The Sun dance is a complex series of rituals for the healing of the community, with drumming and singing, held annually over many days and nights in late spring or early summer—and preparations are said to take up much of the year in between. Ritual practice varies between tribal groups, and over time.
A medicine lodge is constructed of pole rafters radiating from a sacred central pole. The arena is surrounded by a camp of kin and friends singing and praying in support of the performers. For young male dancers among some groups it is an ordeal, an extreme physical and…
I never know which of my diverse topics will prove popular. In a way I’m not bovvered—you don’t spend half your life doing fieldwork on Daoist ritual if you’re hoping to be an overnight TikTok sensation. Like Flann O’Brian, I write largely
without regard to expense or the feelings of the public.
Still, I sometimes find it perplexing when one post gets a lot of readers while another related one goes down like a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party.
For instance, Shamans in the two Koreas went modestly viral, whereas readers were underwhelmed when I reposted my roundup of essays on Spirit mediums in China. Would that be because the word “shaman” is clickbait—or is it that North Korea seems more exotic than the PRC?
My lengthy reflections on the new British Museum exhibition China’s hidden century have been well received, with many instances of the wealth of material on the late Qing that can be gained from fieldwork among local rural traditions. Just as fascinating is the life of Nadine Hwang—her high-flying early life in Beijing and Paris, then meeting her partner Nelly Mousset-Vos in the hell of Ravensbrück, and living together in Caracas after their release.
Like the Great Plague and the Cultural Revolution, the Coronation is history, whether we like it or not. My flimsy excuse for adding to the endless discussions is that it reminded me of China—the role of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in propping up the status quo, and the way that peasants too buy into the “imperial metaphor” (see also Catherine Bell on ritual, including state ritual). I can be mildly impressed by the opulence of grand Chinese or Ottoman ceremonies, but being English I have more of a right to query the validity of our own.
The Anglican Church—another irrelevance to a growing segment of the population—plays a major role in “legitimising” the charade of the Divine Right. Yet again Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes to mind:
I didn’t know we ’ad a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective.
Awed deference is only to be expected from the BBC, toeing the Party line, but even on Channel 4 interviewees mustered platitudes, with Cathy Newman making a futile effort to feed them with alternative viewpoints. Nor could one expect usually sensible critics of irrational power like Justin Welby to demur. “Defender of all faiths” my arse. The only clue to God’s feelings on the matter came from the way it rained on the parade.
Still, nothing can detract from the sheer exhilaration of Zadok the Priest—tastefully reworked by Andrew Lloyd Webber in a benign gesture of inclusivity:
Zak the Used-Car Dealer and Nat the Bruiser (know wot I’m sayin’, right) bigged up Solly King of Da Hood, YO
Coming back for more after the Queen’s funeral, many of the riff-raff, or “subjects” (including young and poor people) may have found the display of privilege utterly irrelevant, but others took time away from their “rather gratifying” food banks (apudThe Haunted Pencil) to play their own dress-up with hats and bunting—Bread and Circuses.
After all, since Brexit we’re all rolling in money, eh? But the royals aren’t exactly short of a few bob—benefit claimants with the brass neck to go on about “service”. Service my arse. Bending over backwards to feign balance, another Guardian piece concluded
Whether multimillion-pound salaries and disdain for difficult questions can really unite and represent the values of a modern democracy remains to be seen.
Of course irony is a modern virtue, or vice, but when we study the grandeur of imperial Chinese ritual we rarely consider the perspectives of the lowly tofu-seller. In the words of Alan Bennett’s clergyman, Stuff This For A Lark. Private eye summed up my feelings:
During my current spell of homelessness, I’m spending some fruitful time in my local public library, which somehow makes a conducive environment to work on this amazing new film that I’m preparing about the 1995 New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo.
As I walk in, I’m always tickled pink [Best possible colour to be tickled—Ed.] by the sign
Lift to Upper Lending
which reminds me delightfully of both the elevator to eternity in The third policeman and (in Cold comfort farm) the fragrant Flora’s personal bible, The higher common sense by the Abbé Fausse-Maigre.
O M G, I’ve finally got round to having my decrepit little old house renovated…
First steps were to declutter most of the accumulated debris of the last six decades—a process that has occupied me intermittently over the last year or so. Even without the stimulus of needing to empty the house for the builders, it’s a wonderfully liberating experience to create space for a thorough purge of all the dirt, grime, and moth-ridden carpets. It feels sooo necessary to do this; it’s not just the physical space, it bestows great blessings for mental welfare. Even sorting through an ancient drawer is liberating. Marie Kondo is only the tip of the iceberg—and people will create their own mix of practical, psychological, and spiritual elements in all this. 
Clearly, the principle is to retain Stuff that one really values or needs—assessing what’s important to keep, useful (not so much “might come in handy one day”), or a meaningful part of one’s history. So I guess I’ve given away to charity shops about half of the books, clothes, and random baubles that have been filling my house for the last thirty years.
Those that remain I’ve packed away into boxes: still a zillion books (reduced from several gazillions), and a few clothes. As to the kitchen, I have a few pots and pans, but I’m resistant to gadgets—I thought I was being quite avant-garde when I got an electric kettle (cf. new-fangled Popular Beat Combos).
I may aspire to the Simple Life, but for one who keeps banging (or harping) on about musicking and performance in society, I have a ridiculous amount of books on music.
Some books I keep because it’s just possible I might still refer to them in my old age; others because I find them significant for my personal story. My Chinese collection is the crux; working through them affords an opportunity to reflect on the way my fieldwork and concerns have evolved. Some books I give away without qualms; others I keep largely out of sentimental attachment. The CHIME library in Heidelberg has taken many volumes, including Li Shigen’s mimeographs, precious to me, at least (see Some precious Chinese sources).
In an age when CDs are becoming obsolete, I still find myself unable to dispose of quite a few, both world music and WAM. As to all my old photos (mainly from fieldwork), getting them digitised saves several shelves, but even my fieldnotes and A/V fieldtapes fill rather a lot of boxes—digitising them will make a major project for some enterprising archive. Suitably, among this collection are notes on the purification of the ritual arena, rousing prelude to Daoist rituals.
And so the coast is clear for the house to be taken apart and put back together again; by the autumn it will be a bijou Belvedere of Tenuous Vacuity 微虛觀, a kiosk among the gecekondu settlements nestling on the borders of Bedford Park (“Come and live in Chiswick, your statistical chance of survival is relatively high”).
In this ambitious rebirth, I’m blessed to have such a brilliant team. Even Gary the Storage Guru is a source of wisdom and inspiration. Still, a builder trying to explain stuff to me like shutters and recessed bookcases is in a similar position to a neolithic handyman who calls on a caveman thinking about getting his cave spruced up a bit:
“These days something called a ‘house’ is catching on—maybe you’d like to try one of them…”
For the considerably later invention of the sandwich, see note here.
The upshot is that for the next few months I am an itinerant ashiq, a dervish of no fixed abode—albeit one currently obsessed with kitchen and bathroom design. I can hardly claim to aspire to the frugality of Hanshan and Shide, or the abnegation of the desert hermit; true ascetics would dispose of all their possessions and live happily surrounded by squalor, like the Tantric sadhus of Bengal. That’s clearly not where I’m at!
* * *
While my kitchen is relatively gadget-free, I find myself curiously attached to my little red trivet, because not only is trivet a cute word but it reminds me of yet another story from my Cambridge mentor Paul Kratochvil:
When a well-meaning friend gave him one (double entendre not unintentional) for his birthday—an arty triangular one—he made suitably gratified noises, but was bemused. Back home with his wife, he looked at it again and mused, “WTF? I don’t even play snooker!”
Bazunu quite rightly at the feet of Jesus—although like John Wayne,
he could do with more Awe. And I’m no theologian, but shouldn’t it be Jesus who saves?
Of course, headline writers licked their lips when Jesus took a penalty for Man City
against Burnley, who had Nick Pope in goal: Pope saves from Jesus
For many more such headlines, see Jesus jokes.
Arsenal have been keeping everyone guessing recently. Against Southampton last Friday night, they had a cunning plan: going 2-0 up in the first half in their two previous games hadn’t worked out for them, so why not try going 2-0 down instead?
Walking home from the pub after the first half to follow the match on the Guardian live feed, it wasn’t so much that I gave up on them; rather, I just couldn’t stand the anxiety. Back in 2005, like most people, I did give up on Liverpool when they played AC Milan in the Champions League final in “the miracle of Istanbul”; watching in a central London pub, they were 3-0 down at half time, so I took the tube home disconsolately, but as I got home I switched on the TV aimlessly only to find (WTF) the match was still going on—they were playing extra time—AND LIVERPOOL WON ON PENALTIES!!!
Rob Smyth’s live comments in the Guardian are always drôle. Some gems from Friday night’s match:
54 min “To adapt a silly Terry Venables line,” * begins David Howell, “there are two ways for Arsenal to win the title this season. One is retroactively via City getting an FFP sanction, and that’s the only way.”
[*original line: There are two ways of getting the ball. One is from your own team-mates, and that’s the only way.”]
With Southampton ahead, their goalkeeper Bazunu (who I wasn’t quite expecting to be called Gavin—cf. the classic nickname for Kiki Musampa) engaged in serial time-wasting:
59 min A ricochet almost runs kindly for Jesus in the six-yard box, but Bazunu pounces on the ball and then whips out War and Peace to read another chapter before kicking the ball downfield. He still hasn’t been booked.
Just as well I’m not a hardcore Arsenal fan, more of a Wenger nostalgist with a penchant for Jesus jokes. Maybe tomorrow night they can lull City into a false sense of security. I bet they regret not signing me now—a Zimmer frame can be jolly dangerous in the 6-yard box.
The “full English breakfast” appeared more often during World War Two, and became common by the 1950s. It always makes me wonder about a partial English—which admittedly is available in the form of bacon and eggs, and so on. It’s the regimented fixity that disturbs me; even when the menu offers a choice, it’s flawed by being given a soulless number, like A2 or B5… Few caffs are so flexible as to allow diners to compose their own (“a leg of pheasant, some kumquats, and hash browns, please”)—cf. the diner scene in Five easy pieces.
I find the chummy shorthand “full English” just as disconcerting. I think also of the Christmas dinner with “all the trimmings”—has anyone ever presented “some of the trimmings”? And then there’s the alternative of the mealy-mouthed “continental breakfast” (C3), when one feels somehow cheated of the wealth and variety of European cuisine…
I write from a typical Chiswick café, far from a transport caff, where I choke over the sign
Spring filter, with notes of stone fruit, bergamot, & praline.
Tony Blair announcing the signing of the Good Friday Agreement alongside Bertie Ahern.
Good to see that Tony Blair was soon alerted to the contradiction in his classic comment before the Good Friday peace deal in 1998:
A day like today is not a day for soundbites, we can leave those at home—but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.
Having “served up a juicy soundbite in the very same sentence he had warned against them” (as his advisors Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell pointed out immediately “in fits of giggles“), Blair was able to enjoy the irony in an interview some twenty years later:
“A day like today is not a day for soundbites…but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder." Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Tony Blair offers an explanation for one his most famous and oft-derided quotes – “Northern Ireland always did strange things to me.” pic.twitter.com/aeLjgNghrm
For all his faults (notably the Iraq debacle), Blair had considerable charm and intelligence. Which is way more than one can say about any of the evil, lying, self-serving, shameless, xenophobic rabble who still inexplicably hold this country hostage—as many senior Tories can recognise.
As I approach 70 (WTF), at last I think I can begin using this line with impunity:
Quote investigator researches the genesis of the saying with typical aplomb. The germ of the idea can be traced back to around 1770, but the precise formulation was first recorded in 1951, with candidates such as Billie Noonan, Adolph Zukor, Eubie Blake, and Mickey Mantle.
Movie directors still seem undaunted by the perils of trying to evoke orchestral life. The movie Tár has prompted a range of reactions, while recognising Cate Blanchett’s outstanding characterisation. 
Putting weightier matters to one side, while Inspector Morse was very fine (I always giggle at Alan Partridge’s suave dictum: “Think about it—no-one had heard of Oxford before Inspector Morse”). The prequel Endeavour (written by Russell Lewis), now on its ninth series, has been received with just as much enthusiasm.
In the first episode of the latest series, Prelude, evoking orchestral life in 1972, after the principal violinist’s rosin is doctored with nuts, prompting a fatal anaphylactic reaction, a murky world of intrigue is revealed. Now, contretemps were not unknown within our orchestral world, but I’m not aware of anyone doctoring our rosin with nuts, or indeed our nuts with rosin (someone else, perhaps inspired by Nicolas Magriel’s work on the sarangi, might do a cross-cultural study of rosin for fiddle bows).
everybody, not just the violinists, is highly strung, has a silly name, and expresses themselves with rococo hubris or self-contempt.
The musical clichés are well-worn—like the ill-fated leader flaunting her superiority over the blokey men and frumpy women of the rank-and-file, and the supercilious, domineering conductor, complete with beard and cravat:
“Must I remind you, the lives of such as we are defined by sacrifice?” Glam protégée soloist: “Other girls had friends, parties, fun—I had a rehearsal room.”
For all my musical cavils, the script and the acting are Jolly Good. Just as Early Music gets later all the time, Endeavour is part of a rich seam of period pieces evoking life only a few decades ago. It’s not just about clothes, of course—cars, kitchens, you name it. Cf. Molvania:
The episode is based on the City of Oxford Orchestra, founded in 1965. This was just the kind of milieu that I grew up in, taking part in amateur and semi-professional orchestras. But while I have a few images of what we Chinese students at Cambridge were wearing in the early 1970s, and of course there are plenty of photos for London professional orchestras (in both performance and rehearsal), it made me realise that even in 1972 Cambridge, I have only a hazy idea of what we musos actually looked like. How many of us even had a camera? Even for us nerds, taking photos was still rather nerdy. Besides, it was a bit of a faff: it might take months to use up a whole roll of film, and then you had to take it down to the chemists to be developed…
So I have no photos of my amateur youth orchestral life in the 60s. On the National Youth Orchestra website we can find an occasional image of a concert or rehearsal, but there’s a dearth of less formal photos of our summer courses, or the visits with Boulez to the Edinburgh Festival and the Proms (cf. this article, and The shock of the new)—a far cry from the embarras de richesse on social media today.
Before a concert at the St Austell festival, Cornwall, c1973. Me (FWIW) in middle row, 7th from right.
As a reminder that not everyone was dressing like Jimi Hendrix (we weren’t such an exotic 60s’ tribe), Endeavour lovingly recreates the range of sartorial choices at the time—Posh People, poseurs, hippies, jobsworths, and so on.
Good exchange between Morse and PC Plod:
Plod: “So, how was the West then matey? All pasties and scrumpy?” Morse [studiously]: “I was mostly following in Hardy’s footsteps.” Plod [confidently]: “Were you? There’s another fine mess eh!”
For more period crime drama from post-war Britain, I enjoyed Grantchester, both the TV series and the novels—again gently probing the tensions within a changing society, of which I was largely unaware at the time…
Having long rejoiced in the bands heard on the 2 glorious CDs Frozen brass ( Nepal, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Ghana, Surinam, Bolivia, Peru!), it’s high time for me to get a basic education on the brass bands of New Orleans. 
The early years After the Civil War and Emancipation, black civilian bands began to emerge, their style inspired by both European-style military bands and the ring shout of African slaves at the Sunday gatherings in Congo square. Organised by labor unions, social aid and pleasure clubs (the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association was founded as early as 1783), they would perform on parades for feast days like Mardi Gras, and play hymns and dirges on funeral processions.
By the early 20th century, new instruments, sounds, and styles were transforming the musical landscape. Early groups included the Excelsior (1879–1931) and Camelia bands. Perhaps most celebrated is
the Eureka brass band (wiki; YouTube topic) (1920–75); here’s a brief clip from 1951:
Excerpts from 1952 to 1963:
Some more footage:
and Westlawn dirge, 1961:
Since the 1960s By the early 1960s, despite concerns that the tradition was in decline, New Orleans brass bands enjoyed a renaissance, gaining wider celebrity through tourism, heritagification, and touring. As new generations were trained, the stylistic spectrum broadened. Among the more traditional groups:
William J. Schafer, Brass bands and New Orleans jazz (1977)
Richard Knowles, Fallen heroes: a history of New Orleans brass bands (1996), and
Mick Burns, Keeping the beat on the street: the New Orleans brass band renaissance (2006),
note e.g. the Hogan Archive, a CD series from Smithsonian Folkways (e.g. this), as well as articles here and here. This article leads to four videos (starting here) that make a succinct introduction, along with an outline of the style’s rhythmic foundations (NB this virtual exhibition, with great photos and audio reminiscences).
Usually I shrug off airline safety videos like everyone else, but for some reason I’m mesmerised by the Turkish Airlines creation, which indeed transpires to be a classic of the genre:
Accustomed as we are In This Day and Age to searching for suggestive clues in tiny scenes, I can’t help regarding it as the trailer for a thriller [*Spoiler Alert*].
The opening—apparently taunting us real, frazzled passengers after we have finally managed to jostle our way on board, searching desperately for a space where we can cram our unwieldy luggage—shows a typically contented nuclear family (man, woman, and young boy) boarding what appears to be a private jet, with no queue at all.
At least, we assume the boy is theirs. The way the woman pushes him “playfully” towards his seat may suggest some kind of coercion; the man, typically, is relieved of tedious “parental” chores by craftily choosing a seat behind them.
They all have the most enormous eyes and pupils—a genetic trait amazingly also found in the flight attendant. In an editorial sleight-of-hand that may confuse, two tantalising scenes (0.31, and 2.31) show cameos of a different mother, with a toddler; and her eyes are suspiciously concealed from the viewer—could she perhaps be free of the outsized-eye syndrome? But is she another member of the international child-trafficking gang?
At 1.00, frustrated by his new domestic routine (even if it’s only a front), the vacuous man, in a vain attempt to flirt with the flight attendant (the frustrated middle-aged husband’s classic cry for attention), attempts a comedy juggling routine with his mobile (cf. Mark Heap, at the end of this clip). When it goes wrong, the attendant ignores his request with a polished, patronising smile; she seems to be a ventriloquist, though we’re not provided with subtitles (“Serves you right, you posh vacuous tosser. Have a nice day!”).
At 1.42 we at last get a glimpse of the only other two passengers on board. One, a shifty spectacled guy in a suit and tie, perhaps a CIA operative, looks round nervously to keep tabs on the cunningly-disguised family.
Besides being suspiciously skinny, the “family” are all blissed out, suggesting massive drug intake—even the captive boy conveys a jovial air, whether he’s been pumped full of heroin or because they’ve threatened him into keeping up the facade.
Even when there’s a SUDDEN LOSS OF CABIN PRESSURE OMG they remain eerily calm. “Oh cool, we’re all gonna plunge to a watery grave trapped in this burning coffin!” (cf. When you are engulfed in flames). The man is clearly delighted to have an excuse to inhale more drugs via the mask. The only thing that does seem to alarm him at first is that he can’t take his cabin luggage full of high heels, sharp objects, and smuggled diamonds with him—but the drugs are kicking in, and he soon regains his composure. If it’s realism you want, try Airplane (“Assume the crash position”):
Or did they know about the fake crash-landing all along—is it an ingenious attempt to escape the clutches of the CIA? I wonder if the elusive Woman with Normal Eyes, with her decoy toddler, will play a crucial role as the plot develops after they are rescued by a lurking mafia gunboat.
Apart from the captive passengers and my own deranged fantasies, one wonders about the psychology of the 1.8 million people who have watched the video on YouTube so far (Roll Over Godard), and the many who comment on it (“What am I doing watching this at 3am in my nan’s house? I don’t even have a passport!”).
I was less impressed by the soothing music, sadly not a taksim on the kanun or a rousing dance for davul–zurna—but there I go again, orientalising…
Further to my post on Muzak, at a certain remove from traditional scholarship on the Great Composers or Daoist ritual, a couple of examples of how ethnomusicology “delights in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse”, in the immortal words of John Cleese.
Back in the heady days of the SOAS shawm band, my mate Simon (not to be confused with Philomena Cunk’s mate Paul, bane of many a hapless expert interviewee) took time out from his research on percussion in Korean shaman rituals to undertake a fieldwork project about the music of British ice-cream vans. Like Liu Kuang’s Wall inscription for the Director of the Imperial Music Office in the Tang dynasty, the loss of this work is to be lamented, but Simon recalls driving around in his parents’ Morris Minor with the window down in the peak of summer, listening out for ice-cream chimes:
After picking up the tell-tale sounds, I’d pursue the van until it stopped (if it wasn’t already stationary), park nearby, buy an ice-cream, and hover around until the queue had disappeared. Then I’d approach, briefly summarise my project, and conduct my semi-structured interview—designed to elicit all the van owner’s experiences and thoughts regarding chimes. Only a small minority of owners declined. Most were eager to talk. I remember a couple of responses especially clearly: a huge Italian man threw up his arms and said “Of course I like the music. If you don’t like-a da music you don’t like-a da ice-cream”; another guy said something along the lines of “Honestly, it’s a nightmare. I get home and the tune is still going round and round in my head—sometimes I can’t sleep”. Someone else had removed the usual tinkly ice-cream chime and had rigged up a huge stereo system blaring out jungle music. Nowadays, it seems that the chimes are UK-made [see below], but back then, I remember people telling me that they typically bought Swiss-made music boxes. One man did things rather differently, having a special box made for his fleet of vans that played a Welsh hymn in a computer game beeping kind of style (he was servicing a patriotic rural area in the valleys). The van owners made some interesting comments about territory too—how they would listen out for others’ chimes as they drove around, making sure not to get too close.
AGuardian article by Laura Barton from 2013 reminds us of the distinctive sounds of the British summer, like the low, sweet call of the wood-pigeon and the distant sound of leather on willow. Some history:
The earliest chimes were operated like a music box and fitted with a magnetic pickup and amplifier. It wasn’t until 1958 that transistors transformed the van chime, along with amplifiers that could be fitted to the vehicle’s battery. Traditional British ice-cream vans have tended to use Grampian Horn loudspeakers, angled downwards, towards the road, to diffuse the sound, and though the technology has improved sound quality, the distinctive tinniness of the ice-cream van’s call is largely regarded with affection.
This sounds like a candidate for the nostalgia of Memory Lane UK. Now, indeed,
in a move that has brought jubilation to the ice-cream industry, chimes can play for up to twelve seconds rather than four; and once every two minutes, instead of three. Vans may also now chime while stationary.
As to repertoire, a representative of MicroMiniatures, leading company for the manufacture of the chimes, explained that among the most popular tunes are O sole mio, Greensleeves, and Match of the day, as well as Jerusalem, The stripper (um…), Nessun dorma, Cherry ripe, and Waltzing Matilda (the BTL comments to this 22-minute (!) YouTube compilation open with a list; for further detail, click here).
John Bonar of Piccadilly Whip [Ah, the coy innuendo of British punning!] commented, “We’ve just always used the Pied Piper since the start, so all the vans we order come with that tune. You get pretty sick of it. But whatever tune you’d have you’d get pretty tired of it.”
If you find 22 minutes a tad excessive, there’s quite an array of more succinct medleys on YouTube, such as this:
The sonority makes me wonder if Indonesian ice-cream vans borrow from the gamelan…
* * *
For Taiwan, in a refreshing change from studies of ancient nanguan ballads, another recent Guardian article explores the island’s musical garbage trucks. Recycling (sic) research dating back many years, a recent article by Chinese-music scholar
Garbage in Taiwan is at the centre of a musical assemblage that resonates beyond the confines of the nightly waste collection soundscape. Garbage trucks in Taiwan are musical: Beethoven’s Für Elise or Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s Maiden’s Prayer announce the garbage truck brigade’s arrival at designated times and places throughout urban Taipei. Neighbours stream into the street for a turn at depositing their pre-sorted waste into the proper receptacles. Taiwan’s semi-tropical climate, combined with a densely situated human population and the presence of well established rat and cockroach populations, makes garbage management a matter of daily urgency.
Guy traced Taiwan’s pop music “from the early 1980s through to the present as evidence of ways in which everyday habits and practices of reckoning with waste have seeped into a wide range of sensibilities”.
Despite efforts to diversify the repertoire, it has remained far more limited than that of British ice-cream vans. A maiden’s prayer was preloaded onto trucks bought from Japan in the 1960s, and has remained strangely tenacious. The other dominant tune is Beethoven’s Für Elise, apparently preloaded onto trucks bought from Germany. Now embedded in the Taiwanese psyche, the sound of the garbage trucks has been incorporated into modern Taiwanese culture:
Nothing says it’s Pride weekend in Taipei more than a drag queen death dropping to a club remix of Taiwan’s bin collection song. pic.twitter.com/vUVnnKVuoC
“Whenever I hear Für Elise, I feel like I need to take out the garbage as well.”
To my ears the stark monophony of this limited repertoire sounds more alien, even sinister, than our jovial ice-cream-van jingles—but I quite recognise that they serve different contexts, so maybe I’m just orientalising… And while these instances may be considered muzak in the broad sense of manipulating behaviour, they serve to alert the community—closer to the use of muzak in 1950s’ factories than to the subliminal aural conditioning that anaesthetises us in elevators or shopping malls.
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
JohnBird died this week, nine years after his sketch partner John Fortune. Having teamed up in the heady days of British satirical shows in the 1960s, they had a glorious new lease of life working with Rory Bremner from 1989.
So to follow the classic “You say potato” sketch (“on the perils of over-reliance on the written text”, as I suggested), here’s a playlist for their George Parr interviews, satirising ministers, diplomats, generals—more apposite today than ever:
Among my highlights there are the Washington diplomat (#2), the Home Office minister (#7), the British businessman in China (#8), and the merchant banker (#14). Alternating roles, they nail the establishment’s inane, complacent sense of entitlement, the blithe insouciance with which they barely bother to conceal the iniquity of their stances. All this can be heard on the lips of many a “government” representative today—this interview could almost be a verbatim transcript of the current Tory position on immigration and asylum:
I don’t like the word xenophobic, it suggests irrational prejudice… Of course it’s a Greek word, and I detest Greeks.
Just in time for a merry dystopian Christmas (as if Bambi isn’t enough), the latest season of The handmaid’s tale (for the previous series, click here) has just finished airing on Channel 4—ever more relevant not just amidst the struggle of women in Iran and the further curtailment of women’s right in Afghanistan, but closer to home, since the overturning of Roe v Wade.
Series 5 still steers clear of The testaments, Margaret Atwood’s update to her original novel. It hinges on the mutual dependence of June and Serena after they find themselves crossing paths again in Toronto—no longer such a safe haven amidst the changing dynamics of anti-refugee sentiment and murky diplomacy. As June reminds the saintlike Luke,
“America wasn’t Gilead until it was, and then it was too fucking late.”
Developments in Gilead itself now play a subsidiary role, driven mainly by the manipulations of Commander Lawrence and Aunt Lydia, suggesting a more media-savvy image for the Christo-fascist regime. While the constant degradations have long become over-familiar (and I remain dubious about the way both sides sanctify motherhood as the ultimate moral yardstick), the plot remains compelling. The ending is contrived, but I’m still looking forward to the next season…
In 1993, as I plunged deeper into fieldwork on ritual associations in rural Hebei, while staying at a dingy hostel in Laishui county-town I was struck by this graphic public information poster from the local Public Security Bureau:
This detail is particularly fine:
Caption: Don’t casually drop cigarette-butts or rubbish, and don’t spit all over the place; maintain cleanliness inside and outside the dwelling.
More precisely, and indecorously, I may add that tutan 吐痰 encompasses the staggeringly common habit of emptying one’s throat via the nose onto the ground, generally with a loud and dramatic flourish—a sound that accompanies some of my finest recordings of ritual performance. At the time it didn’t look as if campaigns against the tradition would have much effect.
Moving swiftly on, political posters have long been a popular topic, but travelling down to the countryside, some intrepid art historian might care to make a diachronic and regional survey of pinups adorning the otherwise bare homes of poor peasants since the 1980s’ reforms, which cheerfully rub shoulders with family photos, posters of Party leaders, and images of deities like Guanyin. I found this montage on the wall of a home in Gaoluo village around 1993:
Pinups often make a drôle backdrop to our portraits of wise old folk musicians, like this 1995 image of vocal liturgist Li Yongshu in Yixian county nearby:
Here’s a selection from Shaanbei, heartland of the Chinese revolution, in 1999:
For more recent Uncle Xi pinups, and incentives to display them, see God images old and new, 2—sequel to an article that features murals adorning kang brick-beds dating from just after the reforms of the late 1970s.
A fine satire on the alienation of modern bureaucracy, the novel was published in full after being serialised from 1954.
Born in adversity, the narrator Hayri İrdal becomes apprentice to the wise old clock repairer Nuri Efendi, and spends time (sic) performing in improvisatory theatre groups (“I was living in a world of lies and illusion, and that was all I wanted”). Returning to Istanbul after army service in World War One (“four years spent in vain”), he is indolent and indifferent to everything around him. The Viennese-trained psychoanalyst Dr Ramiz, himself “the incarnation of discontent”, relishes his case, but expects more from him:
“I want you to have dreams that are more in line with your illness. Do you understand me? Use everything in your power to have the right kind of dreams.” […] All this contributed to my moving that much closer to bona fide insanity.
Dr Ramiz introduces Hayri İrdal to a coffeehouse, where he delights in telling stories with the regulars, as life was suspended.
New ideas were at first humoured out of courtesy and a slight curiosity, but they would remain unaddressed until the crowd’s ever-vigilant imagination had recast them as pleasantries, thus assimilating them to their own idiom. This is what happened to any attempt at serious conversation.
His family life is unfulfilling:
I detested the life I was living but lacked the strength to start another. I had severed all ties. I had no bonds with the world save for the compassion I felt for my children. I had no choice but to endure it all—or at least tolerate the world around me. The moment I set foot outside I was a prisoner of my wandering and endlessly colluding mind, which led me off to exotic worlds whose enticements beckoned, only to stay beyond my reach.
While he finds further distraction from his ennui in the Spiritualist Society, the model of the ascetic dervishes can’t help him solve problems stemming from his worldly concerns. At last he meets his mentor Halit Ayarci, with whom, amidst much partying, he hatches the concept of the Time Regulation Institute, a nepotistic institution that defines its own function.
At last Hayri İrdal has a “surging sense of purpose”. He spends his early months at the Institute devising platitudinous slogans and exchanging gossip. As Hayit Ayarci impresses his political contacts with arcane colour-coded charts, the Institute goes into full swing, recruiting suitably talentless employees from their relatives and drinking buddies.
Although Hayri İrdal has always preferred a life in which “idleness, or wasting time, is a source of happiness” (in Pankaj Mishra’s words), they devise a system of fines for those whose timepieces are not synchronised with any other clock in view.
When an inspector notified a citizen of his fine, the offender would initially express surprise, but upon apprehending the form logic behind the system, a smile would spread across his face until, at last understanding this was a serious matter, he would succumb to uproarious laughter.
He refines the system by offering a discount to repeat offenders. The staff expands as they set up Regulation Stations, “small roadside posts where ladies and gentlemen could stop in to adjust their timepieces”.
Gradually he eases into his new role:
I began to use terms like “modification”, “coordination”, “work structure”, “mind-set shift”, “metathought”, and “scientific mentality”…
He muses on freedom:
Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. […] The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale—or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments. […] I have been made to understand that in our lifetime freedom has been kind enough to visit our country seven or eight times. Yes, seven or eight times, and no-one ever bothered to say when it left; but whenever it came back again, we would leap out of our seats in joy and pour into the streets to blow our horns and beat our drums.
Pondering the ever-growing roster of employees, Hayri İrdal suggests selecting those with experience, “people who have more or less worked for a certain period of time in a particular field”. Halit Ayarci rebuffs this idea:
“To be experienced means to be run down, frozen at some fixed point, and stuck with stagnant ideas. Such people are of no use to us.”
In a satire on Atatürk’s invention of tradition, after Hayri İrdal gives Halit Ayarci an account of the wonders of clock-making, though “never one for reading or writing”, he is persuaded to compose an entirely spurious biography of a 17th-century clockmaker, The life and works of Ahmet the Timely. His patron “was not at all mistaken when he divined the need for the illustrious Ahmet Zamani to have existed”, nor was he wrong when he assigned him to the reign of Mehmed IV.
Although a handful of armchair academics dismiss the work as a complete fabrication, it becomes a huge international success. Still, the enthusiasm of amiable Dutch scholar Van Humbert poses problems.
Finding the tomb of a man who never existed in mortal form is more difficult than you might imagine, as is surviving vigorous debate with a foreign scholar, even with the aid of an interpreter.
As Hayri İrdal becomes a celebrity, his wife joins in the deception with alacrity, embroidering a fantasy of their happy life together, to Hayit Ayarci’s delight:
To him, my continuing doubts about the existence of Ahmet the Timely and my rejection of my wife’s picture of me as a banjo-playing equestrian were all symptoms of the same malady.
“Your wife has presented you as the ideal modern man and still you doubt and deny it all!”
In a satire on the gullibility of the masses, Hayit Ayarci even concocts a successful singing career for our narrator’s tone-deaf sister-in-law:
You say she’s ugly, so from a contemporary point of view she’s sympathetic. You say her voice is wretched, which means it is emotive and conducive to certain styles. You say she has no talent—well then, without a doubt she is an original.
As the Institute extends its global reach, our hero designs a surreal clock-themed building in a satire on modernist architecture:
People moving up and down either wrought-copper staircase would be visible, as they would be encased in glass. I now saw I could arrange them diagonally across the centre of the hall to disrupt the traditional four leaf clover formation. Of course all the pillars—each one a little higher than the next—would be connected by little bridges so as to allow those moving up and down them to cross.
After a fractious final gathering, the Institute is consigned to continuous liquidation.
Apart from evoking Kafka and Borges, I was reminded of the stories of Švejk and his creator Hašek (whose Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Limits of the Law was designed partly to bolster the finances of the pub where the election meetings were held), as well as Flann O’Brien, with his annotations on the ouevre of de Selby, and his All-Purpose Speech.
The 2013 translation is adorned by an excellent Introduction by Pankaj Mishra (cf. his review). Putting the novel in global context, he reflects on Atatürk’s cultural revolution and the developing world’s “feckless programme of Westernisation” in the pursuit of secular and rational ideals, where “the onwards-and-upwards narrative of progress, dictated by the state and embraced by a gullible people, has contaminated everything.” Adducing Russia, Japan, Iran, China, and India, Mishra notes a “tragic mismatch between the intentions of these hasty modernizers and the long historical experience of the societies they wanted to remake in the image of the modern West”. As in his 1939 novel A mind at peace, Tanpinar suggests the deracine sense of arriving late, spiritually destitute, bewildered by the “tawdry illusions of modernity”. Hayri İrdal—“one of those superfluous semimodern men familiar to us from Russian literature: more acted upon than active, simmering with inarticulate resentments and regrets”—“has a keen appreciation of the absurdities of the self-perpetuating and self‑justifying bureaucratic state that embodies progress and enlightenment in Turkey”.
As an arcane warmup for the France–England match tomorrow: one of my favourite expressions, outstanding in its entitled pomposity, is this description of Teresa May’s Brexit plan from the patronising patrician lips of The Haunted Pencil:
the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200.
I’d love to slip the bon mot (oops) into a chat over a pint at the Aardvark and Climbing Boot, but so far even “vassalage” has proved beyond me. Still, it might work as a new model of car (“Tesla Vassalage SR”), or in a catchy pop lyric—an early draft by Ken Dodd, perhaps, interpreted in the suave tones of Wee-Smug himself:
With this government one doesn’t need such a long memory as Tree-Frog, whoever the Prime Minister is this week, presiding over “the greatest fiasco since the day before yesterday”. May we be released forthwith from this Tory vassalage!
* My attachment to Skibbereen goes back to a rainy evening fuelled by inordinate quantities of Guinness on a Mozart opera tour, also memorable for a brilliant story at an Armagh pub session. I briefly flirted with the idea of applying for the Skibbereen Philharmonic, undeterred by the fact that there isn’t one.
To their admirers, proper binmen embody a lost postwar idyll—and the decline in national character can be seen in the appalling state of their modern-day counterparts, who are rotten in spirit, in character and in service. […]
Back then, in an unspecified period between 1950 and 1980, the binmen were stronger, more hardworking and more polite. Not just that—back then, the binmen were happy. Everyone remembers them the same way: always cheerful, always smiling, frequently whistling. They always had a kind word for you, never complained, and always closed the gate. They took pride in their job, which was hard work, but honest work. These judgments are delivered with absolute certainty. Back then, “They were always a really friendly crowd who you could have a good laugh with,” writes one commenter. “Not like the bin men of today, you are very lucky if they respond to a ‘good morning’.”
The historic shift in bin collection is taken to mark a wider crisis in masculinity. “That is when men were men, not the wimps we have today,” writes one Facebook commenter. “All be off work with PTSD nowadays,” chimes in another. Proper binmen “didn’t care about Health & Safety Shite”, writes another. The plastic wheelie bins we have today—with their emasculating pastels, often colour-coded for recycling, and their humiliating, labour-saving wheels—are just further markers of our moral, social and spiritual decline.
The supporting cast to proper binmen includes proper football man and proper Labour man. The key is noble suffering.
Stern voices have clamoured to remind us that being dangerously cold, being desperately poor and enduring powercuts, broken supply chains, food shortages and cold baths has happened to Britons before, and it would probably do us good, if anything, if it happened again.
Among numerous other fetishes are
One pound notes. Queueing to use a phone box. Playing in the street and yelling “car!”. French cricket. Jam sandwiches. Scabby knees. Skipping. Coal fires. The slipper. The cane. The ruler. Getting a thick ear. Cumbersome lawnmowers. Ink wells. Duffle coats. Tin baths. Marbles. Jack Charlton. Forgetting your PE kit. Bus conductors. Bob-a-job week. Wooden ice-cream spoons. Snakes and Ladders. Ponchos. Beans on toast. Men opening doors for women. Slow dancing to Nat King Cole. Worzel Gummidge. Sweets by the ounce. Icicles hanging from the window frame (“Before central heating!”). Miss World (“All natural. Not a bit of botox in sight”). The power cuts of 1972–4 (“we coped, we were strong”). Scrubbing and polishing your front steps (“That’s when people had pride in where they lived”). Outdoor toilets. Cigarette machines. Flares. Playing in bombsites. Jumping in puddles.
The list could run and run—one might add cheery bus conductors, or the “innocent” sexism of Carry on films and “saucy” seaside postcards, for instance.
As Hancox notes, the rich and powerful profit from the philosophy of “We had it tough. We kept calm and carried on. We didn’t complain. We muddled through. We made do. We mended. It never did us any harm. It made us who we are”.
Underpinning this celebration of suffering is the masochistic idea that it is your individual responsibility—indeed an important test of your character—to withstand ruinous social and economic crises not of your making. […]
Elizabeth II herself was, we can reasonably assume from the tributes which followed her death, a proper Queen. Under the headline “The Queen’s 1950s frugality is key to our future”, one Times columnist praised her for being “naturally parsimonious”, personifying not obscene wealth and the plundered spoils of Empire, but the halcyon moment of High Binmenism, at some point in the 1950s, before the end of the Chatterley ban andthe Beatles’ first LP. “In this age of Amazon Prime and Kim Kardashian-style super-rich spending, her frugality may seem quaint,” Alice Thomson wrote, “but it feels timely. As the cost of living crisis hits, everyone is looking for ways to cut back, taking a Thermos of coffee to work, eating leftovers for lunch and sewing on lost buttons.” That even a literal Queen has to be explained in this way suggests how deep Binmenism goes.
Alongside their mission to excavate the rubble of the past, the Facebook nostalgia communities often pour scorn on the objects and rituals of today’s zeitgeist, in particular the damage done by technology. Computer games, smartphones, social media and TV are seen to create a disenchanted childhood, lacking in imagination, adventure and risk.
The vitality of the nostalgia industrial complex is a reminder of just how appealing it is to have your private reminiscences, buried memories, and hazy childhood images validated by others—whatever your age. It is a source of comfort to know you are not mistaken, that your version of your life’s story is shared. […]
Our gaze seems to inevitably turn backwards. The politics of the past few years abound with a desire for a return to an imagined, halcyon former version of Britain. This is true of both sides of the Brexit referendum; for remainers, there is often wistful talk of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony or the New Labour period, while Brexiteers look back further into history.
Brexit, like the Memory Lane UK posts, partly speaks to an existential sadness about the passage of time and the desire for revenge on what we imagine it has done to us. You can only take back control if you have become convinced you once had it, and have had it torn from your grasp. […]
The nationalist leader holds out the promise of restoring things to how they were, including all the forms of brutality—such as capital punishment, back-breaking physical work, patriarchal domination—that social progress had consigned to history. For reasons Freud would have understood, this isn’t as simple as wanting life to be more pleasurable, but a deep desire to restore a political order that made sense, in spite of its harshness. It is a rejection of progress in all its forms.
All this can shade into racist memes like attacking the toppling of statues, criticising BLM, and advocating for “proper” history to be taught “again”. At least the current “government” is doing its utmost to restore rationing and poverty—and the return of child chimney-sweeps would doubtless be popular in certain quarters (cf. The Haunted Pencil’s paean to “uplifting” food banks). Our relationship with the NHS, and the migrants who continue to make it work, is another much-discussed aspect of post-war British identity (succinctly, see e.g. this 2008 article).
Hancox cites an LSE report into class identity, which interviewed “successful TV producers, actors, and architects who all brushed aside their own private schooling, housing security, and material privilege to foreground a single grandparent who was a coal miner”.
But he also notes a more tolerant strain of humanist libertarianism, concluding:
It is not good enough to merely dismiss the Facebook nostalgics’ sepia-tinted version of history out of hand, if you care about Britain today. The proper binmen are living inside many of us, pulling our strings and guiding us not just down memory lane, but into the future.
Actually, such connections, like apparently random passengers stuck on the Orient Express in the snow, or indeed on the Northern Line, are kinda part of my Masterplan—I do indeed relish making bold leaps in my sequence of posts.
Cf. Global audiences, where viewings by country resemble an Olympic medals table. Hours of Harmless Fun for All the Family…
With “mistakes” (closely followed by denials—notably Brexit) having become routine under this evil Tory regime, I’m reminded that I’ve always been fond of the Italian sbaglio (verb sbagliare), with the appealingly economical negative prefix s- creating an expressive diphthong. Admittedly in this case a positive version baglio/bagliare is elusive, but it reminds me of other words equivalent to English dis-, such as
Returning to “mistakes”: in British politics, “misjudgements” that have appalling social and economic consequences can now be casually brushed aside with a patrician air of disdain. In China, however (as throughout the socialist bloc), “making a mistake” (fan cuowu 犯错误), a catch-all for political, sexual, and indeed clerical misdemeanours, is now used humorously—despite (or because of) its Maoist heritage, with the disastrous personal and familial consequences that could ensue from innocent infringements against the fluctuating political orthodoxy of the day, or entirely innocuous casual remarks—cf. Goulash deviationism, China: commemorating trauma, and movies such as Blue kite and Living. In documents from the Maoist era the term is a sparse hint of such faux pas, as under The Houshan Daoists, requiring us to read between the lines (see my review of the Anthology of the folk music of the Chinese peoples).
As you see in my note to Perfection is NOT the word for it, my skills on the baize are rudimentary, having been only modestly maintained on orchestral tours on the back of a bus, suitably lubricated by alcohol. By now I’m even more out of practice than usual, but among a wealth of such problems I find this one particularly charming. Like the abstract beauty of dhrupad, it’s an infinite world.
I can’t see the solution online, but after the opening spade lead from West (almost inevitable, one would think, though it’s the only lead that makes the grand slam possible!) all thirteen tricks must be won in dummy—to which end, declarer must first discard the ❤️A and K on the two opening spade tricks, and then discard all the top diamonds on dummy’s four heart tricks!
Naktsang Nulo, My Tibetan childhood: when ice shattered stone (English translation 2014, by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo).
Another account of the catastrophe that befell the Tibetan region of Amdo, it contains harrowing material of a kind only hinted at by Shawo Tsering (cf. When the iron bird flies).
Remarkably, the original, in Amdo Tibetan (title translated as “Joys and sorrows of the Naktsang boy“), was published in China “for internal distribution” in 2007, near the end of a relatively relaxed period in the region. It was soon pirated widely; versions were published in standard Tibetan by Tibetan exiles in India in 2008 and, in Chinese, in Taiwan three years later—by which time it had apparently been banned in the PRC.
As Robbie Barnett observes in his substantial and typically wise introduction,
As the first uncensored recollection published within Tibet of events erased by a half century of enforced forgetfulness, it epitomised the process of collective remembering that appears to have transformed and energised Tibetan cultural life at this time, fuelling a reemergent and potent sense of nationhood.
Outsiders had little access to the voices of ordinary Tibetans (especially those from the eastern regions) until the 1990s, when accounts of Amdo history since the 1950 Chinese occupation began to surface, led by Charlene Makley, Li Jianglin with Matthew Akester, and later by scholars such as Benno Weiner. Robbie also refers to other Tibetan accounts from the period when Naktsang Nulo’s memoir was published.
Northeastern Tibet, showing places and territories mentioned in the text,
with routes taken by the author to Lhasa, fleeing the Chinese army, and on march to prison.
It’s always important to bear in mind the usages of the word “Tibet”—as ever, Robbie gives a cogent account:
Today, in the era of nation-states, single terms for the whole area are much more in vogue, and the northeastern part of the Tibetan plateau is now referred to by Tibetans most frequently as Amdo, while the name Kham is used for the eastern and southeastern areas. Amdo and much of Kham were not consistently ruled by Lhasa after about 1700, although in brief periods up until the 1930s the Tibetan army was able to regain control of one or other border zone in Kham. In this period most of the numerous localities, chiefdoms, and so on within Amdo and Kham fell under the administration of the western Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan. But Chinese rule in these Tibetan areas was largely nominal until sometime in the late 1950s, as Naktsang demonstrates in his book.
As he explains, exiles and their supporters now commonly use the word “Tibet” to refer to the entire Tibetan snow-land as a political unit, one that was ruled in the past by a single administration. Ironically, by the late 1950s, “facing the experience of invasion, many eastern Tibetans reverted to a probably half-forgotten or perhaps half-invented memory of political unity”.
There are thus at least three Tibets—one recognised by China as the administrative area ruled by the Dalai Lamas until 1950 and limited to the western and central parts of the plateau, another referring to the common cultural and historic heritage found throughout the plateau, and a third implying a single political entity covering all the Tibetan areas. […]
Whether intended or not, the moral logic of his memoir implies a sense of common purpose among Tibetans, irrespective of their location on the plateau, fuelled by their similar experience of Chinese policies in the 1950s.
Robbie reminds us of the seminal importance of Amdo in Tibetan religion, economy, and literature (see e.g. chapters in Conflicting memories).
Born in 1949 in Chugama village in Machu county, Ganlho Prefecture, just east of the Golok region in south Gansu, Naktsang Nulo spent most of his childhood in nearby Chumarleb county, in Yushu (Jyekundo) prefecture of Qinghai province. The memoir describes his early life until he entered school in 1959. For most of his later career he was based in Chumarleb, serving until his retirement in 1993 as an official in the Chinese government, with successive positions as schoolteacher, police officer, judge, prison official, and county leader.
Robbie identifies the significance of the book—in particular the impact of the PLA’s arrival in the area, “the first time that Tibetans there had experienced administration by outsiders at the grassroots level”.
It reinserts long-erased memories into the knowledge bank of younger generations in his community, who until now have had severely limited access to information about their past. And it gives an account, in all senses, of the costs of China’s initial state-building project in Tibetan areas a half century ago: with little comment or condemnation, it records the price paid in lives and lifestyles by the author’s family and community for their incorporation into modern China. It also serves for outsiders as a vivid reminder that events, even those involving widespread atrocities and occurring at pivotal moments in a nation’s history, can be removed from the record in the aftermath of nation-building, lost in the waves of deliberate erasure, ideological preference, and state-driven selectivity that take place at such times.
He contrasts exile Tibetan and Chinese historiography:
The Tibetan version involved much eliding of their complex relations with China in the past, as well as of stark inequities in their social system, while the Chinese narrative involved overlooking Tibet’s history of separate governance, its largely autochthonous cultural and social evolution, and earlier forms of obvious national spirit and belief. These forms of forgetfulness were not equivalent: the Tibetan exiles promoted their version through propaganda and persuasion, often with endorsement from the work of foreign scholars, while the Chinese version of history was implemented more or less coercively. […]
Naktsang Nulo’s memoir provided an account of history that undermined to some extent the versions told by both sides. It did this not by making any statements about Tibet’s political status in the past but by telling that story with some degree of nuance and complexity.
And he elaborates:
My Tibetan Childhood thus represents a moment of coalition between two generations. The older Tibetans, schooled in the necessary arts of silence by their witnessing of numerous state-inflicted deaths and punishments in earlier years, looked across Naktsang’s narrative toward the younger generation, already energised by a growing awareness of a distinctive cultural and religious heritage that seemed to them endangered. The story that it told seemed to say, though not in so many words, that there was a substantive historical basis for the sense of loss and deprivation, and for the feeling that a future had been denied, implicit in the dissatisfactions expressed among Tibetans in the Amdo area, as in Lhasa too, after the turn of the millennium. Before Naktsang’s book appeared, the only knowledge that could have given substantial basis for such ideas would probably have been largely limited to private conversations, smuggled exile propaganda, and ambiguous pop songs about unity, long-lost friends, and separation from one’s homeland. With its patient, detailed, uneditorialised accounting of historical atrocities, seemingly inflicted without reason or explanation by an outside force fifty years earlier, Naktsang’s book provided an intellectual foundation for thoughts and emotions already circulating within his community, a story of the past that made sense of those emotions. […]
In many senses, it is a naive story, the chronicle of a world seen through a child’s eyes. But to readers within Tibet, it was a revelation. It told of epochal events that had rarely if ever been described before in print, and it used a style and approach that ignored the conventions and requirements of history writing in China, let alone in its Tibetan regions.
Thus his child’s perspective is “free of the rituals and requirements of socialist writing practices”. Presented as a story about a boy’s wish to return to his home, the book seems to downplay political messages.
The words “China,” “the Party,” “Communism,” and “policy” are not found in the text. Even the place-names Gansu and Qinghai do not appear, although the action takes place within those provinces; it is as if they have no meaning or significance for the author. There is no reference to class, local lords are not described as feudal, the Tibetan administration in Lhasa is not referred to as a “local government,” exploitation and abuse are criticised in moral terms but not politically, and the concepts of oppression and liberation are not invoked. […]
The teacher in charge of the “Joyful Home” tells the author, “Thanks to our leader, Mao Zedong, we have enough to eat and drink,” just before the famine starts, and again, after the famine has concluded, when the same teacher announces to those who have survived, “Thanks to Chairman Mao Zedong, we will have rice soup to drink, starting tomorrow”. There is no hint as to whether these profoundly grotesque statements should be considered ironic, innocent, forced, or tragic, or even if they should be judged at all. Political terminology has been removed from the text along with judgment, separating it from the body of public writing about history in China. This is thus a book in which what is not said about the past is as important as what is declared.
There was clearly little if any presence of Chinese or Hui forces in the author’s area before 1958, even though the PLA had taken over Qinghai nine years earlier, and in most ways people in the nomad areas still ruled themselves.
Naktsang’s early life in his nomad community was permeated by encounters with Buddhist monasteries and lamas. As the family made a 1,500-mile pilgrimage over six months to and from Lhasa, Naktsang gives
an unusually frank impression of life in Lhasa and central Tibet, where the Golok pilgrims are shocked by scenes of utter destitution and by forms of corporal punishment that even they, no strangers to punitive violence, appear to consider extraordinarily brutal.
But on their return, just as he was becoming a monk at the Chugama monastery, his father was arrested by the vindictive head of discipline there and subjected to 1,500 lashes “for what seems to have been a breach of etiquette”.
Until around 1956 the PLA troops were still considered “relatively benign”; when Naktsang was taken to see the Panchen Lama on another pilgrimage to Labrang monastery, it was a PLA soldier who helped him receive a blessing (this was the very Panchen Lama who in 1962 denounced the desperate circumstances of Tibetans in his native Amdo).
But by 1958 tensions were escalating rapidly, and the story becomes ever more harrowing. Back in Chuguma again, a local army was formed to protect the community from the PLA. As Naktsang’s father told him:
Everyone in our chiefdom went to the army as the chiefs ordered. Men over 15 and under 60 have been sent to Sogpo. Our army has already driven out the Chinese land surveyors and killed at least 100 soldiers. But a few days ago all the lamas and chiefs in Tsu were arrested secretly by the Chinese. All the monasteries in the Achong Lhade chiefdom have been destroyed. I heard that about 500 Chinese troops are marching to attack us, and they’ll probably be here tomorrow.”
Recalling his experiences at Labrang, young Naktsang can’t envisage the threat:
I had seen the Liberation Army many times before, when we were staying at Labrang monastery. They had given us beans and candy, and smiled at us as they marched past. Because of that, I had no fear of walking near the soldiers. When the troops arrived at the line of monks, all of them were given darkhas. They applauded in return and handed the darkhas back to the tulkus and lamas.
But as the PLA occupied Chugama, arresting the principal lamas and tulkus, people realised how grave the situation was. As resistance was crushed, in detailed chapters Naktsang tells how the locals were intimidated into destroying their own precious monastery. He now embarked with his father in a group of twelve monks and laymen, including several teenagers (Naktsang was only 10), on another pilgrimage to Lhasa—this time in search of refuge from the Chinese invaders. On their perilous journey they learned of further Chinese atrocities, and were fearful that Lhasa might be in the midst of similar destruction. Along the way they fought off PLA troops; but Naktsang’s father died after being wounded, and the others were forced to surrender.
The final section, “Torture and imprisonment, starvation and survival”, tells of the consequences of that failed flight over the following year, as Naktsang and those around him were integrated into the dominance of the Chinese state.
In captivity he was taken under the wing of the kindly lamas Ganden Wula and Sera Lama (“Ganden Wula is respected by the Chinese. He’ll be able to chant rituals—they’ll let him.”). They were taken back to Chumarleb in a group of about 300 prisoners, roped together in lines of six. On the way, in reprisal, Chinese troops cajoled the local crowd into beating the two lamas to death along with four of their followers.
When they arrived at Chumarleb they were thrown into a hole in the prison yard—one of nine such holes, each containing about four hundred prisoners. Five or six died every day. As famine further intensified their desperation (for the appalling devastation in the PRC, see this roundup), after 18 hellish days Naktsang and his older brother were released, staying briefly in the nearby town before starting school, consisting of large tents housing around a thousand children—most of whose parents had been arrested.
The school still apparently functioned quite normally over Chinese [sic] New Year, but three months later food supplies dwindled severely; as they resorted to eating leather and sheepskin, people began to die. Those from erstwhile wealthy families succumbed more quickly; poor children like Naktsang, more capable of fending for themselves, had to dispose of the corpses. Within three months, only fifty-three children remained from over a thousand, and only ten old people from six hundred.
This is the book’s only image from the period described in the memoir;
other illustrations show archive photos of Amdo and Lhasa from before the Chinese occupation.
As the famine eased, Naktsang found some of his recently-released fellow prisoners, who took him to herd sheep and calves at the grazing commune where they had been released. On 30th December 1959 he became a student at Chumarleb County School. He ends the book innocuously and astutely:
Now we have grown up and are able to practice our religion and dedicate prayers to him. We are also certain that we will have the chance to return to our native land, and all our relatives will greet us.
Naktsang Nulo (right) with his older brother Japé, 2012. Photo: Xénia de Heering.
* * *
In his introduction Robbie Barnett updates the story:
In 2013, five years after his book was published, [Naktsang] wrote a column that spoke out for the first time about the wave of immolations that had swept across Tibet. It was unprecedented in its explicitness. […] We can now see him not as an autobiographer who dared to speak about the past or an intellectual who speaks truth to power but as a strategic communicator and conciliator, an ex-official who pioneered unique pathways by which to negotiate the contours and crevices of the state system in the quest to widen public debate and understanding on topics never previously allowed. Where he had used the convention of childish innocence to enable the act of public recollection, he now uses concession to others’ values to plead for moderation in policy. A project that began as a handing down of the past to coming generations has become a quiet search for ways to nurture a thinking Tibetan public, rich with knowledge of its history as well as of its responsibilities and limitations.
*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*
Mahler 9 is always deeply moving in concert (I’ve just revised my original post). Last weekend I went to hear the Concertgebouw orchestra playing it under Daniel Harding at the Barbican (reviewed here).
The Concertgebouw has a venerable tradition of performing Mahler; they gave the Dutch premiere of the 9th with Mengelberg in 1918, and it was a core part of their repertoire with Haitink. The relationship continues under Daniel Harding.
Mahler’s most monumental symphonies often stand alone, but some conductors such as S-Simon and Salonen (see under The art of conducting) like to precede them with a suitably challenging overture. So the concert opened with the UK premiere of Rick van Velhuizen’s mais le corps taché d’ombres for harp and strings.
In Mahler 9 the orchestra sounded just fabulous, a perfectly blended ensemble. Though, remarkably, there were a few empty seats (I mean, I love Strictly, but really…), after a long, reverent silence the performance inevitably got a standing ovation. Never miss an opportunity to hear the symphony!
Lest you suppose I’m carried away by Western Art Music (as indeed I am), it’s still worth consulting What is serious music?!.
Apart from feeling mildly guilty at defecting from Tang history, another spinoff of my current decluttering is rediscovering random notes from my time editing and indexing volumes of The Cambridge History of China. I’ve already listed some jocular citations from Han and Tang history, so here’s a sequel with gems that I may not have sneaked into the indexes.
An Lushan the Man
beauty, no harem
Liang, Later dynasty; Liang, Even Later dynasty
wife, monopoly tax
* * *
Meanwhile, here are some out-takes from my index to the 1981 English translation of Henri Maspero’s Taoism and Chinese religion:
Eating Filthy Things
forgetting the body
heavy breathing ho-ho hot breath
sitting down and losing consciousness
vermin, buried in
* * *
I also discovered some more drôle pronouncements on Tang music—we can probably hazard a guess at their author:
“Secular, amnesic, notational dyslexia in the reading of post-13th century flute notations of Tōgaku pieces”
—apparently “people forgetting how to play old scores”:
Perhaps this was a piece in which interest was quickly lost, a piece picked up as an item of temporary fashionable interest, but for which no interest remained after the Chinese court itself had lost interest following the An Lushan rebellion.
The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.
Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….
Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!
The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
While emojis like 👍 and ❤️ have partly relieved us of the necessity to create new verbal expressions for approval, one may feel a certain nostalgia for bygone expressions like spiffing, ripping, top-notch, hunky-dory, and tickety-boo.
While the quaintness of such jovial expressions harks back to a broader class-base than the world of Jeeves and Wooster, I suppose they are now usually heard on the lips of a rather educated latter-day generation, with varying degrees of post-modern irony—including both rabid bendy-banana nostalgists and the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”.
The origin of tickety-boo is unclear. Though there doesn’t seem to be a written example before 1939, it appears to go back at least to the early 1920s—probably RAF slang, perhaps a combination of “that’s the ticket” (early 18th century) and “peek-a-boo” (or at least “boo”).
This elliptical first draft for a film script conjures up a picturesque gathering, setting the scene before introducing the host and his guests, their sporting pastimes followed by a sumptuous buffet:
Dinghy and catamaran on atoll; lootthug in choky. Cushy veranda of jungle bungalow (lacquered teak, calico palanquin, juggernaut; chintz cot, patchouli): Blighty mogul (mandarin) in pukka cashmere pyjamas. [The guests arrive:] Lilac cummerbunds (doolally!), khaki dungarees, pashmina (shawl), bangles with bandanas. Jodhpurs for polo and cheetah gymkhana. Tiffin (kedgeree with chutney) and tank of punch; candy and cheroot—tickety-boo!
* An alternative derivation from French, offered in the wiktionary entry, is also attractive: ce que t’es beau (“how beautiful you are”). Cf. “toodeloo”, said to be a corruption of tout a l’heure—even more quaint is toodle-pip.
From my plethora of posts on west and central Asia over the last year, you gather I’ve been spending lengthy periods in Istanbul. However, I seem to have obstinately resisted making any effort to acquire even the most basic language skills, like a sunburned expat wolfing chips on the Costa de Sol.
Ageing Weirdo’s Hard Drive Full
Entirely unsullied by grammar, my Turkish vocabulary is not just paltry but a tad selective. These gnomic vignettes, containing virtually my entire lexicon, are unlikely to feature in a phrase-book of essential items for the traveller (cf. That is the snake that bit my foot):
fal, manav (lokma), ezan, iskele (akbil!)—köşk sema (Aşik Sucu)—zurna, kanun
This (notional) scribbled schedule reminds me that after a coffee-reading * I have to drop in at the grocer’s to pick up some fruit offerings—coinciding with the call to prayer—and not to forget to take my travel card before boarding the ferry, en route for the belvedere to attend a ritual dance led by the celebrated dervish water-seller, and then to shop for a shawm and a zither.
Yet somehow such unpromising ventures result in a two-volume magnum opus (“bawdy swaggering outrageous best-seller“—TheIstanbul Bugle), a commentary to the recluse’s stammering discourse on the Divine Love of Sufi mysticism:
* Like Chinese dundian (“stay at a selected grass-roots unit to help improve its work and gain firsthand experience for guiding overall work”), fal is another of those succinct words whose English definition might be somewhat laborious: “fortune-telling by means of interpreting the grounds at the bottom of a cup of coffee”…
This preposterous idea had already been expounded in a 2020 review of The crown. So on behalf of the Wisdom of the Mystic East, I feel obliged to state the bleedin’ obvious: if you’re the Queen, then waving and shaking hands while wearing a hat and liking horses really doesn’t count as Being a Daoist. Just because British law prevented Queenie from wielding any influence on government, the fact that inaction was central to her “success” doesn’t make her a Daoist Sage Ruler, FFS. Like, hello?
“The sovereign must be empty of all desire, all thought, and all intentionality […]. A person without qualities, they offer no hold to others, for they are nothing but the mirror reflecting nothingness.” These precepts are oddly reminiscent of the Royal Family’s lifestyle.
OK… so we’ve been queueing overnight in the rain to pay homage to a person without qualities…
Freed from mundane worries (like affording the weekly shop, finding the rent, catching the rush-hour bus to a poorly-paid job, or struggling to book tickets for a budget holiday with the kids), One can put One’s feet up and watch Eastenders over a G&T in the knowledge that One will continue raking it in (helped by a creative accountant and valuable contacts) without having to do a day’s work in One’s entire life.
Beethoven wasn’t big on tunes; but melody wasn’t really the point.
In some ways we might see him as a precursor of minimalism. Too young to know any better, I immersed myself in his music through my teens; but later I tended to steer clear of his music, with honourable exceptions like the late quartets (and now the late E major piano sonata). For the thoughtful Susan McClary, he’s the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music.
To be fair, the 7th symphony is exhilarating, both to play and to listen to—DO bask in Carlos Kleiber‘s performance! As I comment in a note there, it seems unlikely that Wagner’s authority for calling the symphony “the apotheosis of the dance” was based on years as a regular on the Bayreuth clubbing scene.
The 1st movement eventually gets going with a wacky motif (the mot juste) on flutes:
Beethoven clearly reckons he’s onto something here, as he wastes no opportunity to repeat it, sometimes even on a different note (YAY! And again, yes I know that’s the point…). In the coda, after the bass section treats us to ten more bars of it, against a deep pedal point on E they start grinding away on a chromatic motif (now using all of three notes—I say, steady on!) (cf. Unpromising chromaticisms), like a dog with a bone:
The finale is obsessive too—without venturing too far into the art of conducting, Kleiber is exhilarating, highlighting its mechanical drive without making it seem too brutal. It opens with more minimalism from the hapless basses:
The violin, um, theme that it accompanies does have a lot of notes (progress), but unless conductors go to considerable lengths to adjust the balance, Beethoven’s instrumentation often drowns out the melody with manic off-beat sforzandi:
More unlikely chromaticism from the basses (another pedal point in the service of an exhilarating climax):
The symphony, built around ostinati, might be considered a response to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution—returning to Wagner and clubbing, maybe it’s the apotheosis of the techno garage trance dance. But for a really funky ostinato, how about Herbie Hancock?
I must confess that my musical examples above are no more successful in encapsulating Beethoven’s genius than were the Bolton Choral Society in summarising Proust…
Obviously, my roundup of Tory iniquity was never going to be able to keep up. I was hoping to allow the revamped “government” some peace to enjoy their honeymoon, as they gaze mistily into each other’s eyes, lips spittle-flecked with venom. But as a self-confessed member of the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati™, I already find myself unable to resist outlining some aspects of the current clusterfuck.
Just when we thought the Tories couldn’t possibly make themselves look any more ridiculous, last month’s “Home Secretary” followed up her repulsive “dream and obsession” Rwanda speech (see e.g. here and here) with another unhinged meltdown—introducing an intriguing culinary theme.
Shortly before Suella Braverman fell on her sword (not for being an authoritarian law-breaking racist bigot, but on a “technicality”—rather like Genghis Khan being unable to pursue the sacking of Europe due to an unpaid parking fine), in what turned out to be the last rant of her brief office she listed those responsible for the Just Stop Oil protests:
“It’s the Labour party, it’s the Lib Dems, it’s the Coalition of Chaos [Hello?], it’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the Anti-Growth Coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”
They can’t do Brussels, they can’t do unelected bureaucrats, can’t do immigrants… refugees is tricky, cos you just keep giving money to Rwanda, despite the fact that they’re not actually taking any… […] Single mothers just doesn’t work any more, the world has moved on, the nuclear family is in retreat […] Cyclists isn’t gonna work… What’s left??? Who on earth are brain-dead, Brexit-supporting Tory politicians going to pretend are your new enemies, in the hope of distracting you from the chaos and catastrophe that they continue to inflict upon your country?
Following on the heels of “PC gone mad“, the right-wing backlash against “woke” (“an awareness of injustice and the determination to do something about it”—see e.g. here and here) has been gathering steam, or hot air. Since this Sinister Cabal was exposed as the “Anti-Growth Coalition”, Twitter (“sewer of left-wing bile”) has been enjoying listing its members, such as this:
The Official Anti-Growth Coalition Membership List 👇
the AGC (“who are they exactly?”) Labour the Lib Dems the SNP militant unions vested interests dressed up as think tanks (!) talking heads Brexit deniers Extinction Rebellion lefty lawyers lefty nurses lefty traffic wardens lefty quantity surveyors the Archbishop of Canterbury all teachers Sadiq Khan the BBC cyclists anyone who criticises the Royals Meghan bloody Markle flexitarians magicians flamingos bus drivers who change shift—but not at a terminus Gary bloody Lineker people who watch mini-series on Apple TV triple-cooked chips anyone who played recorder at school mime artists the Dutch people who turn the corner of the page over when they’ve finished reading cockapoos anyone who’s had a temporary tattoo owners of more than three hardback cookbooks Pisceans anyone who got a Blue Peter badge the Keto diet plan Mumford—AND Sons people who keep the ramekins from Gu puddings cellists anyone who says “ooooh” when a birthday cake goes past them in a restaurant dressage fans smashed avocado the Tombliboos people who only like tennis when Wimbledon’s on Scouts the left-handed.
Since she is blessed with such media-savvy charisma, we can look forward to her glossy cookbook (cf. Prick with a Fork). It will surely be a best-seller—if anyone can still afford books, or food; and the spinoff prime-time TV series will also be compulsory viewing [sic: legislation being hurried through Parliament]—if anyone still has a TV and can afford to switch it on.
We can expect a wilting lettuce to form the basis of many recipes. But one dish that won’t be featuring is the delicious mapo tofu. Though basically white, it’s contaminated by suspicious-looking black beans and subversive Green leeks.
Despite the current Tofu amnesty, * with such a ringing endorsement, sales will be soaring—outranking even hummus and avocado, traditional dog-whistles for the anti-woke brigade.
* Among many others, Michael Rosen has taken up Tofu-gate with a vengeance:
The worry for parents is that our children or teenage offspring might find their way to Tofu, perhaps without realising it, thinking that it was perhaps halloumi or feta. Some catering outlets serve it up in soup where it is concealed behind noodles. Please be careful out there.
We need to go above and beyond Tofu-eating and consider the possibility of the Tofu-mentality: people who may not eat Tofu but have a Tofu mindset. They are a danger to the state because of their latent Tofu-ness.
Again, among targets that she sends up are the documentary format, her own persona, both elite and popular cultures, and indeed human history itself.
In the beginnings opens by exploring the achievements of early humans:
One thing they did invent was fire, which allowed them to see at night and kept them warm, tragically prolonging their already tedious lives.
Having conquered numbers, humankind moved on to something even more boring, by inventing writing.
The Ancient Greeks invented lots of things we still have today, like medicine and olives, and lots of things that have died out, like democracy and pillars.
And another invention:
Philosophy is basically thinking about thinking—which sounds like a waste of time, because it is.
Thanks to the volcano, we know everyday Romans had grey skin, were totally bald, and spent their time lying around inside their shockingly dusty houses. But it also preserved glimpses of how sophisticated Roman life was, with creature comforts like indoor plumbing and cunnilingus.
In Faith/off the intrepid Ms Cunk covers religion.
What’s ironic about Jesus Christ becoming a carpenter was that he was actually named after the two words that you’re most likely to shout after hitting your thumb with a hammer.
She perks up with an entirely gratuitous plug for an all-inclusive five-star resort near the temple of Kukulkan, “the last word in luxury”.
Islam represented a radical break from previous religions, because the buildings it happened inside were a slightly different shape.
And she asks
Why can’t the religions all learn to live together in peace, like they do in Ireland?
In The Renaissance will not be televised Ms Cunk sets the scene:
It’s the year 1440 (not now, but then, in 1440).
The historic present has always Got my Goat too.
Gutenberg’s press was the first of its kind in history—except Chinese history.
This is Florence—the Italians call it Firenze to try and stop tourists from finding it. […] Florence might look like a pointless mess today, but in the 15th century…
On the Mona Lisa:
Just looking at her prompts so many questions. Who is she? What’s she smiling about? Is she holding a balloon between her knees? And if so, what colour is it?
Turning to the New World,
After arriving in America to forge a life of honest hard work and toil, many of these colonists quickly discovered they couldn’t be arsed, so they stole people from Africa and made them do it instead.
Eventually Washington won, becoming America’s first president, the single most revered role in the world until 2016.
Rise of the machines opens with a succinct recap:
Last time we saw how the Renaissance turned Europe from a load of mud and parsnips into a posh resort full of paintings…
Americans back then weren’t the humble unassuming people they still aren’t today.
The North asked the South what kind of America it wanted to live in—one where white people leeched off other races while treating them as inferior, or one where they pretended they didn’t.
Following the Civil War,
Now Lincoln was President, at long last slavery was abolished, and replaced with simple racial prejudice.
Turning to recording,
Thanks to Edison’s pornograph, classical music could now bore an audience of millions.
She returns to the theme of femininism, on which she has already established her credentials;
Finally, with the vote, women could choose which man would tell them what to do.
Besides her collaboration with Charlie Brooker, in the final episode, War(s) of the World(s)?, “it’s easy to see why” she’s an admirer of the ouevre of Adam Curtis. Turning to Russia, Tsar Nicolas
was allowed to rule the country like a dictator, which I’ve been advised to say isn’t how Russia works today. […]
A world like this, where the masses toil for pennies while a tiny elite grow rich, seems so obviously unfair and unthinkable to us today. We can scarcely imagine what it must have been like.
As to 1950s’ America,
Adverts were so influential that it made viewers at home want to be the sort of person who bought things too. They’d work hard to get money, to buy a car, so they could drive to the shops and buy more things, which they’d have to pay for by going back to work, which made them miserable, so they’d cheer themselves up by going out and buying more things, which they’d have to work to pay for.
On the birth of popular culture:
Unlike normal culture, which was paintings and Beethoven, this was stuff people actually enjoyed.
For decades, pioneering black artists had steadily built on each other’s work to develop an exciting new musical form for white people to pass off as their own.
Moving on to the technological revolution, the Apple Macintosh was
the world’s first inherently smug computer.
smartphones revolutionised the way people interact, by providing a socially acceptable way to ignore everyone around us.
But we’re not lonely—thanks to social media, it’s quicker and easier to bond with millions of others over something as simple as a cat photo or the ritual shaming of a stranger.
* * *
Dr Shirley Thompson’s musicological expertise somewhat under-used
in fielding fatuous questions like
“Would it be fair to say the Rolling Stones were the Beatles of their day?”.
To help her unlock the mysteries of human civilisation Ms Cunk consults a range of academics, asking penetrating questions like “Why are pyramids that shape—is it to stop homeless people sleeping on them?”, “Has a mummy ever ridden a bicycle?”, and “Is there a Great Roof of China?”. Scholars such as Jim Al-Khalili, Douglas Hedley, and Ashley Jackson manage to keep a straight face, even as she disputes their so-called expert views with stories about “my mate Paul”, recommending them helpful YouTube videos wat ‘e sent ‘er. The Cunk interview is fast becoming the hallmark of the public intellectual; and I now feel that it should be a compulsory ordeal, a rite of passage for any aspiring lecturer. As Rebecca Nicholson’s review observes:
You could spend a lot of time wondering whether the interviewees are in on the joke or not; if they are in on it completely, it ruins the gag, which surely works best if they think Cunk is deadly serious. The same is true for viewers, in a way. If you look closely enough, you can see that there’s a formula: compare old thing to new thing, ask anachronistic question, wait for baffled response. In both cases, though, I don’t think it matters. None of the academics seem to think they are being mocked, nor are they trying to be funny; likewise, it’s so hilarious and well-written that if you can occasionally see the bare bones poking out, it isn’t much of an issue.
The interview in Cunk on Shakespeare, where she quizzes Ben Crystal on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up, remains a great favourite of mine:
This series has a new, mystifying musical leitmotif, introduced by fine links such as
Descartes inspired an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, during which metrosexual elitists published essays that expanded humankind’s horizons in a manner that will go unmatched until the 1989 release of Belgian techno anthem Pump up the jam… [cue music].
Philomena Cunk attains a level of vacuity with which no-one outside the current government could compete. Too bad she’s over-qualified to serve as the next Prime Minister.
Just when we thought this shower couldn’t possibly get any worse, they’re really surpassing themselves, with a new crop of evil self-serving xenophobic bigots! So I was spurred on to add a new tag Tory, from which I offer some highlights:
Many posts were “inspired” by Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson:
The quest for the exotic—and Marrakech. For another numinous London transport hub, click here.
Having regaled you with several stories of the 94 bus, gateway to the Mystic East (links here), I can now show my versatility with an encounter on another bus.
On Monday, en route to my daily swim, I climbed aboard at Chiswick High Road to find an old codger [Around your age?—Ed.] [Look, I’ve warned you about this—SJ] shouting loudly and somewhat menacingly at his fellow passengers: *
“If anyone’s going all the way to Hounslow Bus Station, just be aware that it takes about two and a half hours! It goes All Round The World!”
Wow, just imagine—the souks of Marrakech, the oases of Central Asia, the fabled Machu Picchu… and all for the price of a bus ticket to Hounslow. Who needs eighty days—I mean it’s not like there can be that much to see (cf. “I mean, what is there in Greece?”). More gazing at flowers from horseback. Anyway, rather than taking the opportunity to bathe in the limpid blue waters of Tianshan Lake, I got off up the road at the pool as usual. **
I won’t divulge the bus route, lest it become wildly over-subscribed.
** Seriously though folks, around the late 1990s, when we London musos still had quite a bit of work, I got a phone-call from an orchestral fixer: “Steve, can you pencil in a big world tour for next year, second half of September to late October, Bach and Handel programme with the choir… Starts in the Far East, then round Australia, west to east coast of the States, finishing up with European capitals and the UK”. YAY, I thought.
Couple of months later, phone rings again: “Hi Steve, just to update you, it’s looking like the tour’ll begin on the 28th September, and we should be back in London by 18th October.” Um, OK…
Later in the year (with undiminished enthusiasm): “Steve, we’ve just got those dates confirmed—it’s now going to be one concert in Singapore on 3rd October, and then Birmingham on the 8th.”
George Melly (1926–2007) was one of the great characters of the London trad jazz scene.
He described his early escapades frankly in
Owning-up(1965), a most delightful and perceptive memoir (cf. Lives in jazz).
Forced as he was at prep school to listen to the cricket on the radio,
even now the sentence “and we return to the studio” holds an irrational beauty.
Very often the announcer, in a suitably apologetic voice, would introduce a record by Ambrose and his Orchestra or Roy Fox and his Band. At this, the headmaster, with the hysterical violence which characterised all his movements, would push back his chair and attempt to silence the ancient set before the first note.
If, as usually happened, the switch came off in his hand, he would drown the music, as he fumbled to replace it on its axle, by shouting “Filthy jazz!” at the top of his voice.
Sitting po-faced under a sepia photography of giraffes in the East African bush, I would mentally add jazz to Bolshevism and the lower classes (“Spurni profanum vulgus”) as things I was in favour of.
All over wartime Britain the same thing was happening. […] Suddenly, as if by spontaneous combustion, the music exploded in all our heads.
After Stowe he joined the Navy as an ordinary seaman, taking his gramophone and records on board ship, dreaming of New Orleans. In this same period his other interest was Surrealism, and after demob he began working for E.L.T. Mesens in his newly-opened London Gallery. Eventually he got to hear live revivalist jazz, as trad was known then. Hanging out at Humphrey Littleton’s weekly sessions, he began exploring clubs in the suburbs.
I resolved to become an executant. Too lazy to learn an instrument, I had decided to sing. *
He went to Eel Pie Island on the Thames to hear Cy Laurie’s band:
After I had drunk several pints at a bar half painted to look like the window of a Spanish Hacienda, I asked Cy if I could sing. He couldn’t think of any excuse so I did.
He soon found his groove—in John Mortimer’s words, “singing with the raucous charm of an old Negress, so easily attained by those educated at Stowe”.
George and Mick.
As he teamed up with Mick Mulligan, his work at the gallery suffered: “what had been vague inefficiency turned into inspired anti-commercial delirium”. He notes the conflicting credos of trad jazzers and beboppers (the latter being the main topic of my series on jazz):
The revivalists began with the old records, and only learned to play because they loved a vanished music, and wished to resurrect it. Depending on their purism, they drew a line at some arbitrary date and claimed that no jazz existed after it. The modernists did this in reverse. Nothing existed pre-Parker. […]
Very slowly things changed, initially on a personal level. The two schools began to meet socially to argue and listen. Eventually some of the traditionalists became modernists or mainstreamers, and others began to realise that Gillespie and Parker, Monk and Davis were not perverse iconoclasts but in the great tradition, and the modern musicians stopped imagining that bebop had sprung fully armed from the bandstand at Mintons, but had its roots in the early history of the music.
The contrasting ethos was also displayed in the two camps’ sartorial tastes, with George soon creating his own distinctive style.
He branched out from his early homosexuality, with no moral decision involved. After years of patient suffering, his landlord served him with a brilliant eviction notice:
… I have endured your drunken and dissolute ways, your wanton waste of light, gas fire, hot bath water, horse radish, beans, lavatory water, your assumption that my library was yours… I never reproached you when you made this house a doss for band boys and barrow spivs, nor when you plastered the walls of a lovely room with obscenities and childish scrawls…
As the band began making a name, they traveled to seedy suburban jazz clubs via second-hand car lots on bomb sites, and set off on tours of the provinces.
After one session George was head-butted by a young thug wielding a bottle.
I was anaesthetised by fear. I subconsciously did the only thing that might work and it did. I took out of my pocket a small book of the sound poems of the dadaist Kurt Schwitters, explained what they were, and began to read. The book was knocked out of my hand, but I bent and picked it up again, and read on:
langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi Ookar. langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi Ookar. Rackerterpaybee Rackerterpaybay Ookar. langerturgle pi pi pi pi pi etc.
Slowly, muttering threats, they moved off. I can’t explain why it worked, but I suspect that it was because they needed a conventional response in order to give me a going over. If I’d pleaded or attempted to defend myself, or backed against the wall with my arm over my face, I think I’d have had it.
Leading lights on the scene included Ken Colyer, purist stalwart of the trad jazz church, and Humph, who George recalls listening to a modern jazz record and then turning away with the remark, “Back to sanity and 1926!”. In later years on I’m sorry I haven’t a clue Humph would introduce his deadpan put-downs of the show’s long-suffering pianist Colin Sell by intoning languidly, “Listeners may be interested to know that…”
The Mulligan band performed for the 1951 Festival of Britain (cf. Stella Gibbons), “that gay and imaginative flyleaf dividing the grey tight-lipped puritanism of the years of austerity from the greedy affluence which was to come”.
Mick had a “pathological hatred of rehearsal”. This story of a banjo player, a “kind-hearted formidable pissartist”, takes me back to our ordeal playing Handel in Göttingen:
The replacement of a broken string was a comic performance in itself. He would hold the banjo about two inches from his nose and with slow glassy-eyed deliberation fail time and time again to thread the new string onto the key. Eventually by the law of averages he succeeded, tuned his instrument with conscientious precision and then, often only a bar or two later, another one would snap.
As George lost his job at the gallery, his sexual education continued in a world of scrubbers (see below), knee-tremblers, and bunk-ups. The band turned professional (using the word loosely), playing all over Britain in dance halls, whose décor he evokes poetically. It was a relief to play in jazz clubs. He pays homage to the transport caff; while some were disgusting, “with congealed sauce around the necks of the bottles and pools of tea on the table with crusts of bread floating in them”, others had gleaming juke-boxes and pin-tables and fruit machines, clean tables, and hot, edible food. Such caffs provided
a few minutes of light and warmth in the dark cold hours between leaving the dance hall where the old caretaker and his one-eyed dog snooze over a tiny electric fire, and climbing into bed in the London dawn, grey and shivering from lack of sleep.
He evokes the cellar clubs of Soho, frequented by taxi-drivers, clip-joint hostesses, waiters, small-time criminals, and jazz musicians. In 1952 at their basement club in Gerard street, Mick and George organised all-night raves—a term which Mick apparently coined with his manager Jim Godbolt. George traces the ebb and flow of the revivalist scene, with vignettes on the motley crew of aficionados who kept the flame burning.
Soon after their coach crashed in the Lincolnshire night, Mick dismantled the band, offering to manage George as a solo singer. Changes were afoot in their corner of the jazz world. Ken Colyer came back from New Orleans “like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Law”. Humph “was in full revolt against his revivalist past”, eventually settling for mainstream, the small-band jazz of the late 30s–early 40s. Cy Laurie’s cellar club in Windmill street did well, his all-night raves more financially viable than those of Mick and George, before he went off to India on a Quest for a different kind of Truth.
George was ecstatic to hear Big Bill Broonzy at the Conway Hall, the first American jazzman to appear in England after the war (cf. Ronnie Scott and my Chinese-music mentor Ray Man getting to hang out with their American idols in the early 60s), though he found Alan Lomax’s lengthy introduction paternalistic. The visit featured memorable all-night sessions, and on Big Bill’s trip to Liverpool he stayed with George’s parents.
By 1955 Mick couldn’t resist returning to the fray, and George couldn’t resist singing with his re-formed band, staying with him for the next seven years despite other tempting offers. He relays a story from clarinettist Ian Christie:
Mick was very drunk and playing a solo. His control was minimal, his head entirely empty of any constructive ideas. His timing gone. All he could do was blow unbearably loudly, his neck swollen, his eyeballs popping with effort. Ian listened with irritation. When somebody is playing as badly as that it reflects on everybody in the band. Finally Mick finished his thirty-two bars of nothing, and waved his bell in the direction of the trombonist to tell him to take the next chorus. He turned to Ian, his face running with sweat:
“All the noise and vulgarity of Freddy Randall,” he said, “with none of the technique.”
Although jazz and WAM may seem far apart, such hooliganism, like the antics of the band on the road, reminds me of the orchestral scene in the 70s, complete with intemperate excess and practical jokes (see Deviating from behavioural norms!). With the personnel of Mick’s band constantly fluctuating, George gives affectionate portraits of its miscreants’ foibles.
By 1954 Chris Barber was taking over the mantle of Ken Colyer on the trad scene. But just then
a whole new world was in the process of being born, and we were entirely unaware of it. I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “teenager”. I don’t know at what point I began to take in the teenage thing. I doubt many other people can either.
They decided Rock around the clock was a drag, and were underwhelmed by Elvis. But what was changing was the new group identity of young fans. George became aware of the trend through meeting Tommy Steele on a transmission for the embryonic medium of television. Later, sharing a bill with him, he realised what a huge youth following Tommy had, their “orgiastic cries of worship” foretelling the death of jazz. Still, they managed to ride the storm, playing for loyal jazz club audiences. George also notes the rise of skiffle, revived yet again by Ken Colyer, making a star of Lonnie Donegan.
On a Scottish tour in 1955 George got married. He had just done a lecture at the ICA in London on the subject of “Erotic imagery in the blues” to a mixed audience of earnest ICA regulars and his own unruly mates. Generously fortified by gin, and diverging from his well-prepared script, he delivered a rather incoherent attack on the ICA itself, referring to it “with a certain lack of originality” as “Institute of Contemporary Farts” or, to relieve the tedium, “Institute of Contemporary Arseholes”. Finally, as the staff stacked up the chairs, with George insensible, his supporters unstacked them (which could surely have been billed as a work of performance art in itself). In response to outraged coverage of the event in the Melody maker, George
wrote in defence citing Dada and Rimbaud, but leaving out Messrs Gordon and Booth, which was perhaps rather unfair.
After a sympathetic account of the early breakup of his marriage, George describes the exhilaration of hearing Louis Armstrong on his first visit to London in 1956. As American jazzers began touring England more often, George found a particular affinity with bluesman Jimmy Rushing. With Mick’s band they toured with Big Bill Broonzy, as well as Sister Rosetta Tharp, who to their relief turned to be quite a raver.
As to George’s own showmanship on stage,
The general feeling in the band was that my poncing about had become a bit much.
On the road they made “an increasingly dull noise”; but his old jazzmate Wally Fawkes (whose sketch of George adorns the book cover) now asked him to write the dialogue for his popular Flook cartoon in The Daily Mail. This regular income boosted his unpredictable earnings.
Ever alert to language, he notes the transition from “mouse” to “chick” to “bird”, terms whose sexism is hardly redeemed by being well-meant (cf. Words and women). He gives an expansive sociological definition of the term “scrubber”. Whereas in the later Beat world it came to mean a prostitute, in his early days on the road it denoted a girl who slept with a jazzman for her own satisfaction as much as his. Each had their own catchment area, and they tended to specialise in men who played a particular instrument. **
Around 1960 trad jazz enjoyed another vogue, with Mr Acker Bilk rising to fame, prompting George to further unpack the changing scene and deplore the turgid banjo (cf. the rise of the bouzouki in rebetika). He recorded LPs and EPs, and appeared solo on TV as compère and performer, “looking camp as Chloe”.
In Liverpool, doing gigs at the Cavern, they find Beat groups beginning to appear—including one called the Beatles.
By 1962 Mick’s band had agreed to disband again. George, no longer dependent on singing for his supper, found a long-term partner in his wife Diana.
At the time of writing rhythm and blues is taking over from Beat.
His benign conspiratorial chuckle translating onto the page, Melly’s sensibility is so contemporary and his style so candid that it’s hard to believe the book was published as early as 1965. He pursued the musical upheavals of the time with Revolt into style (1972). In Rum, bum, and concertina (1978) he recounted his earlier days in the Navy.
Of course, even in later years he could never resist camping it up for an audience. Here he is live with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers in 1983:
And he stars in the evocative documentary Smokey dives: jazz faces and places (2001):
* George’s speciality in singing, unsullied by instrumental skills, reminds me of my time at meetings of the Gaoluo village ritual association, with trusty liturgist Shan Yude’s constant self-deprecating lament, “I can’t play wind instruments, I can’t play percussion…” (wo you buhui chui, you buhuida 我又不会吹，又不会打), which I used to impersonate rather effectively to the amusement of his colleagues. They would have enjoyed George’s company too.
** This calls to mind an American groupie friend from my days in the opera pit in Verona, who had a fetish not just for trombonists but for bass trombonists—which one might suppose to be setting rather a high bar. Having already got nine under her belt (the mot juste), I used to tease her whether she could succeed where Beethoven and Bruckner had failed. A couple of years later, back in London I received a triumphant postcard inscribed with the single word “TEN!”
His backhand was frankly ridiculous, overblown, hilariously good. This, one thought, watching that thing—the flex of the knee, the flourish of the wrist—is a kind of artefact, a European cultural treasure, like a Bach cantata or a complete acorn-fed Iberian ham, the kind of backhand a power-crazed Bond super villain might try to steal from its laser-guarded case and transport to the moon.
And he’s right, of course—while other players achieve greatness by sheer brute force, Federer’s grace as he glides around the court is supreme.
Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…
As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:
So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…
Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation
V.S.—or try sink, Iga!
It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!
* * *
Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in
Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.
Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.
* * *
Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:
There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.
Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”
And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:
To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!
Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.
The bus on the left isn’t ripe yet.
Images here courtesy of Augusta, now a diligent chronicler of the 94 route…
The 94 bus has already made several cameo appearances on this blog (e.g. here, and here).
“Typical! You wait for days and then two come along at once!”
Sir Aurel Stein’s travels on the Silk Road, 1914. Source.
As the fleet plies its trade between East and West, like a medieval caravan along the Silk Road weaving its way through the bustling markets of oases like the fabled Bush of Shepherds [That’s enough now—Ed.], I now notice the appearance of several green buses.
This image, from the fun Twitter account weird medieval guys, appears to depict an early musical experiment that—once they worked out how to attach the strings—was eventually to mature into the jazz bass solo.
Baidu Maps show that there are 38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei. Palates don't cheat. #Taiwan has always been a part of China. The long lost child will eventually return home. pic.twitter.com/p50RXund9T
Further to the Pelosi Imbroglio [1970s’ Manchester prog-rock band—Ed.], the brazen fatuity of the Chinese Foreign Ministry evincing the “38 Shandong dumpling restaurants and 67 Shanxi noodle restaurants in Taipei” to prove that “Taiwan has always been part of China” (“The long lost* child will eventually return home”) has been gleefully ridiculed on Twitter (I’m so gobsmacked that I’m not even going to bother inserting a hyphen in “long lost”). Twitter promptly became full of such logic as
The meme also gave rise to “Paris has always been part of Tibet”:
Les cartes Google map montrent qu'il y a des dizaines de restaurants tibétains à Paris. ça nous montre que le Paris a toujours fait partie du Tibet et le palais tibétains. 😂🤣 pic.twitter.com/iGyWrtY465
I have to say, there are some fine historians in China—but the apparatchiks at the Foreign Ministry are clearly not the sharpest tools in the box. On the other hand, they can spew their idiocies with impunity to a captive audience—autocracies didn’t get where they are today by being rational (cf. Stewart Lee’s taxi driver). Did you know that the word gullible is not in the Chinese dictionary?
Richard Taruskin, who died last week, was a great musical guru, his polemical and compelling prose deconstructing both the modern “classical” scene and the early music movement—which he realised was another manifestation of post-war modernity. Writing in a period when “classical” music was becoming ever more marginalised, he paid great attention to both politics and performance, connecting social and musical change rather as in ethnomusicology (cf. Bruno Nettl—who also saw the wider picture in integrating the WAM scene into musicking around the world).
Taruskin covers both modern and early scenes in The danger of music and other anti-Utopian essays (2009), which I outlined in this essay. He’s always my first port of call for insights into modern WAM. I’ve cited his views on Messiaen in The right kind of spirituality?, and in posts on Ives, Krenek, and Korngold.
I suppose I’m quite relieved that his attention was never drawn to my lengthy reflections in What is serious music?!, where I set forth from his stimulating views. Anyway, he got me thinking there, as always. For critiques of Taruskin’s ouevre by Susan McClary, click here, and John Butt, here.
Whether or not you go along with his verdicts, his writing is always engaged and invigorating. Now I really must get round to reading Text and act (1995).
My Brilliant Friend Augusta always has a lot to explain to me when I visit her in Kuzguncuk—even including the laws of perspective. Now that she’s braving the English “summer” and my lowly Chiswick hovel, I’ve been inflicting Wimbledon tennis on her. She’s game, and can basically follow what’s going on (cf. The first snooker commentary). However, at one stage, noticing the three statuesque people lined up at the back of the court, she asked,
“What are those people doing standing there?”
It does indeed look rather as if they’ve adopted a crafty method of gatecrashing, having failed to get tickets. They don’t seem to be enjoying it much, though—the severity of their demeanour, their identical clothing, and their limited range of robotic movements, suggest a Kraftwerk tribute act, so one keeps hoping they’re about to burst into song.
At least Augusta didn’t ask how another ingenious spectator has managed to wheel on a high chair and park it right in the middle of the arena to watch the match. They even get to sit down—such brazen effrontery.
Writing in the LRB, Miranda Carter gives a thoughtful and entertaining survey of the history of Desert Island Discs.
Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (as the weekly broadcasts still continue to remind us), its reassuringly familiar format has borne witness to changing times and tastes. We can hear 2,360 episodes online:
Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.
Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, In the early days “the musical choices were criticised for being too highbrow—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so until the 2010s [?].
Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.
When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. “It was a great improvement”, Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put “properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character”. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. […]
Thatcher : When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.
Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?
And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:
Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.
Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four. […]
Still in the 1960s,
the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]
But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways—younger, more candid—began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians.
As to the luxuries requested, besides booze, inflatable dolls began making an appearance:
Ronnie Scott asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead.
I note that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.
As the rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air.
After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking more probing questions and getting more personal answers. This was the first time castaways listened to their choices during the show. Under Sue Lawley the programme
became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio—a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.
And she reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy.
Carter considers Kirsty Young, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the best presenter in the programme’s history—more like a therapist. The current incumbent Lauren Laverne is “warm and cheerful”:
A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island.
Nigel Barley, Dancing on the grave: encounters with death (1995).
The innocent anthropologist is cited so often in my posts on fieldwork that I’ve awarded Barley his own tag in the sidebar.
Since much of my work in China consists in documenting funerals, it makes sense for me to seek perspectives from around the world. While bearing in mind the more abstruse ritual theories so lucidly introduced by Catherine Bell, Nigel Barley is always immensely readable. With typical humour, he surveys the variety of ways of viewing death and dealing with it, which are such an idée fixe of anthropology. Citing the major players such as Malinowski, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss, and Bloch, he refers to a range of field reports.
Like detective fiction, it is not surprising “that Western anthropologists have sought, in funerary practice, the sense of an ending that would solve and interpret all the vicissitudes of life”.
Yet interest in “belief” may simply be a largely Western obsession. In China great concern with a common ritual response has gone quite happily with an overwhelming disregard for similarity of belief: it does not matter very much what you think you are doing as long as you do it like everyone else. It is left to a small number of foreign and local experts to worry about ideas.
On this most unpromising basis, different peoples have raised up complex and tortuous rites that are elaborated into true works of art.
He considers the public expression of grief. The performance of wailing (not only in cultures like China but in early modern rural Europe) seems to be largely a matter of etiquette. Other behaviours are diverse too: the firing of guns and beating of drums, or the widow “showing her appreciation of the mourner’s sympathy by brave but tight-lipped hand-grasping through a soggy hankie”. And “around the world, grief is as likely to find expression in verbal artifice and poetic fireworks as mere noise or stillness of sound or motion”.
By contrast with our own funerals, where “a blanket of straight-laced formality covers all”, in many cultures merriment and jokers are common. As the Nyakyusa of Malawi told Monica Wilson:
We talk and dance to comfort the relatives. If we others sat sad and glum then the grief of the relatives would exceed ours. If we just sorrowed what depths of griefs would they not reach? And so we sit and talk and laugh and dance until the relatives laugh too.
But Barley also unpacks the double-edged nature of joking at funerals, “walking a line between aggression and solace”.
In the writings of anthropologists on the sociality of African death, the triumph of the group over the individual is an endlessly reiterated theme that amounts to little more than an urging of the sick to “lie back and think of Africa”.
He considers the Mexican Day of the Dead, at odds with the Catholic church’s urging of “respect” and sobriety—not unlike the English wakes that were finally driven underground by the Puritan dictatorship. And he notes the “joke slot” in modern British rituals, which for our mortuary practices may occur in the disposal of the ashes. Perhaps Always look on the bright side of life hadn’t quite caught on; now it seems to have replaced Abide with me in popularity.
Barley intersperses his forays into diverse cultures both with reflections on his own English upbringing and with notes from his fieldwork in Cameroon—such as the classic story in The innocent anthropologist:
“What happens to a man’s powers/soul/spirit after he dies?” I tried querulously, like a vicar hoping to get a current affairs discussion going at a youth club. They ignored me. Then one young man turned round and snapped, “How should I know? Am I God?”
In another bold attempt to elicit origin myths among the Dowayo, Barley talks with the local schoolteacher. The conversation turns to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel:
“And Europeans?” I asked. “White men like myself. Where did they come from?”
He appraised me coolly. “I have studied the Bible in great depth, monsieur. As far as I recall, there are no white men in it.”
In English it’s common to avoid the word “died” by euphemism and a proliferation of terms; not just “passed away” (to which I’m allergic) or “gone to meet his maker”, but “take an early bath” and “hear the final whistle”, not to mention the rich lexicon of the Parrot sketch. The Layli of Bolivia say that a dead person “has gone to cultivate chilli pepper”.
do not necessarily translate easily into beliefs about the material needs of the dead or any surviving spirit. In a move that would drive anthropologists to distraction, pilgrims to the grave of Andy Warhol have taken to stacking it with unopened cans of Campbell’s soup.
He mentions the zombies of Haiti (cf. Zora Neale Hurston), “ghost marriages” (for China, see here, under “Excesses”), and the smashing of pots (cf. “smashing the bowl” at Chinese funerals: my film, 1.16.49). He introduces notions of kinship, gender issues, the siting of the grave, “bad deaths”, and political funerals—including those of state socialism:
While the incorruptible body might be seen by the peasants as a continuation of the traditional veneration of saints’ relics, the Soviet leadership seems to have urged its interpretation as an anti-mystical act, an engaging and debunking of the church’s claims of saintly preservation, neatly showing ritual’s ability to transmit two totally opposed messages at the same time.
The book ends with a useful bibliography and index.
* * *
To return to Chinese village funerals, held over two or three days, I remain impressed by their ritual exuberance and complexity; the differentiated attire of the kin, the shawm bands, firecrackers, communal meals, female wailers, the ritual sequences of the Daoists, the skits of itinerant beggars, the pop band on a stage outside the gate (for the latter, see my film, from 30.32). Young urban educated Chinese returning for the funeral of their grandparent will find all this remarkable too.
My Daoist friends are bemused by my accounts of the perfunctory nature of our observances in England. Having observed as an outsider, Barley gives a personal account of his own father’s funeral. He remarks on the motley outfits, the architecture of the crematorium, the “witness” who spoke instead of a parson (“his model was a press conference”);
I felt angry at the hypocrisy of it all. We were colluding in a dishonourable pretence and we knew it. […]
The dull emptiness in your stomach is called grief. But grief isn’t the right word. It’s a sort of cocktail of acrid emotional pollutants of which the strongest element is surely guilt. Guilt for sins of omission and commission or perhaps simply when there is an emotional vacuum, nameless guilt just floods in to fill it up. Part of what we feel for our loved ones is a sort of addict’s dependence. Presence may not bring ecstasy but absence is unbearable. […]
I think there were hymns, but not the comforting meaningless hymns from school that carried feelings of nostalgia. In these, although the tunes were familiar, the words were wrong, all too spiritually correct and involving no allusion to a transcendental higher God. I had an intensely irritated feeling of being interfered with. […]
A trapdoor opened as in pantomime and the coffin disappeared. […]
At the house was an embarrassingly small group of largely unfamiliar relatives, a parody of kinship, testament to the failure of the Western family. The symbolism of the cold meats was horribly obvious.
“Dreadful,” one said with clicking false teeth. “When I were a lad there’d be horses with black plumes. What did we get this time? A bloody van. Not a hearse. A van like we were going to a building site. It’s not right.”
He also notes that Western funerals,
stressing as they do the uniqueness of the dead, deal heavily in separation and liminality but have very little to say about reintegration, leaving the mourners high and dry in their grief and the dead with nowhere to go.
There are few rites of passage on earth that are as stilted, uncomfortable, and excruciatingly awkward as a typical English funeral.
The rituals “are just formal enough to make us feel stiff and resentful, but also informal enough to expose our social dis-ease”.
We are expected to say solemn, earnest, heartfelt things to the bereaved relatives, or respond to these things in a solemn, earnest, heartfelt way if we are the bereaved.
But not too heartfelt. […] Even those family and friends who are genuinely sad are not allowed to indulge in any cathartic weeping and wailing. Tears are permitted; a bit of quiet, unobtrusive sobbing and sniffing is acceptable, but the sort of anguished howling that is considered normal, and indeed expected, at funerals in many other cultures, would here be regarded as undignified and inappropriate.
And for once, our default mode of humour seems inappropriate; we “put on a brave face”. Fox gives a quaint list of the “optimum tear-quota”, classified by gender, affinity to the deceased, and age. She also observes class differences—with working class, lower-, middle-, and upper-middle classes, and upper class all having their own preferred ways of performing funerals.
Even the “outpouring of grief” (considered “un-English”) that followed the death of Princess Diana was marked largely by the typical English behaviour of “quiet, orderly, disciplined, dignified” queuing, and flowers; tears, but no wailing.
Fox may have exaggerated some of this for effect, but such critiques seem legitimate coming from cultural insiders. As she herself observes, self-deprecation is a major trait of the English; a Dowayo or Chinese ethnographer might be disturbed by aspects of our ritual behaviour, but I doubt if they would analyse it in quite the same way. Of course, these are not level playing-fields.
Anyway, while the laments of Barley and Fox strike a chord, I find myself surprisingly reluctant to indict the stoic stiff-upper-lip funerals of Middle England, or at least the mourners. Yes, our “blanket of straight-laced formality” covers drabness, repression, embarrassment—but a certain kindness is also notable. We too build on the cultural norms of our heritage. This may not be a grandiose anthropological insight, but people do their best in the circumstances.
“Drawing a line under”, rather than referring to accountancy, reminds me of rubber bridge (which, you may well say, identifies me as a Posh Twat eligible for a safe Tory seat). But speakers of Plain English, even the fabled Plebs, seem to have been bamboozled into forgetting the language, wherein—and this is “not rocket science”—when you draw a line under something, you underline it. For the sake of emphasis.
Among those who would have been happy to draw a line under past indiscretions are Stalin, Mao, and Jack the Ripper (cf. the Piranha brothers).
So, “getting behind the programme”, here are just a few of the Tory crimes that we are asked to draw a line under:
Sir Walter Raleigh smoking a pipe and being doused by a servant who thinks he’s on fire.
Wood-engraving, mid-19th century. Source.
Talking of inventions (the sandwich, the telephone), one of Bob Newhart‘s classic sketches features Sir Walter Raleigh on the phone to the head of the West Indies Company in London, trying to plug yet another of his wacky ideas:
This post on the introduction of tobacco to England has some charming vignettes, such as
The Great Plague of 1665 saw tobacco smoke widely advocated as a defence against “bad air”. Indeed at the height of the plague, smoking a pipe at breakfast was actually made compulsory for the schoolboys at Eton College in London.
Returning to Üsküdar the other afternoon, as landmarks gradually became visible I was trying to recognise its mosques from afar. I was on the lookout for the Yeni Valide Camii (1703)—where we had previously admired a double ezan call to prayer—and the charming little Şemsi Paşa Camii (1581) on the coast; perhaps even the Atik Valide Külliyesi (1583) further up the hill. But at first I couldn’t quite make out any of them.
I made some fatuous remark like “The big mosque looks very small”, whereupon my Wise Companion Augusta patiently offered me a lesson in perspective not unlike that of Father Ted to Dougall:
Augusta promised me the mosques would soon look bigger—and as if by magic…
In art, the development of perspective is commonly associated with Renaissance Italy (Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca, and so on). BTW, for China, do read the fascinating article by Hannibal Taubes on the use of perspective on temple murals and opera stages in rural north China since the 19th century!
OK, we’re not talking Art here, more the disconnect between my eyes and brain. Like hello?
For some reason, Sudbury Town tube station doesn’t seem to attract such throngs of tourists as the Sistine Chapel.
The station’s recent ceiling murals have been cheering me up during three months of anxiety. All of a sudden my tongue became partially paralysed, which led to me having a series of MRI and CT scans; meanwhile my mouth gradually returned to normal. While surgery on my brain or carotid artery have eventually been discounted (which is always nice), something weird is evidently going on with my blood circulation. If I haven’t already had a stroke, I’m clearly at risk of one now; at one stage a doctor described me as a ticking time-bomb, though by now I seem to be ticking more gently. Rather than more drastic interventions, I’m grateful to be prescribed daily aspirin, which I regard as a kind of post-prandial espresso shot. Still, after this brush with mortality I’m feeling frail and wary.
Consultants seem rather intrigued by what seems to be be a rare problem: I’m not sure whether to feel proud or alarmed. Whenever I see a new doctor I hasten to explain that my speech impediment is, um, normal. Brain working all funny, speech slurred—in my case, how could one tell the difference?! While my tongue was on strike, eating and drinking were something of a challenge (“Do you drink a lot?” “No, I spill most of it”).
On the plus side, my hospital visits have at least got me out of the house. It’s been a pleasure to experience the architecture of various parts of London that I might not usually think of visiting. A particular hail to the 44 bus, which kindly takes me all the way to my scans, virtually door to door (Thankyou Driver, as I never say).
And en route to the main hospital I’ve been charmed by Sudbury Town tube station (redesigned in 1931 by Charles Holden), with its recent Pleasure’s inaccuracies ceiling murals by Lucy McKenzie—see here, and here, as well as this short film:
Sudbury Town even has a branch of the Barham Community Library, with a rather fine collection of second-hand books and CDs, next to Nikki’s coffee bar. It’s an oasis of culture…
Alas, in between my first and most recent visits to Sudbury Town this platform billboard has disappeared:
Indeed, my journey starts at Chiswick Park, another Art Deco station:
Following John Betjeman, among those who explore the unlikely architectural delights of suburban London are Iain Sinclair (London orbital, 2002)—a lively contributor to the LRB—and Joshua Abbott (here, and here). For tube stations, see also here.
Anyway, everyone I’ve seen at the NHS has been wonderful: kind, thoughtful, efficient. They deserve far more than a token clap (see note here, and again under Thankyou Driver).
Chinese peasants, for whom health care is less accessible, might pledge a vow, redeeming it by sponsoring an Offering ritual. The Sun dance of Plains Indians is also occasioned by vows. Indeed, Italians in Harlem commonly made vows for good health in the context of the Madonna cult. Me, I’m just happy to resume regular swimming, the occasional G&T,