Saturday 28 July 2012

Olympic Ceremony, Some Thoughts

It’s not often I see a presentation of the United Kingdom actually represents the country I live in, but last night’s Opening Ceremony was close. True, there was a little too much texting and scones but I still recognised the place being portrayed.

The beginning, which incorporated the Thames, the tube, some clash and a pan out to London so we could get the Eastenders ‘doofers’ set the tone perfectly. A bit silly, but at it’s heart the certainties of geography with Father Thames flowing through a city that has changed so much and so little over the last 2,000 years.
The first bit didn’t speak to me particularly. I am quite comfortably a city dweller and all bucolic, pretty countrysidey stuff makes me think that someone will shortly be ritually murdered and morris-danced on. I also find that the whole Betjeman/Major ‘shady girls bicycling through sleepy lanes’ type of nostalgia is cloying and a bit vacant. That said, filling a stadium with shire horses and geese and that is a beautifully daft thing to do. 
Our countrysidey bit didn’t last long though, soon a smug Kenneth Brannagh in sculptured sideboards signalled the industrial revolution. Grey workers skulked out from under the big oak tree like freddies under a rock and belching factory towers thrust forth from the ground and there are lots of drums. The drums are lead by a deaf drummer with wild hair and they make lots of noise, people bustle and hammer and such. Eventually the chaos erupts with a Thames on fire and the smelting of a last ring that is hoisted up to make the Olympic symbol. This is the first part where I am confronted by more than just spectacle. Although we are presented with the traditional ‘dark satanic mills’ image, the pandemonium is not just smoke and smell and chaos, it’s creativity. It argues that the industrial revolution was a creative act and that art comes from chaos and individuality. We also had a march of Jarrow Workers, Suffragettes and others, implying that the chaos also created moves in individual freedoms and that something like the industrial revolution was necessary. Of course a huge ceremony is not the place to discuss the repercussions of the upheavals of the nineteenth century, but I found it at least a little more nuanced than the usual fairy tale, taking in the practical benefits as well as the downside.

Is it at this point that James Bond and the Queen parachuted into the stadium? I can’t remember. I liked that bit, it was a silly bit of grandstanding which gave the Queen a decent entrance without pomp and a big cheeky wink. That’s almost like the public face of Britain, the act of suave urbanity and daredevil lack of deference.

Then there was the whole NHS/clean your whites whiter than white/Mary Poppins vs Voldemort bit.   As a premature child with very little chance of survival and not rich parents, I do not find myself being very cynical when it comes to the NHS. I thought it very apt to celebrate the NHS as representative of modern England and the social experiments and advances that have happened post war. It is a way of celebrating Britain’s more modern successes, a success that doesn’t rely on   war or jingoism. I also liked the link to children’s literature via Great Ormond Street. I particularly liked the choice of children’s literature, as that allowed us to ignore the issues of cannon or rely on our cliched greats and pick literature that is accessible, well known, produced by both sexes and still going strong today. Like the NHS element, it allowed celebration of modern Britain, not harking back to old glories but also not imagining some non-existent yoof renaissance. It also allowed for some fun as flocks of Mary Poppi repelled Voldemort, Captain Hook and Cruella DeVille. It managed to celebrate our social successes and culture without being at all pompous or cliched.
And if it approached pompous, there was always the LSO/Rowan Atkinson sketch to debunk it.
Next was the bit with the music. This did veer a little towards a Channel 4 ‘Yoof Season’ ident but was saved by three things. The first was that the music was a full 30 odd years of pop-picking Gold, we didn’t get the old story of today’s youth, we got the music to provide a throughline to youth of the past years. The story was cute, the kiss was lovely and the couple were nice together - it seemed quite lovely to have a little romance scene in the middle of it all. Finally, the link between music and technology with the reveal of Berners-Lee sitting at his white boxes. If the last section was about the past, than this was about the future. A future that managed to be optimistic without being utopian, namely that we’ve had good music in the past and will probably get more to come and that things will get increasingly digitally connected. 
Then was the parade of peoples, apparently Fiji came out to the Beejees, but I didn’t pick up on that.
And at the end the extremely beautiful olympic flame thing, the use of young athletes to light the flame and the wheeling on of some old codgers to hang around, and in one case, sing.
Not the perfect ceremony, some of it was muddled and much of it was odd, but as a presentation of this country as it is now, with very little sentiment and a nice bundle of funny stuff, I don’t think it could have been any more appropriate.

For a completely different but very interesting reading of the ceremony click here.

All yours

Saturday 21 July 2012

Review: The Notable Man by John Ginger

And now as an end to this mini-iceage of an unseasonable Goldsmith Season, I’m going to look at John Ginger’s biography ‘A Notable Man’, especially in comparison to Ralph Wardle’s earlier biography.
The first difference is that there is a 20 odd year difference between the earlier Wardle and the later Ginger. The second is that The Ginger is almost twice the thickness of the Wardle. That would imply that there has been more things discovered about Goldsmith in that time. Unfortunately not.
Ginger has padded out his biography with two elements, life -n- times stuff, and psychology. Although some of the life -n-times stuff was interesting, was it really necessary to have long, involved descriptions of the political shufflings of the Bute administrations to understand the life of writings of Oliver Goldsmith? I would suggest not. Goldsmith is such an apolitical writer, even his reforming of manners type of writing has much more to do with fashions and fads than politics. Nor did I find all the drawn out lives of every incidental character or object Goldsmith interacted with to be very useful. These Interjections also cause Ginger to lose the thread of the narrative, meaning there are frequently times when we cannot fully follow where Goldsmith is and what he is doing. 
The second padding, psychology, is more of a problem. He has obviously read and enjoyed Walter Jackson Bale’s Samuel Johnson biography (and to be honest, what sane person hasn’t?) which makes him want to create a psychological portrait of Goldsmith. The trouble is that the portrait he creates is neither clear nor consistent. At the end of the book he declares that Goldsmith didn’t have any real feelings for people, and it was the construction of a fake, genial Goldsmith, a rational being and the dark, emotional black hole that was his real personality that creates the inconsistencies in his character and presentation. However, this interpretation comes out of nowhere, as beforehand the only talk he has given to Goldsmith’s psychological profile is his pull between escapist fantasy and the practical and dull details of life. Wardle mostly leaves the psychology of Goldsmith to the reader, discussing his intellect and the broad and eclectic nature of it, rather than any description of his personality.

Is it an unfair portrait?

Ginger’s reluctance to tell any of the classic Goldsmith anecdotes, or merely to allude to them takes away a lot of the pleasure of the text. I can see why he doesn’t just want to repeat the stories and create the quaint Goldsmith of popular imagination but a few of those anecdotes may have lightened up a story which inexplicably becomes doom and gloom by the end. Apparently Goldsmith hates himself, feels he has wasted his talent, is embarrassed about not getting a medical degree and generally fed up with a dog-like existence. While he also writes ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and chatting with friends. (Incidentally, Ginger takes great pains to say that all of that play are stolen from Isaac Bickerstaff’s ‘Love in a Village’. He does this by picking out details of plot the two plays share, details that seem pretty characteristic of much eighteenth century comedy - frustrated lovers &c.)
The astute reader may have picked up on the fact that I did not particularly enjoy this biography. I found the more John Ginger was trying to convince me not to like Oliver Goldsmith, the more I didn’t like John Ginger. I found Ralph Wardle to be far kinda to dear Goldy.
There is, however an odd similarity in the way both biographers conclude that Goldsmith rather neglected to develop or properly utilise his talent as if his talent didn’t in some way rely on Goldsmith being Goldsmith. If Goldsmith was an underachiever, he’s the kind of underachiever I want to be (though I’ll pass on the early ‘death by vomiting’)

Monday 16 July 2012

Review: Oliver Goldsmith's 'A History of the Natural World'.

After reading The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith, I had a fancy for a little more of the man and his writings. The God of Books must have been smiling down on me as I found a Goldsmith book at the fair run by the school I work at. The book cost 5 pence and it is a copy of Goldsmith’s History of the Natural World, much abridged but put together with some absolutely gorgeous water colours of the animals.
I haven’t sat and read it through, I did try but there wasn’t enough space between the seats on a bus to open it and it is very heavy. However, I have had many long picks through it and I find the book utterly charming and lovely.

Pictures aside, there is the joy of Goldsmith’s writing. Although much of what he wrote in this book was cribbed off other people, he still managed to make the prose his. It is easy to read, quick, active and he has a brilliant way of anthropomorphising animals. Even more entertaining for the modern reader is when he uses some less than kosher information, such as the fact that Gorillas like to steal human women for their own pleasure and when angered ‘make use of clubs for defence’.

Superstition is not beyond Goldsmith either, he talks about the ‘hideous note’ of the owl and talks about the beliefs that they signal death. I particularly enjoyed the rant he goes into about dolphins, a creature that in this book are found in the section labelled ‘fish’. In this, he moans about how many fables and stories there are about dolphins saving people. ‘Scarce an accident could happen at sea but the dolphin offered himself to convey the unfortunate to shore’. He doesn’t understand why they are given this character as they are ugly and completely unloveable, thus revealing that he has probably not ever met a dolphin.
Goldsmith then goes onto talking about sharks and their power and voracious appetite. He talks about how sharks would ‘unpeople the oceans’ were it not for the fact that the shark’s ‘upper jaw projects so far above the lower’. This made me laugh, as in the case of jaws, Goldsmith could well be describing his own preposterous fizzog.

I like how Goldsmith’s own prejudices litter the book. A cat is ‘a faithless friend’ and the ‘only animal of it’s tribe whose services can more than recompense the trouble of his education’. A dog however is, ‘the most intelligent of known quadrupeds’ and is ‘more faithful than the most boasted among men’. Goldsmith does not seem to be merely writing for money, he reveals some genuine love of animals, celebrating the decline of cock-fighting in his age and suggesting a reason why they are such fierce fighters, he reckons it is because a cock is ‘salacious’ and must defend his harem against other cocks. I can picture him skimming his source books and becoming very interested in what he read.
(I remember reading some Goldsmith somewhere, where he is hiding from creditors and so has to spend all daytime in his room, where he does amateur natural history on the spiders that share it with him).
A reflection of my own animal prejudices is that I have read less of the fish and insect part of the book, but all of the birds and mammals. The scorpion is apparently ‘infinitely more hideous’ than the lobster and he finds flea bites to be worse in England than the continent, and blames the weather for it.
It’s hard to know who this repackaging of the book is intended for. I assume that Goldsmith’s words are mainly being used to be a way of carrying the pictures. When it was produced, it was a readable and fascinating description of the private lives of known animals and an insight into others which were far more exotic seeming than a modern person with access to David Attenborough can ever really imagine.
But now the text is less informative, and it where Goldsmith veers into his own ideas that brings the book to life. As always, Goldsmith can be informative, funny and even a bit touching, as his description of a dodo testifies. 

“This silly simple bird makes great weight of it’s slowness, appearance of stupidity it can be easily caught and is good and wholesome eating. Three or four dodos are enough to dine a hundred men”. 
Goodbye dodo.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Clarissa, Big Read for June

I have been going on a journey recently. In January I started Clarissa with a group of other foolish readers. Many have fallen out of the race. Many are hobbling along. I was behind but have grit my teeth and ploughed through to mid-June and I have to say, my opinions of the book are not so very different from the first.
Clarissa tells its story with utter commitment to the daily psychological reality of the story. It forces you into people’s heads, into their hearts and souls and makes you feel rather dirty doing it. Especially now we are spending more time with Lovelace than we have before. His letters feel clammy and uncomfortable as a reader and I can never believe that he is being totally honest, even in his letters.
There have been many times in this read that I have yearned that Samuel RIchardson had an editor (I even wanted to tell him the other week) but then I remember that he did have an editor, he had many. Richardson actively sought people who would make his work shorter but they all said that he should write longer.
His publisher told him that in his style, ‘ where verbosity becomes a virtue’, because it conveys the patterns and repetitions of real life. He gathered huge salons of women with whom he tried to edit the work, but everyone kept telling him to keep it long and make it full of redundant letters, so he did and the book was a huge success.
Sometimes I feel I should just give it up and read Shades of Grey but then a little line will pop up and keep me going.
The other #Clarissa readers are here, go cheer them on.