Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Badly suppressed laughter

Trojan Barbie

When a group of people jointly undergo an intensely searing experience, especially one where they face a mortal enemy or opponent, a bond is created between the participants that outsiders can find hard to penetrate or even to understand.    Soldiers in battle, for example, often experience this, as good novels and films have long shown.

Last night, the audience at a King’s Players’ production in London had such an experience, and we will remember for the rest of our lives the courage and fortitude, resilience and – yes, dammit! – just plain, old-fashioned grit we all showed in the face of great odds.  Nobody left, nobody laughed out loud, nobody became an alcoholic, nobody set off the fire alarm to bring this cruel and unusual torment to an end.    During the quiet patches, those long dark nights of the soul, our focus on survival was so intense that the only sound you could hear was the swiveling of eyes.

Our first enemy was the play itself, Trojan Barbie, by Christine Evans.   What an appalling piece of radfem agitprop!  The writing is surely a parody of feminism, not intended to be serious, written as if by a teenager discovering poetry for the first time.  The male characters are all evil rapists and thugs, and the women are either harlots or mad.     Even the everywoman character Lotte is dotty.  Not a single character appears real or embodied, a normal human being.   No one grapples with the actual moral dilemmas of war, no one weighs pros and cons of different courses of action, not even in dialogue with one another.    What plot there is is too ridiculous to be described, but involves unexplained time travel between ancient Troy and the present-day, with scenes set in doll repair shops, Mediterranean street cafes, refugee camps, battlefields, and the odd zoo.    You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Our second enemy, colluding with the first,  were the cast and crew.  Given the flaws of the script, one can only sympathize with actors having to make something of this.   But why would anyone even try?    Life is too short to waste it on such dross.    And if, for some reason, you had to try, why not do it well?   Why act badly?   Why run around like a horse?  Why impersonate Che Guevara and Zsa Zsa Gabor?  Honestly, the only person missing from the production was Carmen Miranda with her hat made of fruit – although, there was in fact a samba.  What was that doing there?

And the set!   It included the world’s largest collection of Barbie Dolls, a massive pink cellophone heart,  and the odd tiger.   What normal person could possibly imagine that a large stuffed animal, a children’s toy, would convince us we are in a zoo?  At first I thought it was intended as a visual metaphor for something else, something profound, perhaps a subtle reference to well-known war poet William Blake.  (“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, In the forests of the Night.”)   But No:  the stuffed tiger behind a cage on stage was intended to be what is was:  a tiger in a zoo.  It roared through the sound-system, and it magically moved between scenes, sometimes lolling this way, and sometimes that.  I have to say its acting was perhaps the most realistic of the evening, and I’m sure the tiger’s agent will be fielding many calls this morning.

No one would be converted to the merits of feminism by seeing this play, and lots of people would be deconverted.   But that’s the usual way with agitprop:  if you preach only to the choir, you lose the rest of the congregation.  But of course, as with all agitprop, the preaching is not aimed at converting anyone, it’s aimed at making the preachers feel good about themselves.  Shame about the poor audience, but.

However, we did make it through, we survived to the end without a single casualty.  True, we lost two hours of our life that will never be regained.  But we saw what we were all capable of under extreme pressure, we showed grace under fire, and we stood by each other right to the end.  Being under fire together has made us life-long comrades, and at the annual reunions we survivors will no doubt tell and retell our stories of the time we fought Trojan Barbie, like the Band of Brothers that we now are.

Message to Homer:  Your position as Trojan War historian is safe. No need to call your office.

 

PS (2014-04-06):  Another review is here. “The stuffed animal representing the tiger was a bit unnecessary”




Police report: “Romeo and Juliet” scam

Police report of “Romeo and Juliet” Confidence Scam:

Location of crime:  Upstairs Foyer, Greenwood Theatre, Guy’s Campus, King’s College London.

Date of crime:  Evenings of 5th, 6th, 7th February 2014.  The crime may also have been “rehearsed” before these dates on unwitting spectators.

Financial sponsors:  A group calling itself King’s College London English Literary Society.

Nature of crime:  Deconstruction of playwright’s text without single reference to post-colonial or feminist perspectives.   Co-conspirator “The Friar” tore out pages of “Romeo and Juliet” text to manifest true nature of crime.

Key victims:  William Shakespeare, women.

Perpetrator:  Unknown.   Calls himself “The Director”.   Identity: Elusive.  Real identity unknown.  May use pseudonyms: W. Nash, Rookie Monster, DPR, Edward Snowden.

Known Co-conspirators:  Marcus “The Friar” Bazley, Hillary “The Counsellor” Chua, Laura “Juliet” Deering, Jackie “Lady Capulet” Edwards, Matthew “Romeo” Hodson.  Others involved in supporting the scam thought to be:  Catherine Walters, Elena Gillies, Emma Lawrence, Aja Garrod, Aggi Cantril, Sophie Omar, and Kate Gardener.  Notes found at crime scene indicate others may also have assisted, almost certainly without realizing the consequences.

Modus Operandi:  Perp takes out-of-copyright play text, reducing number of characters, even using unwitting mark in audience to play role in deception.  Play cut down and cut up, and done as crime scene investigation, with scenes “reconstructed” by “actors”.  Legal counsel present to narrate events and give illusion of objectivity.

Perp uses intelligence and wit to produce amusing, clever, and sophisticated version of play, which is used as a “script” that is then executed (“performed”) by co-conspirators in front of marks.   Performance of script of professional standard, and very realistic.  Thus, marks easily deceived and soon suspend disbelief.    Only one of the known co-conspirators is believed to actually make his living in theatre.  Remaining co-conspirators possibly being groomed.

Co-conspirators take on “roles” to execute script.  Thus, “The Friar” is a Cockney ex-junkie offering life advice to the other conspirators, along with marriage ceremonies and store-and-forward messaging services;   “Romeo” is a lovestruck young man, writing dreamily in his Moleskine; “Lady Capulet” is a tyrant of the household, a dictator of the local.    The different “roles” cleverly interleave, and jointly enable confidence scam.  Indeed, witnesses report that the acting was so intense that it approached the threshold of caricature, but without ever crossing  that threshold,  making the performances thrilling to watch.  Co-conspirators all appear to be under direct influence of Perp.

Co-conspirators use a variety of names, including real names, to confuse audience about when co-conspirators are “acting” in their “roles”, and when not.   Humour and wit used to distract attention of audience from reconstruction of double suicide, following madness of young love, set amongst inter-gang warfare in urban Italy.

Toying with nature of “acting” indicates this is crime of real sophistication by people with extensive experience in deception and illusion.   Perp and co-conspirators may have worked in Elizabethan theatre before.  Crime shows many hallmarks of two known literary deceivers and wits with Elizabethan previous, Thomas Nashe and Kit Marlowe.  Neither likely involved:  Nashe believed deceased, Marlowe either deceased (Deptford Regional Office view) or living in exile in Italy.

Production involves post-coitus scene, drugs, violence, suicide, and death.  No rock and roll, but.   One person injured by vicious slap.   Music deployed very effectively to “set the scene” and relax audience in preparation for confidence scam, and at various times during the operation to manipulate emotions of marks.

Use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings obviously intended as subtle allusion to FDR’s funeral and Oliver Stone’s film about Vietnam.  This double allusion should allay concerns of English Department about absence of references to post-colonial oppression and the wickedness of US global hegemony, as well as providing a warm glow of self-satisfaction to the one person who caught the allusions.

Related scams:  West Side Story, High School Musical.

Known beneficiaries of scam:

  1. Perp and co-conspirators
  2. KCL English Literary Society
  3. Greenwood Theatre
  4. King’s College London
  5. The Horseshoe Inn, Melior Street, London
  6. The London theatre world
  7. The audience.

Progress of investigation:  Police seeking the 132 witnesses to garner further information.

Public warning:  These people are armed with professional acting skills and very dangerous.   Perp may be serial dramaturge, intent on career in intelligent theatre or deception.  Co-conspirators capable of superb acting at the highest level.

Deptford Regional Office reports rumour that next confidence scam may take place in Copenhagen.

Conspirators also believed to hold raucous after-play parties to celebrate success of scam, involving alcohol, tobacco, witty conversation, and profound arguments about the existence of God and the nature of relationships.  Kit Marlowe would feel at home.  US State Department Advisory:  Americans visiting London particularly at risk.

Note:  Potential side-effects of scam include reviews written as police-reports, pretentiously imitating style of the production itself.




The New World versus the Old

Propose to an Englishman any principle, or any instrument, however admirable, and you will observe that the whole effort of the English mind is directed to find a difficulty, defect, or an impossibility in it.  If you speak to him of a machine for peeling a potato, he will pronounce it impossible:  if you peel a potato with it before his eyes, he will declare it useless, because it will not slice a pineapple.  Impart the same principle or show the same machine to an American, or to one of our colonists, and you will observe that the whole effort of his mind is to find some new application of the principle, some new use for the instrument. ”

Charles Babbage, 1852, in a paper on taxation.  Cited on page 132 of Doron Swade [2000]:  The Cogwheel Brain:  Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer. London, UK:  Little, Brown and Company.




Musical ignorance

You won’t find this blog doing late-breaking news or commentary.   Web-browsing, I am led to a report of an interview given by Cambridge academic George Steiner to a Spanish newspaper in 2008, in which he is quoted as saying:

“It’s very easy to sit here, in this room, and say ‘racism is horrible’,” he said from his house in Cambridge, where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College since 1969.

“But ask me the same thing if a Jamaican family moved next door with six children and they play reggae and rock music all day. Or if an estate agent comes to my house and tells me that because a Jamaican family has moved next door the value of my property has fallen through the floor. Ask me then!”

In his essays and books, Steiner is a model of erudition.   But his knowledge of music is quite evidently lamentable.  In my experience, almost nobody likes BOTH reggae and rock music, and certainly no Jamaican I have known.  

Ignorance of reggae seems to be a special attribute of the literati.  VS Naipaul once described its beat as “pseudo-portentous”, a property which I have never been able to hear in the music itself.   I doubt he could either; he just liked the phrase and disliked the music.  And - like Charles Rosen with Mendelssohn – used his sharp verbal skills to seek to justify his prior musical tastes.  In both cases, the attempt fails. 

In response to Steiner’s ignorance, I decided to listen to the Master in a superb chilled-out remix:

  • Dreams of Freedom:  Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub. Remix Production by Bill Laswell, Creative Direction by Chris Blackwell. Brooklyn, NY:  Island Records, 1997.

followed by some of the best industrial noise:

  • Shinjuku Filth.  Darrin Verhagen.  Melbourne: Iridium, 1999.



Theatre

Having created lists of concerts I have attended, bands I have heard, galleries I have visited, etc, I overlooked theatre productions I have seen.  Herewith a list, sometimes annotated, to be updated as and when I remember additional events.

  • Trojan Barbie, by Christine Evans, by the King’s Players, King’s College London, under Holly Robinson (director) and Dan Bird (producer), in Tutu’s, KCLSU, Temple, London, March 2014.   Without question, one of the worst live performances I have had the misfortune to witness.
  • Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, performed by Ria Abbott (Margrethe Bohr), Freddie Fullerton (Niels Bohr) and Tom Marsh (Werner Heisenberg), under Alister MacQuarrie (director), Aja Garrod (producer), and William Nash (executive producer) in the Old Anatomy Museum, King’s College London, Strand, March 2014.  Superbly acted and directed, this was theatre of a high professional standard, equal to any I have seen.    Another review is here.
  • Romeo and Juliet, by King’s College London English Literary Society, under W. Nash (director), at the Greenwood Theatre, London, February 2014.  An innovative, witty, and funny treatment, superbly acted.
  • The Tempest, by King’s Shakespeare Company, under Hannah Elsy (director) and Aja Garrod (producer), at The Rag Factory, Heneage Street, Brick Lane, London, December 2013.  Outstanding performances by Imogen Free (Ariel) and Max Funcheon-Dinnen (Stephano).   The modern touches worked very well, and brought the play alive.  Was a full house.
  • The Magic Flute, by English National Opera, directed by Simon McBurney, London, December 2013.  As always with this director, there were some stunning visual effects, for instance, the shoals of actors representing birds, each fluttering folded paper to produce a rustling sound.
  • Marlowe’s Edward II, by The National Theatre, London, October 2013.
  • Richard II, starring Eddie Redmayne and directed by Michael Grandage, at the Donmar Warehouse, London, December 2011.
  • Hamlet, by Schaubuhne Berlin, at the Barbican Theatre, London, December 2011.
  • Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Liverpool, 2004.
  • The Elephant Vanishes, by Theatre de Complicite, Lincoln Centre, New York, June 2004.
  • Hamlet, by Calixto Bieito, in Birmingham, September 2003.



Danish surname mystery

According to this list, the 20 most popular Danish surnames all end in “-sen” (meaning “son of”).  Surname #21 is Møller, and the next 7 surnames again end in “-sen“.  Surname #29 is Lund and of the next 21 surnames (ie, numbers 30 through 50 inclusive) , fully 15 also end in “-sen“.

As I browsed this list, I thought of the characters in the TV series Borgen, a fictional series about Danish coalition politics.   I struggled to think of any characters with a surname ending in “-sen”.  The Wikipedia page for the series lists 28 recurring characters whose surnames we learn.  Of these 28, only 5 characters (18%) have surnames ending in “-sen”.  One of these 5 characters is the Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, whose husband’s surname is “Christensen“; almost never in the series is she called by her husband’s surname.  Interestingly,  9 of the actors playing these 28 characters (32%) have names (which may be real or stage names) ending in “-sen“.

Here are the surnames of the 28 recurring characters in Borgen listed on the Wikipedia page, in alpha order.  Where the surname appears in the list of the top 100 Danish surnames, I include its position in the list in parantheses following the name.

Christensen (6), Dahl (52), Diwan, Fønsmark, Friis (61), Hedegård (98), Hesselboe, Hesselboe, Holm (32), Höxenhaven, Juul (96), Kiær (48), Klitgaard, Kruse (92), Laugesen, Lindenkrone, Lund (29), Madsen (12), Marrot, Mørch, Munk, Nagrawi, Nedergaard, Nyborg, Saltum, Sejrø, Thorsen (89), Toft (71).

For comparison, I also looked at the character names of the Danish TV series The Killing.  In Season 1, there were 11 main characters, of whom only 2 (the victim’s parents) have a surname ending in “-sen”.  In Season 2, just 2 of the 13 main characters do, and in Season 3, not a single one of the 12 main characters does.    

How very curious. I checked the list of current members of the Folketing, the Danish Parliament, and a mere 26 of the 179 members have names ending in “-sen”, just 14.5%.   The ranked list of surnames shows that, of the top 100 names, those ending in “-sen” or “-son” are held by at least 49.6% of Danes (2,774,269 out of 5,590,000). So perhaps having a relatively rare surname is an advantage in Danish politics.  I wonder if the writers of Borgen and The Killing were worried about their characters being mistaken for living politicians or other well-known people, or about foreign viewers not being able to distinguish one Mads Kaspar Somethingsen from another.

 




Does evo-psych explain anything at all?

Evolutionary psychology and sociology have long struck me as arrant nonsense, because they ignore human free will and self-reflection, and thus our ability to rise above our own nature.   There are no pianos on the savanna, as I have remarked before, so an evolutionary psychologist will have a major challenge to explain a desire to play the piano in evolutionary terms.

Christopher Booker, in a review of E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, views similarly the flaws of evolutionary theory when applied to human behaviours:

It is our ability to escape from the rigid frame of instinct which explains almost everything that distinguishes human beings from any other form of life. But one looks in vain to Wilson to recognise this, let alone to explain how it could have come about in terms of Darwinian evolutionary theory. No attribute of Darwinians is more marked than their inability to grasp just how much their theory cannot account for, from all those evolutionary leaps which require a host of interdependent things to develop more or less simultaneously to be workable, that peculiarity of human consciousness which has allowed us to step outside the instinctive frame and to ‘conquer the Earth’ far more comprehensively than ants.

But it is this which also gives us our disintegrative propensity, individually and collectively, to behave egocentrically, presenting us with all those problems which distinguish us from all the other species which still live in unthinking obedience to the dictates of nature. All these follow from that split from our selfless ‘higher nature’, with which over the millennia our customs, laws, religion and artistic creativity have tried their best to re-integrate us.

Nothing is more comical about Darwinians than the contortions they get into in trying to explain those ‘altruistic’ aspects of human nature which might seem to contradict their belief that the evolutionary drive is always essentially self-centred (seen at its most extreme in Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’ theory). Wilson’s thesis finally crumbles when he comes up with absurdly reductionist explanations for the emergence of the creative arts and religion. Forget Bach’s B Minor Mass or the deeper insights of the Hindu scriptures — as a lapsed Southern Baptist, he caricatures the religious instinct of mankind as little more than the stunted form of faith he escaped from.

His attempt to unravel what makes human nature unique is entirely a product of that limited ‘left-brain thinking’ which leads to cognitive dissonance.

Unable to think outside the Darwinian box, his account lacks any real warmth or wider understanding. Coming from ‘the most celebrated heir to Darwin’, his book may have won wide attention and praise. But all it really demonstrates is that the real problem with Darwinians is their inability to see just how much their beguilingly simple theory simply cannot explain.”




Abuse of media power (again)

I have complained before that The Grauniad sometimes looks as if it’s no more than the internal corporate newsletter of the people who work for it.   Their sister title, The Observer, has a particularly egregious example of such behaviour this weekend.  Of the 18 pages devoted to arts preview coverage, 6 entire pages are devoted to one person, 7 pages if you count the cover.  Who is this paragon?  Did some famous artist just die?  What artist or actor or dancer or musician or film-maker or writer deserves such coverage?  Why, it was  none of these!  The coverage is for the newspaper’s film-critic, Philip French, who hasn’t even died, but is merely retiring.   And guess what?  As well as these 7 out of 18 entire pages, another half-page is given over in the reviews section to French’s latest film review! 

It’s good see the Guardian/Observer’s Marketing Department so successfully targeting that crucial demographic, current and former Guardian/Observer employees who know Philip French.   Pity that doing so alienates the rest of us.




Mama don’t allow

Norm’s latest entry in his Mommy and Daddy collection of songs is JJ Cale’s version of “Now, Mama don’t allow no guitar playing round here“.   The version of this song that I first recall hearing was that of The Limeliters, who do not refer (as Cale does) to “My Mama“.   So, I’d always understood the song to be about boarding-house owners, rather than natural-born mothers, and hence a fine metaphor for the suffocating nanny culture that was the US of the 1950s.  I cannot find their version online.

Of course, a mention of The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters would be incomplete without a reference to their song about Harry Pollitt, long-time General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.




The Yogyakartan Candidate

An explanation of Bam’s aloof style and strategic cunning in terms of the idioms of traditional Javanese kingship, by Edward Fox in Aeon Magazine, here.   Fox could also have mentioned the first-term Cabinet of Rivals as another example of this idiom, absorbing one’s enemies.

An excerpt:

The Javanese have a word for this kind of bearing. They call it halus. The nearest literal equivalent in English might be ‘chivalrous’, which means not just finely mannered, but implies a complete code of noble behaviour and conduct. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who wrote some of the most important studies of Javanese culture in English, defined halus in The Religion of Java (1976) as:

“Formality of bearing, restraint of expression, and bodily self-discipline … spontaneity or naturalness of gesture or speech is fitting only for those ‘not yet Javanese’ — ie, the mad, the simple-minded, and children.”

Even now, four decades after leaving Java, Obama exemplifies halus behaviour par excellence.

Halus is also the key characteristic of Javanese kingship, a tradition still followed by rulers of the modern state of Indonesia. During my period of study in Indonesia, I discovered that halus is the fundamental outward sign or proof of a ruler’s legitimacy. The tradition is described in ancient Javanese literature and in studies by modern anthropologists. The spirit of the halus ruler must burn with a constant flame, that is without (any outward) turbulence. In his classic essay, ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture’ (1990), the Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson describes the ruler’s halus as:

“The quality of not being disturbed, spotted, uneven, or discoloured. Smoothness of spirit means self-control, smoothness of appearance means beauty and elegance, smoothness of behaviour means politeness and sensitivity. Conversely, the antithetical quality of being kasar means lack of control, irregularity, imbalance, disharmony, ugliness, coarseness, and impurity.”

One can see the clear distinction between Obama’s ostensibly aloof style of political negotiation in contrast to the aggressive, backslapping, physically overbearing political style of a president such as Lyndon Johnson.

Traditionally, the Javanese ruler triumphs over his adversary without even appearing to exert himself. His adversary must have been defeated already, as a consequence of the ruler’s total command over natural and human forces. This is a common theme in traditional Javanese drama, where the halus hero effortlessly triumphs over his kasar (literally, unrefined or uncivilised) enemy. ‘In the traditional battle scenes,’ Anderson notes:

“The contrast between the two becomes strikingly apparent in the slow, smooth, impassive and elegant movements of the satria [hero], who scarcely stirs from his place, and the acrobatic leaps, somersaults, shrieks, taunts, lunges, and rapid sallies of his demonic opponent. The clash is especially well-symbolised at the moment when the satria [hero] stands perfectly still, eyes downcast, apparently defenceless, while his demonic adversary repeatedly strikes at him with dagger, club, or sword — but to no avail. The concentrated power of the satria [hero] makes him invulnerable.”

Even to seem to exert himself is vulgar, yet he wins. This style of confrontation echoes that first famous live TV debate in the election of 2012 between Obama and Romney, in which Obama seemed passive, with eyes downcast, apparently defenceless (some alleged ‘broken’) in the face of his enemy, only to triumph in later debates and in the election itself.

Like a Javanese king, Obama has never taken on a political fight that he has not, arguably, already won

But such a disposition is not just external posturing. Halus in a Javanese ruler is the outward sign of a visible inner harmony which gathers and concentrates power in him personally. In the West, we might call this charisma. Crucially, in the Javanese idea of kingship, the ruler does not conquer opposing political forces, but absorbs them all under himself. In the words of Anderson again, the Javanese ruler has ‘the ability to contain opposites and to absorb his adversaries’. The goal is a unity of power that spreads throughout the kingdom. To allow a multiplicity of contending forces in the kingdom is a sign of weakness. Power is achieved through spiritual discipline — yoga-like and ascetic practices. The ruler seeks nothing for himself; if he acquires wealth, it is a by-product of power. To actively seek wealth is a spiritual weakness, as is selfishness or any other personal motive other than the good of the kingdom.”