pulsating tubes and other lights. It was hypnotic; no, it was psychedelic. Man.

As you may have worked out, I saw Hawkwind around this time. The first time, my mates rushed down to the front of the stage, as was the fashion, and I spent the gig with my head nearly inside one of the bass drums. The overall sound was something like “whoosh whoosh whoosh boom boom”. SF writer Michael Moorcock was guesting on poetry, and I had the uncomfortable feeling he was watching me the whole time. I saw them a year later, sitting in the balcony, and the sound and lights were unforgettably great.

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The recording was a double album in vinyl; even in CD form it spills onto two discs. It was issued in an amazing opening sleeve, with copious notes and graphics, by the late Barney Bubbles.

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It is, according to Lemmy, a very faithful rendition of the live shows. He recommends listening to it while smoking a spliff, something I have not attempted. (Too straight.) It’s a mesmerising collage of electronic sounds, interspersed with poetry, which form the setting for long heavy rock tracks, with the lyrical theme of space. The music is often derided, but I would argue that it has a great deal more to it than many people realise. The chord structures may be basically quite simple, but the band build improvisations on top of them. The drum sound, by Simon King, is an unmistakable battering. The guitar, by their long time leader Dave Brock, is heavily treated and drives the tunes. Underpinning it all is Lemmy’s bass, which contributes really melodic lines. It’s probably my favourite bass playing of all time. Over the top, synthesisers and audio generators by Del Dettmar and Dikmik make the wash of spacey sounds, while Nik Turner add sax and flute which is more skilled than is sometimes made out, despite his free jazz origins. Bob Calvert recites poetry.

It’s hard to pick out tracks for the uninitiated. Mostly they are driving rock, but there is light and shade. My favourite is ‘Lord of Light’, which features two sections in which everybody is improvising on what I think is a basic two-chord structure. It reminds me of Dixieland jazz and, weirdly, baroque music. The poetry is also very accessible.

I must have listened to this album more than any other piece of music. I played it at least every other night when I was working for my A-levels. Liking Hawkwind even got me bullied. But I still listen to it.

Bibimbap House, Cambridge

A weekend in Cambridge. Miss Oblique #1 and RG take us to a Korean restaurant. It’s well worth a mention.

I’ve never eaten Korean food before and was a little uncertain; was it going to be very spicy? The exterior is unprepossessing. The menu is, as Miss O. says, narrow, consisting of variations on Bibimbap. This, for those of you who are as ignorant as I was, is basically a hearty bowlful.

bibimbapWhat you get is a big stone bowl of rice or noodles, with carrot, cabbage, cucumber, an egg and probably some other things I have forgotten. (If I’m going to attempt reviews, perhaps I should take notes.) On the side are little dishes of tofu, mashed potato, a bowl of miso soup, and meat in sauce; I had beef, with rice. Variations, include tuna, pork and vegetable only versions. (Thanks to Miss O. for the photo.)

I think the approved technique of eating is to mix it all together. I added the constituent parts a little at a time, which proved inspired. The  result is a meal which changes as you go, maintaining interest right to the bottom of the (large) bowl. The rice at the bottom is a little crispy, due to the heat of the stone. The egg breaks and mingles and cooks. The sauces (don’t ask me what they all are) are subtle and not fiery. I particularly liked the creamy mashed potato. There are whispers that it is from a packet, but I don’t care. It goes beautifully.

There was nothing I didn’t like about this meal, and my opinion was shared. I had green tea, which went perfectly. Perhaps the tofu is a little bland, but tofu is always bland. The service is friendly yet polite and not over-attentive.It is a little on the dear side: £70 for four of us. But it is filling and delicious. Bibimbap House is at 60 Mill Road: I commend it to my readers.

‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope

May I gently propose to you the gentle pleasures of this book?

It is totally inconsequential to modern life. It was written in 1855 and concerns itself with ecclesiastical conflicts. I was going to say in-fighting, but that’s too strong a term.

Briefly, Mr Harding is the warden of a ‘hospital’ in the sense of a home for 12 poor old men. His erstwhile son-in-law considers that the income he receives from the charity is excessive.  The bishop and his son, the archdeacon (who is married to a daughter of Mr Harding’s) get involved. The row extends to the wider world and… that’s it, really.

There are some choice points. There is a great satire on the influence of ‘The Times’. Charles Dickens, as Mr Popular Sentiment, and Thomas Carlyle, as ‘Dr Pessimist Anticant’, are mocked. Pretensions are ridiculed, but most characters are rounded and charitably treated. Essentially, as I have already over-emphasised, it’s a very gentle piece, set in the fictional Barchester, an amalgam of Winchester, Salisbury and the like.

It’s short (284 pages) and eminently readable, although not to a lot of modern tastes. I commend it to my readers.

(Footnote: I read this, for the second time, in the ‘World’s Classics’ paperback edition, with lovely little illustrations by Edward Ardizzone. I don’t know if this edition is still available, but it is a good advertisement for ‘real’ books.)

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Sketch of Trollope by R. Birch after a photograph by Sarony. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One year on

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Much to my surprise, I realise that it has been one year since I published my first blog post. I started this blog to have an outlet for bits and pieces of thoughts and observations. I used to ramble on  to my colleagues. When I retired, I couldn’t let the long-suffering Mrs Oblique take all the strain, so started this. (Actually, Mrs O. doesn’t read it. Interesting.)

It also turned out to be a tool for me to clarify my thinking. Putting something into writing has always helped me. I almost feel I haven’t properly dealt with an idea unless I’ve written it down.

I didn’t do it to become famous, or make money, or attract legions of followers. Nevertheless, I did hope that a few people might read it.

Well I haven’t become famous, or made money, or attracted legions of followers; but I am very pleased to say that a few people have read it.

The statistics (which I don’t find entirely convincing) say that my 80 posts have attracted 683 visitors, who have viewed posts 1393 times. Yes, I am aware that many of these visitors are repeats, who for some reason have returned several times, or some who just humour their dad…. However, I am very gratified that I am getting read; and most astonished that the visits come from 32 different countries. I would have expected that most came from the U.K. and the U.S.A. I also have friends in Spain, France, Italy, Australia and others I apologise for neglecting. But the Lebanon? Serbia? Kenya? Japan? How wonderful even to have had one visit from each of these.

I haven’t restricted myself to one subject; that wasn’t the point. Most of the blog posts seem to have been about education, books or music. I write when I feel I have the need to say something, not to a plan. Sometimes the posts are written out in longhand beforehand, sometimes typed and posted straight away. I am happiest when Mrs Oblique can be persuaded to produce one of her wonderful illustrations. I have tried to ensure that all the others are copyright free.

The most popular post so far was Soft Machine at Talking Heads, probably because I publicised it on the wonderful forum at the wonderful website that is Planet Gong . I have enjoyed writing them all and have especially enjoyed getting comments, both on WordPress and Facebook. I have particularly liked playing with language, freed from the need to be in teacher mode. Oddly, I still like most of what I have written and even smile at it.

If you have been…. Thanks for reading. Did I say I liked comments?

(Sorry to tell you this, but I have ideas for at least another 22 posts. Watch this space.)

House Building as Performance Art

I promise we do not spend all our time watching T.V. now I have retired…. but on Friday morning a commentator told us that “house builders make their money by building houses and selling them”.

SURELY NOT? SHOME MISTAKE?

I thought they were largely performance artists….. making a deep, multi-layered commentary on the unbearable tension between home ownership and the transience of existence. It must be obvious that the safety helmets and high-vis jackets of the performers are an ironic observation on what is, in a very meaningful and post-modern sense, the impossibility of a ‘safe space’ in a ritualistic tightrope dance over the chasm of nothingness (and the possibility of sink holes). The deliberate choice of mainly male participants is an integral part of the portrayal of the ying/ yang trope of the nuclear family, persistent even in the post modern, multi-gender and trans-gender 4D space in which we all  find ourselves enmeshed.

Or perhaps she was being ironic? Or just…. stating the bleedin’ obvious?

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First we take Manhattan

I couldn’t miss the opportunity to do a post after the death of Leonard Cohen.

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My appreciation of him fell into four distinct parts. First, I had a friend whose sister was a little older than me, and who had tried to commit suicide. She listened to Leonard Cohen a lot, apparently, and thus I conceived of him as the poet of despair.

Then, many years later, we couldn’t sleep one night and watched T.V. We heard ‘First We Take Manhattan’, with what can only be described as techno backing. It was, I think, a single, from the ‘I’m Your Man’ album. Yes, children, it was a vinyl album. I loved it all: especially, and this will surprise some people, the sense of humour. The album is one of my all-time favourites. (Ooh, I feel another blog coming on.)

After that, everything he produced (now on C.D.) seemed excellent, but with very stark musical backings- dare I say boringly stark. We also of course started to have the many covers of ‘Hallelujah’. My favourite versions of songs are almost always the originals, but my son moved me to tears when he sang  it at his school concert. What a pity he doesn’t sing any more.

Mr Cohen, I read, had become a Buddhist monk; then he returned to the stage, largely for financial reasons. With a little trepidation, we went to see him, at Bournemouth International Centre, which is a very good venue with excellent sound and sightlines. He was marvellous. He played for more than two hours. Everything sounded fresh, modern and yet recognisable. (I’m told that isn’t always the case with some revered elder artists.) The band was excellent- and he played ‘First We Take Manhattan’.

Leonard Cohen was witty, tuneful, complicated, simple, enigmatic…. he had it all. The voice was certainly not a classically good one, but it was powerful and unmistakable. It’s not too strong to call him a legend. He looked like a legend, too. And he wore hats.

(John Lee Hooker was described as the ‘coolest man alive’. When he died, that title certainly went to Leonard Cohen. Now he is dead, who should it be?)

“And I can’t forget/ I can’t forget/ I can’t forget, but I don’t remember what.”

[Photograph marked as copyright free.]