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Archive for the ‘Holy’ Category

Not last week, but the week before …

Monday we travelled.  By the time we’d checked in and had dinner and got to the bar it was half-time.  Given we were in Wales it was the Wales match that was on the TV in the bar; I could have found the other lounge but opted for when-in-Rome over Anglo-anguish.  It wasn’t crowded.  Wales were already 2-0 up and there were only a couple of quietly committed Welshmen, concentrating conversationally on the game, still fearing the worst every time the Russians got the ball into the Welsh half until that third goal.  But truth be told, the Russians were as bad as England in the second half against Finland.  At breakfast, Danny, the man in the Arsenal shirt at our table who’d watched the goal-less England bore draw with Slovakia averred I’d chosen well.

Tuesday morning to the Llangollen Railway, a 10 mile Llangollen Railway 1trip each way up and down the line.  On the journey everywhere a riot of greens; saw an angler up to his tits in the River Dee and  some alpacas in a field.  Sight, sound and smell of a steam train in motion still gets me every time.  Loco was resplendent restored Great Western Railway mixed traffic ‘Prairie’ tank engine 5199 (one not copped back in the day, though I might have seen it as a wreck in the Barry scrapyard), turned out in classic early British Railways black livery.

Only had time for a 5-minute dash around the fiction upstairs in the modestly fronted Cafe and Books on the main street in Llangollen.  Manages to be both a vast emporium and a rabbit warren at the same time; an old cinema building, the upstairs packed with 100,00 or so second-hand books.  Bought Jack Trevor Story’s splendidly titled Screwtape lettuce for a very reasonable £1.25.

In the afternoon a situationist dérive through Chester, St John the Baptist Chesteror, in laymen’s terms, basically, aimlessly wandering about Chester without a map, until we bought a map and found the wall.  I like a good ruin, so the ruined red sandstone bits each end of the city’s oldest church – St John the Baptist church – appealed.  Weeds by any other name so impressive on a ruin.

So … the wall, the river, the half-timbered black and white of the Rows.  Does anyone dare call it a shopping experience? – probably.  Had the best chai latte of my life in an Alice themed teashop.  Three times I was tempted by a gorgeous trippy-hued paisley patterned shirt in the window of a boutique upstairs in the Rows, and three times I demurred. You’ll only regret it if you don’t said A.;  and yes, indeed I do regret it.  ‘Leave’ campaigners on the street, and a bunch of school kids holding shields being enthusiastically taken through their Roman legion paces in the amphitheatre.

Ffestiniog 1Welsh Highland RailwayWednesday was Blaenau Ffestiniog and  Rheilffordd Ffestiniog, the Ffestiniog Railway, 13½ scenic miles to Portmadog and then over the platform onto the revived Welsh Highland Railway, which only dating its original short life from 1922, for the 25 miles to Caernarfon.  Cramped but fun.  They may be considerably smaller than standard gauge railways – 1′ 11½” – but given the power needed to negotiate these gradients these are no toys.  So many trees!  Bit of drama on the Welsh Highland when the (fascinating for rail fans) Beyer-Garrett loco had problems along the way.  Camera was saying low battery so – sparing the juice – the above is the best I got (typically, camera magically revived once in Caernarfon).

I once had a boss who did volunteer labour on the Ffestiniog Railway Deviation Project (finished 1982); always made me laugh.

Lloyd GeorgeBriefly in Caernarfon, one of those ice creams (so hard to decide …) and a stroll down to the promenade.  The town square road-less, all varieties of slate and nicely patterned cobbles but with traffic still allowed; seemed to work, if disturbing ar first.  ‘Leave’ campaigners a presence again.  What would David Lloyd George have thought?  Where have his like gone nowadays?  What have the pigeons been eating?  Was it a paint protest or just a blue ice cream not as satisfying as hoped?

Thursday to the seaside and then deep into the heart of Capel Sant Trillo Llandrillo yn RhosSnowdonia (or Betws-y-Coed anyway).  At Llandrillo yn Rhos, more prosaically Rhos-on-Sea – great beach without all the holiday nonsense – a brief stop to see the tiny 6th century Capel Sant Trillo.  Atheist I may be, but I can still dig little shrines like this.  I’m a bit of a fan of coastal wind farms too, makes me think I’m in a science fiction movie:

Wind farm at sea

Promenading with the Hatter in Llandudno.

Promenading with the Hatter in Llandudno.

Old and new in Llandudno

Old and new in Llandudno

Promenading with The Hatter and another ice cream in Llandudno, we suspected vengeful local vandals had messed with the pedestrian direction signs.  45° at a crossroads to the toilets?  Turned out it was sort of right.

And so through the spectacular  Llanberis Pass and Snowdonia in all its glory.  Lots of ‘Leave’ signs in the farmers’ fields.  Again, so many trees.  At Betws-y-Coed the public – 20p – toilet seats were of built-in cold polished igneous rock.  We walked up to the Thomas Telford bridge (didn’t he get around?) and along the river.  So soon this peace after the turbulence downstream.

Down by the river Betws 1
Don’t know what has caused this patterning on the water on the other side of the bridge, but I could watch the changes a long time:Down by the river Betws 2

Llanberis Lake Railway

Coal, water & steam – the works

Llanberis Lake Railway, another narrow gauge remnant of the slate industry, is a charming little scenic run of about an hour there and back along one side of Llyn Padarn, with great views of the mountains in the distance and more mundanely the tourist steamers on the lake.  The train starts off going the opposite way you’d expect, away from the lake, a short journey away from the terminus that is not the end of the line, to the end of the line where the loco runs round to the front of the train.  A joker in the carriage – at least I think he was joking – made a good job of convincing travelling companions that the short journey back to the main station was all that was on offer, was the whole trip.

Friday was the journey home.  Early but not too early before the Referendum result was definite.  The title of this piece is Sunny Wales in Welsh.  The dispositions occupying seats 21 and 22 on the coach were far from that, though if the result was being talked about I didn’t hear anything.  No triumphalism among the Leavers, of whom I’m pretty sure there were plenty enough.

Yes, it was a coach holiday, just a short one.  Actually the coach was quite long, but you know what I mean.  No, we were not the youngest on the bus, and that’s without researching it too deeply.  A liberation not to be the driver and worrying where to park!  Mind, you get some very odd people on these charabancs, but some surprising ones too (a pro-Corbyn 70+ ex-union rep showed me her selfie with Owen Jones at a TUC Conference).  You also get to recognise among the coaching demographic – impossible not to become apparent as you wander around the usual stops – what is probably a finite variety of archetypal oldie ways of being, which can be confusing when saying Hi to people on the street who turn out to be strangers, not on our bus at all.

Three days in Wales.  Sunny, not a drop of rain.  Jumpers packed and never worn, rain gear redundant.  No-one believed us back in Stony.

I leave you with a view of puzzling blue from the Llechwedd Slate Caverns car park, and that first train, again:

Blue house from llechwedd Slate Caverns car park
Llangollen Railway 2

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Wild Wales… by George Borrow, was one of those books I bought and kept for a couple of decades and never got round to reading.  It made the charity shop pile the last time we moved.  The book had appealed to the younger romantic in me when we’d visited and holidayed in the Principality regularly – my wife was born 4th generation Cardiff, so we had family there – but over time the active Welsh connection has dwindled, and save for the odd fleeting visit we hadn’t spent any time there for years.  Two weeks ago we returned for a few days, staying with friends and relations in Ceredigion – in Aberystwyth and then down the coast a bit, in New Quay, to be precise.  So, a few impressions of mild Wales (with Aber mostly mended from those storms).

  • the revolution in durable outdoor house paints of many colours has certainly brightened the place up.  That depressingly monotonous (rain-dampened) grey vernacular architecture is mostly, now, on its way out.
  • approaching Aber, flying overhead more red kites than I’d previously seen in a lifetime. A magnificent sight.  Can’t find a collective noun, but there were enough for one.
  • Stuffed toysthis fine collection of stuffed toys the sort of thing that no longer surprises, staying with friends whose grown-up children have fled the coop; not in our house, but not unusual
  • Aberystwyth very much a student town now, but it’s falling down the league tables and the locals are worried, with the newish unpopular Vice-Chancellor getting the blame.  Unprecedented (we were told) ads in windows in town offering cheap accommodation.  Impressive Arts Centre complex half way up the hill out of town.
  • Aber follyin Aber, one of those delightful second-hand bookshops it’s so absorbing to spend time in – two floors, cramped honeycomb of rooms – so full they can’t possibly get more books in, can they?:  Ystwyth Books.  (On Abe he trades as Martin’s Books).  Bought selections of Donne and e e cummings.
  • that was after a civilized picnic – if I could remember the friendly caff we got it from I’d say because it was delicious – in the no-charge castle grounds just off the sea front.  Nearby, in full view, a striking Victorian white elephant of a building that they still haven’t decided what to do with
  • Osprey signageit only rained one morning, stayed damp for the afternoon, which was just right for the walk along the boardwalk on the wetlands of the – again – wonderfully friendly Dyfi Osprey Project.  Timed it just right to see Monty, their returning osprey, fly back to the nest – after his me-time – and his this year’s mate, feeding the nestlings.  My luck to be on one of the telescopes in the beautifully constructed wood observation lodge when that happened.  Some fine specimens around the seed feeders at the project entrance too – bullfinches a particular treat for us.  And again, one wonders about what I have to call the myth of finches and expensive nijer seed – the sunflower feeder was by far the busiest.

And so down the coast a bit for a couple of nights just outside New Quay: guitars, dolphins, feasts, gardens and faeries: Face Sculpture heaven

  • had a lovely afternoon at Sculptureheaven, two and a half acres of themed gardens in a rural setting  with integral gallery, workshop and tea room.  There’s a Gothic Garden (goth sculptures with purple and black plants), a Planetary Herb Garden (I know, I know, but it’s beautifully presented), a zen garden, an Angel House (a bit spooky, actually), a faery dell, a rowan grove with hare sculptures dotted around and a whole lot more.  Friendly and welcoming, it’s Green Man notebookenchanting and peaceful (and collectively not as twee as a cynic like me might think), a hands-on family’s labour of love, created from scratch over a decade, with wit and spirit (they’ll show you the photos from when they acquired the place).  There’s a green earth goddess, like the ones at Heligon, but, they say, she’s high maintenance; a photo brings up the rear of this post.  If you’re thinking of going, make sure of the opening hours and be prepared (absolutely no pressure, of your own volition, but still) to spend some money.  More Green Men are not to be seen in one place outside of the pages of a book.
  • the tea room at Sculptureheaven deserves a bullet point all of its own.  Tea and miniature cakes are to be had for a suggested donation to The Halo Trust (a landmines charity).  All were tasty but the lemon drizzle cupcake was divine (the secret being a touch of lime, said the baker and co-proprietor).
  • Whatever it ismore charity with the evening open gardens at Llanerchaeron gives a completely different feel to a routine NT day house visit.  Shadows have more to play with, it’s cooler.  Folk trio fiddling away on the lawn on the way in to the extensive walled garden and wooded lake.  Really pleased with this photo of whatever it is (to enlarge – like all the other photos – click, then click again on that page).
  • the best trifle tart I’ve ever had at The Hungry Trout – what does that mean in the context of humans stuffing themselves? – in New Quay.
  • New Quay dolphinthat came after we’d had the luck to see the dolphins frolicking at second attempt.  Note to self: get a proper camera. That black dot is one of a family of five …
  • inserted at this juncture to give the pics some room, where we stayed one of our hosts dealt occasionally, as a sideline, in Fender guitars, so, I got to play – never done it before! – 5 Strats (one with an absolute dream of a neck) and a Telecaster through a small Marshall amp.  Phew, rock and roll … Now know I’m a Telecaster man.
  • New Quay 2and down on the quay in New Quay, a bus shelter proudly sporting the town’s youth’s talents or something.  Two of five – the other three are New Quay 1monochrome – are pictured here.  Not quite sure why, really. I’m intrigued as much as anything.
  • as promised:
The earth goddess at Sculptureheaven; she's high-maintenance.

The earth goddess at Sculptureheaven; she’s a high-maintenance gardening project.

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Mike Kilo

1. A novel that never got written

MMK2A few years ago now, in the first flush of Dan Brown’s runaway word of mouth success with The Da Vinci code, I started researching a centuries spanning conspiracy thriller to be set in Milton Keynes.  You know, Midsummer Boulevard, ley lines, sunrise reflected in the MK Central station frontage, the CIA’s MK-Ultra (Mind Kontrolle) project of the ’50s & early ’60s – LSD in the water supply – and all that.  The files are still on my hard drive.  I’d read the kingpins of the modern genre earlier, Umberto Eco’s weighty, intellectual Foucault’s pendulum (English translation 1989) and the daddy and mother of them all, the kaleidoscopic cosmic joke that was Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy of 1975 (alphabetical, but Wilson was the main man), which took the roots of the conspiracy back to ancient Greece.  The latter contained one of the great lines of occult and/or thriller fiction: “The bastards are trying to immanentize the eschaton.”  (Look it up).  I thought it might be fun.

Illuminatus 1975Foucault's pendulum 1989I reckoned on looking for a Milton Keynes Zodiac à la Glastonbury Zodiac in the road layouts of the new city estates and fudging it one way or another.   Or, failing that, just use The Bull pub in Stony, say, or the Concrete Cows for Taurus & so on.  (Cows yes, not bulls, but close enough for this kind of thing).  I even bought a copy of Robert Graves’s impenetrable The white goddess (1948) because, like Milton Keynes, it’s big on trees, assigning as it does all sorts of sacred meanings to the oak and the ash and most of the others.  I’d been fascinated by a geometry of a little isolated grove and its two intertwined trees – since cut down – on Eaglestone, where we lived then.  (There is still also a file on my hard drive called ‘Celtic tree astrology’ which probably won’t be there much longer.)

I never really worked out anything approaching a plot.  Multinational corporations, secret government agencies, Machiavellian OU professors etc.  But there would definitely be portals into other realms or times – Alans Garner or Garfield sort of stuff – one of which is the picture at the head of this post (guesses where, anyone?)  Another was going to be the abandoned high street of medieval Woughton (illustrated below), the reasons for the abandonment of which puzzle local historians but would be suddenly revealed (the horror! the horror!) to him (or her) one night as our lost protagonist made his (or her) weary way home; either a slip in time, or there was something in the ale.  Then there’s the inauguration ceremony of the medicine wheel/stone circle at Willen Lake, that I actually attended – the old school ex-colonel Spiritualist in his Harris tweed jacket, the hippy bird wittering on about how scientists have said that, after all the equations have been done, bees really shouldn’t be able to fly.  I was even going to try and work in Jack Trevor Story somehow.
Woughton High Street

In the end what would be revealed, after much derring-do, bawdy, bad language and intellectual sophistry, was that there was no conspiracy, just that, basically, the planners and architects employed Milton Keynes Development Corporation back in the ’60s (long may they be praised) were a bunch of hippies with a sense of humour.  This is not one of the theories entertained by James Willis in his Mysterious Milton Keynes (DB Publishing, 2013).

2. Back to library school

When I was in Library School, early ’70s, when at least two of the Liverpool Poets still lived in Liverpool, certain criteria were laid down for us in the matter of the selection of non-fiction for the library:

  • does the book have an index?
  • does it have a bibliography?
  • are sources referenced and properly cited?

to which I would now add:

  • does it boast the epigram, or quote anywhere significant in the text: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” ?

Willis fails spectacularly in the first three – where you gonna go if you want to find out more? – but scores well in the latter (back of title page, opposite the contents page, bigger font than anywhere else save the title page), though that’s the one source he does provide.

3. Mysterious Milton Keynes

MMKI do hope he’s not a friend of a friend, but I care about Milton Keynes and I care about rational thought, and this is such a classic of the spurious ‘mysterious’ genre it’s hard to resist labouring that point.

Unbeknownst to thousands of commuters and residents, Milton Keynes was – in part – inspired by and planned upon, principles more famously encapsulated in a most ancient and mystical monument: Stonehenge.

Nice touch, that ‘Unbeknownst‘.  (Another nice touch, at a complete tangent, is current Bard of Stony Stratford Phil Chippendale’s notion that the Knossos complex on Crete was once a new town too, but I digress.)

Now, I have previous form in the matter of ley lines and standing stones.  There’s an OS Landranger map (159: Swansea and The Gower) covered in long pencil lines in a box somewhere in the house and when the kids were kids the reaching of a hike’s destination would oft be greeted with the pained exclamation, “Oh great.  More stones.”  I’m over it now, but I’ll grant some of this stuff can still fascinate, not that he gives any clues as to what sources are worth pursuing, if only for the fun of it. Sun and the serpent (In passing I’ll give a nod here to Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst’s account of their pursuit of the major St Michael ley line right across England, The sun and the serpent: an investigation into earth mysteries (1989) which for all its potential nonsense is both interesting and enjoyable.)

Meanwhile, back where “the very fabric of Milton Keynes is now a living homage to the mystery and esotericism of the ancients“, by the time we’ve hit page 27, and though Willis has barely dipped his toe in it,  he’s confidently bidding:

A city aligned with the midsummer sun; a city which straddles an established ley line; a city which is home to a labyrinth designed by a medieval secret society; a city riddled with standing stones and occult pyramid structures (see Part 1). Is this plethora of idiosyncrasies simply coincidence? Or are these unusual features merely the tip of an iceberg – a tantalising glimpse of a deeper, hidden layer of planning … of a conspiracy?

Ah, here come the Illuminati!  Since you ask, Yes, and No they aren’t.  To what end the Illuminati (whoever they may be) are behind MK is never explored but never mind that.  An established ley line?  A labyrinth designed by a medieval secret society?  A city riddled with standing stones: oh, among them the Spinal Tappery of the “neo-neolithic” mini-Stonehenge in the Theatre District (difficult to actually see the point of that, but no .. I’m not going there), and that – not menhir but – eccentric rock (a geological term) by the river near the bridge in Stony, that even the more comprehensive stone hunters’ websites deny is of any significance.  The list of occult pyramid structures (he reminds us about the old ’70s thing about being able to sharpen up your used razor blades by sticking ’em in a hollow pyramid) includes the old Bletchley leisure centre.

We get over two pages (of a 100 page book) on Kubrick’s last film, Eyes wide shut, an alleged exposure of the Illuminati, in which a masked character in a ritual appears who looks a bit like the people in Philip Jackson’s Dangerous liaisons statue again in the Theatre District; not so much a nod and a wink to those in the Illuminati, I would submit, as a big nod to the history of the theatre.  And here’s the classic conspiracy theorist’s touch – the film company “refused to allow an image of the movie character to appear in this book for comparison.”

What else

Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that Milton Keynes, a city built upon heathen principles (see Part 1) is a hotbed of paganism and witchcraft …”  [and] “In addition to it’s [sic] covens and independent witches, Milton Keynes is also home to number of pagan biker gangs …”

Better watch out.  We get the devil in Olney, the old police station ghost in Newport Pagnell, that town also featuring in the matter of a  strange jelly falling from the sky, various other ghosts and, in the Cryptozoology section, a photo of a stag loose in the city centre (which did actually happen).  Seems that UFOs and alien abductions have gone out of fashion; at least they’re absent from this book.

WhisperersBest bit for me is the last but one page, featuring a photo of Andre Wallace’s brilliant sculpture, The whisper, outside the library – a personal favourite – and a wit the book is almost entirely devoid of elsewhere.  He rather hedges his bets in the conclusion and that ‘City of secrets’ is a neat way to end it.  (I’ve messed around with the scan – the book is in black and white, and the picture quality is not great).  But the relativism of that concluding line of text is unforgivable: “Ultimately, only you can decide what to believe.”  Good grief.

4. With a little help from my friends

Good omensNot personally, you understand, but:

Note for Americans and other aliens:  Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham.  It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live.  Many Britons find this amusing.

 

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… even if the rose at its centre is black and not exactly a Gertrude Jekyll, or a Dusty Springfield (no – really) or Peace rose.  Though peace is one of the concepts at the heart of the project.  And, come to think of it, more than a fair few of Dusty’s songs apply too.

MK Rose opening 2013

So inevitably it rained for the official opening of the MK Rose on Saturday, November 9.  But were the spirits of those attending dampened?  Maybe a little, though the idealism still shone through – as, inevitably, did the sun as proceedings drew to a close – and hearts were gladdened.  It’s worth mentioning Mayor Brian White’s speech was especially worthy of the occasion.  There were a lot more people there for that than the photo suggests.  Forget all the jokes, there’s a pride to be had in being a citizen of Milton Keynes.  Here at Lillabullero we have got somewhat behind in our chronicling labours of late so (reproduced here with his permission) I think I’ll leave it to the capable hands and fine words of MK’s Poet Laureate Mark Niel to tell what it’s all about:

A Place To Be: for the opening of the MK Rose
by Mark Niel

And so we are gifted a Rose
that speaks of love
and so much more.

A unique space:
from amazing grace
to Olympic gold,

where tales
of triumph and tragedy
are simply, honestly told.

A place to grieve
in that sea of liquid loss
only true love knows,

A place to count the cost
paid too many times
in war’s countless bitter blows.

A place to think
and be inspired
by giants that have gone before;

the inventors and pioneers
that helped unpick the
locks of once closed doors.

A place to be proud
of our citizens
like Jim Marshall, our Father of Loud;

Doreen Adcock, who taught us to swim;
John Newton, a turned round life
captured in his famous hymn.

A place where pillars teach us;
lessons etched
in marble letters,

and whether your faith is in
higher or human beings,
a place to decide “I will be better”.

A place for kisses on Valentine’s day,
for Patron Saints and
festivals of light,

for thanks and tears on Armistice Day,
honouring those who fought and
lost their fight.

A place that will shape
how the world sees us
and how we see the world,

A place for the unexpected;
for May Day dance and
wisdom’s greatest pearls.

Let the MK Rose be
a new member of your family.
There’s only one in the world and it’s ours!

So use it, visit on days
that are special to you
to remember or simply lay flowers.

The city has been gifted a Rose,
a place of reflection and grace.
Let us now own it, make it our space.

If you want more on the background to the project, including some fascinating illustrative material from artist Gordon Young‘s pictorial research prior to producing the designs for his impressive creation (along with some future developments in Campbell Park) then the official website is the place to go:  http://www.mkrose.co.uk/index.html.  You can also find more of Mark’s poems there.  Most of the marble pillars bear an inscription and a date – the blanks are built-in future-proofing – many of local relevance.  It’s a shame they haven’t (as of 18.11.13) kept up with the pillars now actually there on The Rose on the website – for there are more installed now than listed.

JTS 1One I personally was particularly pleased to see included in the quirky pantheon was writer Jack Trevor Story‘s (Click on the picture to enlarge if you can’t read the inscription).  I’ve blogged about his work here on Lillabullero and intend to do more.  Completely in the spirit of the Rose is the text that continues out of sight: JTS 2

In the same vein the pillar for another local writer from another century, William Cowper, gives the full text of his To the Immortal Memory of the Halibut, on which I Dined This Day, Monday April 26, 1784.

Some, including a few local British Legion branches, have objected to the Rose in principle – saying an Armistice Day commemoration has no place being anywhere near a pillar for National Joke Day (as it happens, July IJD1) – but there was a dignified non-religious civic ceremony there on Monday, 11th November, at which the British Legion was represented.  The joke about the International Joke Day pillar is that … well look at the picture (and some very bad jokes were made as part of the opening ceremony).  The point of the MK Rose is to echo what used to be the News of the World‘s motto – “All human life is there” – without the prurience and the paper’s dark side.

Father of Loud & Bernie MarsdenI bet gigging with Whitesnake back in the day (1978, as it happens) rock guitarist Bernie Marsden could never have imagined a day like this (that’s Mark Niel at the back in the photo, him with the poppy).  Jim Marshall‘The Father of Loud’ – was a big benefactor and sponsor to various causes in MK, including the MK Dons, as his business blossomed in Bletchley.  Jim Marshall’s pillar has an electricity plug wired in.  I shall now commit an incredibly corny bit of rhetoric as I tell you that Whitesnake‘s first UK hit was a cover of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland’s Aint no love in the heart of the city.  Cue pantomime response please.

The Wolverton Silver Band were part of the celebrations – of course.  The melancholy of a decent silver band’s sound never ceases to get to me.  Playing in a marquee because of the rain, some of their instruments added a neat parallel bit of found geometrical art and design to proceedings:

Bradwell Silver Band MK Rose Nov 2013

 

 

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Intuition pumpsWell, I made it to the end.  Did I make any sense of it?  I guess, some of the time at least.  Impossible to resist qualifying my response with one of philosopher of science Daniel C. Dennett‘s own rather splendid explanatory concepts: sorta.  Close enough for rock and roll.

Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking (Allen Lane, 2013) is not dealing in trivialities; it’s not a guitar he’s tuning.  Intuition pumps can be: “prosthetic imagination extenders and focus holders“; “carefully designed persuasion tools and thought experiments“; ” abstract cognitive tool[s].”  So the sorta operator is actually “the key to breaking the back of the mind-bogglingly complex question of how a mind could ever be composed of material mechanisms,” for humanist Dennett is no dualist – for him “mind” and “brain” cannot be separated in any meaningful way, but – rest assured – determinism is not his bag either:

People really care about whether they have free will or not, about how their minds can reside in their bodies, and about how – and even whether – there can be meaning in a world composed of nothing but atoms and molecules, photons and Higgs bosons. People should care. … What in the world are we, and what should we do about it? So watch your step. There is treacherous footing ahead, and the maps are unreliable.

Heavy intellectual yomping, then, and he’s trying to help.  I could go into some detail (and probably get it wrong) but it’s too darned hot.  Let’s be honest, the book is hard work – it has to be when you think about it – but it’s entertainingly leavened with anecdotage, imaginative examples (philosophers’ zombies, anyone?) and some righteous academic feuding.

Dennett starts by giving us A dozen general thinking tools, taking in Occam’s razor (and its corollary – beware Occam’s broom),  Theodore Sturgeon’s law (extrapolating from his famous defence of the science fiction genre: “90% of everything is crud“), the “Surely” operator (ding!: the more it’s used the dodgier an argument is likely to be) and 8 other useful tools.  So far so good.  Then we’re off trying to see what it means when we talk of “meaning” (he calls those “scary quotes“) and then there’s an interlude about computers to further clarify what we mean by that.  (I’ll willingly admit I struggled with what philosophers mean by “intentionaliy”, which has little to do with intentions, rather “aboutness.”)  Then we move on to evolution; he demolishes the ‘intelligent design’ hypothesis; he demonstrates how a string of mechanical competences can lead to comprehension and the development of consciousness, and then considers the notion of free will (do we/don’t we have it?).  All delivered in logical steps which I’m sure will make much more sense if I ever find the time to read it again; (it’s tempting).  And finishing with a general chat from Uncle Dan about philosophy as a career.  His conclusion, and it’s been quite a ride, is:

We haven’t yet succeeded in fully conceiving how meaning could exist in the material world, or how life arose and evolved, or how consciousness works, or whether free will can be one of our endowments, but we’ve made progress: the questions we’re posing now are better than the questions of yesteryear. We’re hot on the trail of the answers.

Daniel Dennett is an unrepentent materialist but he is also – he hastens to add, in opposition to what he calls “bonkers” notions of free will – a compatabilist, maintaining that free will and determinism are not incompatible:

In our eagerness to make “free” choices, uncaused – we like to think – by “external forces”, we tend to forget that we shouldn’t want to be cut off from all such forces; free will does not abhor our embedding in a rich causal context; it actually requires it.

As opposed to the idea that we are robotic artefacts (“to confront the question of why it seems that each of us has some such mind thingy, or better“) he posits The self as the center of narrative gravity (it’s a chapter head) and a neat metaphor:

The idea that there is, in addition, a special indissoluble nugget of you […] the same kind of thing as a center of gravity [… ] a mathematical point, not an atom or molecule […] an abstraction […] tightly coupled to the physical world.

And what happens when the centre of gravity of an object shifts too far?

Just a couple of asides that I relished, the sorts of things that lift Intuition pumps out of potential ultra-dryness.  Dennett spends some time in Borges’s The library of Babel detailing the virtual infinity of all possible books as an illustration of how most genetic mutations can happen and fail (Spakesheare writing Spamlet) but delights in how Peter De Vries opened his novel of 1953,  The vale of laughter – by adding a comma – with the line, “Call me, Ishmael.”  And there’s a picture – it’s blogged about and reproduced here – of a termite ‘castle’ printed to great effect next to Antoni Gaudi’s extraordinary La Segrada Famiglia in Barcelona; there’s ‘design’ and design.

Ian MacDonald - The people's musicThe people’s music

Right at the start of Intuition pumps, Daniel C. Dennett sets the scene by saying:

… this is a book celebrating the power of non-mathematical tools, informal tools, the tools of prose and poetry, if you like, a power that scientists often underestimate.

He’s using a pretty broad inclusive definition of poetry here (though he does address awe, wonder and spirituality in other books without resorting to reductionist dismissal).  Purely coincidentally I’ve also been re-acquainting myself with Ian MacDonald‘s brilliant collection of popular music commentary, The people’s music (Pimlico, 2003).  My local humanist group was having a discussion on the subject of ‘happiness’ and I was going to speak against it – as a right to be expected of life, as a valid goal in itself; moments of happiness, that sometimes can just happen, are what I cherish.  There was something in IMac’s long and masterful piece on Nick Drake that I falsely remembered as a defense of miserabilism I thought might be useful to that end.  Beyond the Buddhist notion of “Happiness is just an illusion” (name that song!*) it wasn’t, but what a joy it was to be in the company of both men, despite the reminder of their untimely early deaths.  And Nick’s physically cool music is ever a refreshing breeze in this abominable heat-wave we labour under in the UK at the moment.

The people’s music is as good as it gets.  Ian MacDonald got the ’60s in the UK down in print – here and in his introduction to Revolution in the head, his Beatles book that is unlikely to be bettered – like no other writer.  There are three long essays in The people’s music, and 26 wide-ranging shorter pieces and reviews.  Of the long pieces, the Dylan essay, written on the occasion his 60th birthday, is insightful; his notion, that Bob Dylan’s whole career has been a brilliant piece of Performance Art he himself quickly dismisses, but its validity lingers.  The title essay is a potted history of popular music and its audience’s relationship with the music industry in the twentieth century.  I’ll use the masterful word again.  It’s some sort of a blessing that his suicide in the year this book was published saved him from having to witness the full gaudy horror of the success of Simon Cowell and pals’ reality television ‘music’ shows; he probably saw it coming.  The third long piece is Exiled from heaven: the unheard message of Nick Drake, and it is a stunner.

Nick Drake died in 1974, nearly 40 years ago, yet his music is timeless, out of time.  IMac’s analysis of his music tells you why.  He invokes William Blake and buddhism, innocence, karma and return, compassion, contemplative solitude, ‘magic’, being “here now.”  Thematically the seasons, rain, trees and the river are symbols running through his brief three albums’ worth of songs.

Drake’s message is an uncommon one  – not because it is wilfully obscure, but because it emanates  from a place our society is fast forgetting: the seer domain of poetic apprehension of reality.  The realm of ‘magic’. […] This sort of magic is spiritual and timeless – the opposite of the busy, materialistic world of ‘the river’ […] In his songs, we find in action the Romantic ideal that beauty can elevate consciousness.

Aye, there’s the rub, because MacDonald has to add, “Of course, the followers of Richard Dawkins and company” (of which Daniel Dennett is, naturally, a fully paid-up member) “will find only delusion in Drake’s work – yet materialism is bound to reject any claim that the world of the spirit is real.”  This is unfair, for here we are back with “meaning” and its construction; it may not be physically real … but.  I’m not so sure they do dismiss as mere delusion what MacDonald describes as Drake’s “sense of the holy in nature”, nor would they deny the practical value of such an orientation.  I can happily live with both; I can be excited reading Dennett and turn the stereo on and transcend the heat as Nick Drake’s music flows over and through me.  Dennett quotes from Lee Siegel’s book Nets of magic.  It doesn’t exactly square the circle, but I’ll end with it for the hell of it:

“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?”  By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers.  “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”  Real magic, in other words, refers to magic that is not real, while magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

* “Happiness is just an illusion” is a line from Jimmy Ruffin’s What becomes of the broken hearted.  Tamla Motown magic from 1966.

 

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¡Hola!
Catching up from Catalunya,
still buzzing from Barcelona.

I can say nothing original, I’m sure, about the modernista Catalan architect and designer Antoni Gaudi, who worked over  the tail end of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries, only join the chorus to sing his praises.  You couldn’t be further removed from the notion of ‘modern architecture’ and yet there that word stays in all the books, almost as a rebuke.  His great work – the big three being the Casa Batlló (originally a private house), the Parc Güell (a failed garden city project, now a wonderful public park) and the ongoing saga that is the glorious temple to the Gospels known as the Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family), which dominates the city skyline from afar – this work inspires in equal measure awe, wonder and, uniquely I think, affection.  You can – and many, many do, every day – sit resting your back on the this continuous curving seat – just a small section of which is  illustrated here – with its never-repeated detailing rolling along the terrace wall at Parc Gúell, lazing in the sun, looking over the areas of Barcelona and the sea spread out below – what sensory pure delight, there for the sharing.  And while he obviously didn’t sweat the small stuff, he was, they say, technically, instinctively, ahead of his time too.  What a man, such a life and end, worthy of great balladry!

It is hard to imagine a bigger contrast than the one encountered the day we went straight from the grandeur and intricacies of the Sagrada Familia exterior and its fluted pillars and radiant colours from the stained glass inside, to the unadorned straight lines and uncomplicated curves, the sheer contemporary whiteness of MACBA, architect Richard Meier’s fine  Museu d’Art Contemporani, a different kind of space altogether, which is impressive enough in its own way, as you climb the gentle incline linking its three floors.  Which the skateboarders in the yard outside would doubtless love to ride down.

Grayson Perry‘s notion of the art gallery effectively taking on many of the roles of a church these days fails for me at MACBA.  The airy feel of the building is made to seem sterile by a lack of unity and – hesitate to say it but – substance of much of what was on show.  Not that it was devoid of interest or intellectual engagement, but I need more.  On the top floor Rita McBride‘s Public tender exhibition contemplates and experiments with the question, When and where exactly does sculpture becomes architecture?  So she mounts red air conditioning ducting on a white wall; that’s an unfair reduction of the work on show but my point is, Antoni Gaudi lived out there on that border, with his joy and inspiration in nature and myth in the heart of a city being made anew.

Perry’s notion of transferred reverence certainly holds for the Museu Picasso, housed as it is in a set of what were once medieval palaces, no less.  Pablo Picasso spent his teenage years studying in Barcelona, and the bulk of the beautifully presented collection on show is from his early years – he was so good as a student you can see why he had to keep moving on – and a playful splurge of activity from 1957, including some crude fun work of his as a ceramista.  While none of his major works is here save 1897’s social realist Science and charity, which brought him to wider attention, the wait to get in was well worth it, and leavened by a talented busker plying an accordion.  And I worshipped more in the Montserrat Museum at the spectacularly sited Monestir de Montserrat up in the hills, with its impressive collection of work from Catalan painters of the last couple of centuries, augmented by a decent sprinkling of big names from many eras than I did in its glittering Basilica (of which more in a later post).

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Well, these feet remained shod and so did not bounce on Jeremy Deller‘s splendid Sacrilege – “an inflatable Stonehenge on tour” ie. a big, quality bouncy castle – because Friday in Fishermead was, just for a change this ‘summer’ so far, wet.  And those brave souls, with or without their children who did, got soaked – it was inevitably slippery – but they had a great time of it.  Oh, for the inner child to win out, but you know …  Here’s the Sacrilege website; you’ll find The law of the land while you’re there: No food/drink.  No sharp objects.  … No human sacrifices“.

So, a walk over the grid road bridge from Xscape in Central Milton Keynes, as part of the MK International Festival, for one day only, yer actual Stonehenge, not far from the streets that border the Grade 2 listed shopping centre – Avebury Boulevard, Midsummer Boulevard.  One of the things that make MK different is that the hippies of the original Development Corporation had some fun putting the place together.  It was a splendid sight on an estate that’s been struggling a bit over the years.  If this is what Turner Prize winning artists can come up with, then (at least some of the time), what’s the problem?

What these feet did do the next day – a fine one, at last – is walk the paths at night of a Campbell Park transformed by La Companie Carbosse into a Fire Garden, another strand of the MK International Festival.  A wondrous sight and experience, an amazing ambience – fragrances, music too – in a wonderful site:

The belvedere mound and grassed arenas of Campbell Park, its sculptured contours, were constructed from earth cleared in the levelling of the ground that the shopping centre was built on.  It’s a lovely open space spreading down to the Grand Union Canal.  There are sculptures, a variety of trees and bushes approaching arboretum status, water features, grassed arenas; sheep often graze, muntjac deer are to be seen if you’re lucky.  It’s named after Lord ‘Jock’ Campbell of Eskvan, the Chairman and driving force of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation from its inception, a socialist with a distinguished progressive track record in the Caribbean who also, I’ve just discovered, had a hand in setting up the Booker Prize for Fiction.  It was always his insistence that nothing be named after him, so – naturally –  when he died, the name of the park was changed to do just that.

What happened this weekend was magical.  I hazard it could even be one of those defining moments in MK’s knowledge of itself.  Photographs can hardly do justice to the sense of wonder shared as people slowly wandered the paths, stopping frequently to just let it all sink in.  Wow!  And again, and again.  There was a grotto where a saxophonist – baritone, alto, percussive pedal – played against a loop tape, Chinese features, long mandarin coat.  Just beautiful.  This pic is the best I could do, but he was so good, so mesmerising I’m putting it in anyway (click on the picture to actually see anything) … that experience alone well worth more than the bargain three quid the whole thing cost to enter:

Not that there wasn’t a bit of pyrotechnic showmanship; that coat and hat showing the class Les Francais can bring to things.  Oh, yes, and I haven’t mentioned the vests yet.  Coat hangers, vests … don’t try this at home.

 

 

It was a good weekend to be in MK.  And I’ve not even mentioned the sailing boat Collective Spirit, the outcome of the Lone Twin Boat Project, built out of memories held in wood – more fruit of the Cultural Olympiad – that graces Queens Court in the shopping mall all week.  Too wet to take any decent photos last Friday; I shall return.  Quite simply one of the most beautiful objects I’ve ever seen, let alone been close to.  But to finish, back to the Fire Garden:

 

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