1st March 2002

Via the radio, heard one version of the origin of prison warders being called screws, and the origin of the expression screwed:

"Although it is a slang /colloquial expression for sexual intercourse, also means to be cheated, put in a disadvantageous position. This latter meaning seems to be related to the use of 'screw' as a slang name for a prison guard or warder. Until the mid 1800s, prisons, at least in England, were places of punishment only, with no concept of rehabilitation for the prisoners. One of the forms of punishment was to crank a handle attached to a large wooden box. The cranking did nothing, other than turn a counter. The prisoner had to do 10,000 turns in 8 hours, equivalent to one every 3 seconds or so. As an extra punishment a warder could tighten a screw to make turning more difficult. Warders came to be known as 'screws'. By inference, the prisoner was 'screwed' and, although 'screw' remained within the prison environment, eventually 'to be screwed' became widespread."

from the Phrase Finder bulletin board

I wonder if this is what this poem is talking about:

Some now are happy in the hive of home
Thigh over thigh and a light in the night nursery;
And some are hungry under the starry dome
And some sit turning handles.

- Louis MacNeice, from Autumn Journal

2nd March 2002

A friend, who I haven't seen for about five or six years, emails.
She says:
I'm living in Mexico.
I am the President of a company that doesn't exist.

Would any Hollywood studio like to bid for the story?

If only we knew how it ends . . .

4th March 2002

Paradise Lost

Consider these quotes:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;-
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
- Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations of Immortality

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face . . .
- St Paul, Epistle to the Corinthians

Of course, it was much sunnier when I was young . . .
- any old person

And I know just what they mean. Some time in my teenage years I lost the ability to perceive the outside world as I had been doing, as if some kind of filter or screen had been brought between my senses and reality. It seems that this is almost universal, an ordinary part of growing up, but it doesn't prevent it from being very annoying. I can still recover fragments of what that fuller perception was like, through dreams, memories and Proust-style smell or taste experiences, but the full monty, the seamless connection between me and the rest of the world, is denied to me.
Blake was aware of this when he said: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Some people seem not to lose this original perception, and retain it through their adult lives: Thoreau I'm sure was one of these, and maybe Blake and Whitman, and maybe all the other so-called seers . . . it can be recovered through drug use, though I've never tried - Aldous Huxley and mescalin, for example: "I looked down by chance, and went on passionately staring by choice, at my own crossed legs. Those folds in the trousers - what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the gray flannel - how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous!", and of course LSD.
My interest is really, why do our senses start being filtered? And what does it do to our history and our art?

6th March 2002

Paradise Lost cont.

What does it mean to us, that our brains, instead of processing all of the data received by our sense organs, block most of it, concentrating on the mundane information needed to get us through the day without being run over, fired from our jobs, or eaten by predators?
And do how we appease our longing to return to our childhood: with alcohol, music, drugs, anything to get more of the available information through.
Something Aldous Huxley said of his mescalin experience gives us a clue: "I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation - the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence."
Is this what we have always felt, then, that the growth to adulthood, with its concomitant dulling of perception, is the true Fall? Is this where the story of the expulsion from Eden comes from? Is it self-consciousness (which the child lacks), the self-observation (remember quantum physics tells us that any system is irrevocably changed by being observed) which separates us from the world?
If so, then we are banished from Eden, and like Cain, dwell in the Land of Nod: we are nomads, sleepwalkers.

8th March 2002


What is a dreamachine? Something built to reproduce this kind of experience:

"Had a transcendental storm of colour visions today in the bus going to Marseilles. We ran through a long avenue of trees and I closed my eyes against the setting sun. An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was out in a world of infinite number. The vision stopped abruptly as we left the trees."

Brion Gysin, Journal, 21st December 1958

Yup, I know it well, always in exactly this situation. The amazing thing about it is that vision is completely removed (unnerving while driving a car at high speed), replaced by random colour swirls or actual hallucinatory visions. These effects are usually transitory, but Gysin succeeded in prolonging them by designing the dreamachine, a pierced cylider spinning round a light source. Alas, I'm unable to try at home as my turntable went years ago . . .

William Burroughs on death:  "A gimmick. The time-birth-death gimmick. Can't go on much longer, too many people are wising up."
Which strikes one as very funny, just one of Burroughs' splendid logical jokes, until one remembers the life-work of Mr Perry. See Alamut, passim.

9th March 2002

History as Science Fiction

Reading Cortez and the conquest of Central America recently, I was struck by how the landscape of the Aztec empire and how it was described by the Spaniards resembled the jacket of a science fantasy paperback: towers, pyramids, lakes, causeways, hanging gardens, all in red and purple pastel colours. The invaders might as well have arrived by spacecraft.

Well, here's another historical story which in some aspects resembles science fiction: it's being made into a book just now, which the people who employ me may or may not publish.
China, 1421: the country has bounced back from Mongol occupation, and has grown rich: the Emperor has built the Forbidden City, and is looking to expand his trading opportunities. He outfits an enormous fleet - 107 giant ships, massive ten-masted junks, ten times the size of the biggest Western vessels:

and they go off around the world, via the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, visiting Africa, North and South America, Australia - in other words, a complete world tour, lasting two years.
Meanwhile, back at home, disaster: the Emperor has been toppled by his political opponents, and all traces of his reign have been erased: the Forbidden City burnt, the universities he founded destroyed, all likenesses of him removed. The fleet returns to port, and like time- or space-travellers returning home, finds everything changed. But they have little time to think about this as they are massacred straight away, their ships burnt, their trade goods, logs, charts and documents destroyed by the new ruling faction. The entire expedition is erased from the historical record - or is it? An Italian sailor, Niccolo da Conti, who had joined the fleet in India, managed to escape and trekked home to Europe, carrying maps and records of his time on this amazing voyage. His information was incorporated into Portuguese maps of the time, although he himself and the voyage he made are forgotten.

And what if? What if the Empire had survived the coup, and the successful voyage was consolidated with further trading and settlement? The world might be a very different place, not so?

10th March 2002


    Interesting-looking book . . .

    more details at Amazon . . .

11th March 2002


Aftenland means 'evening land' in Norwegian...

Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a deep bright ocean full of light and life. A mare's tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight. Swifts find a windy middle reach of sky and come twittering down so fast I think gnats have crossed my eyelids. In the last sector of apple green a Lockheed Connie lowers from Mobile, her running lights blinking in the dusk. Station wagons and Greyhounds and diesel rigs rumble towards the Gulf Coast, their fabulous tail-lights glowing like rubies in the darkening east. Most of the commercial buildings are empty except the filling stations where attendants hose down the concrete under glowing discs and shells and stars.

- from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

12th March 2002

Les Noces des Renards

What do you say when it's sunny and raining at the same time, what the meteorologists call a sunshower? It was always 'a monkey's birthday' with me - but there's a wide range of variants around the world, though most of them concentrate on birthdays and weddings. The commonest expression is 'a fox's wedding', used in Armenia and Kurdistan (if you can equate a wolf with a fox), Brazil, Bulgaria, the UK, Finland, India (jackal=fox), Italy, Japan, and Portugal.
Most opaque variant: 'A sunshower on one's wedding day means that the groom has eaten unheated food.' (Cape Verde Islands - what are they thinking of?)

13th March 2002

Stories of the Monsoon - No. 1

The Indian Ocean has been one of the cradles of maritime development: boatbuilding, sailing technique, navigation and so on. Buckminster Fuller, in one of his splendid 'Everything I Know' lectures, went so far as to suggest the human maritime experience as the origin of the Garden of Eden story, thus:
Adam = Man
Eve = Boat
Serpent = Sea
Apple = World
Knowledge = Ability to sail to windward, i.e. against the wind direction, thus opening up the ability to go where you like.
Certainly ships and shipping were the first examples of far-ahead technology, perhaps because, as Bucky points out, they had to be manned 24 hours a day, so unlike an 8 hour working day, three times as much experience was gained on an ocean-going boat as on a land job in a given period.
And with all this concentrated human experience come the stories, thick and fast - here's one, from about 1000 A.D., or is it 1200, which may be true or may not, it doesn't matter . . . now read on

15th March 2002

The past is a foreign country, and vice versa

This is one of Sebastaeo Salgado's amazing images of the Serra Pelada goldmine in Brazil.
The part of the picture that grips me most is the central figure, leaning on the post: there's something about him which I recognize from renaissance painting - the clothes, certainly, but also his stance: where is it from?

The crossbowmen from the Pollaiuolos' Saint Sebastian, maybe? Nearly. Any ideas?

16th March 2002


I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings. Child's play. I abode there, bided my time:  where the mole

shouldered the clogged wheel, his gold solidus;  where dry-dust badgers thronged the Roman flues, the long-unlooked-for mansions of our tribe.

- Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns

17th March 2002


18th March 2002

The Pleasure of Lists

'There is no country which yieldeth more pleasure to the inhabitants, either for those common delights of hunting, hawking, fishing, fowling, and the rest, than Guiana doth; it hath so many plains, clear rivers, and abundance of pheasants, partridges, quails, rails, cranes, herons, and all other fowl; deer of all sorts, porks, hares, lions, tigers, leopards, and divers other sorts of beasts, either for chase or food. It hath a kind of beast called cama or anta (tapir), as big as an English beef, and in great plenty. To speak of the several sorts of every kind I fear would be troublesome to the reader, and therefore I will omit them . . .'

from Walter Raleigh, The Discovery of Guiana

Aw, you rotter, Sir Walter - I could sit here all day listening to this stuff . . .

Very much enjoying Geegaw's ongoing (I hope) series 100 Lies . . . beautifully crafted pieces of anti-information . . .

20th March 2002

The Almost Forgotten Art of the Text Adventure

Seeing everyone pointing out the very amusing text pong game reminded me of a similar game I wrote a while back, WessexWorld. It's still under development, you understand . . .

21st March 2002

they call it easing the Spring

"The ice of the night fills the river in the morning, and I hear it go grating downward at sunrise. As soon as I can get it painted and dried, I launch my boat and make my first voyage for the year up or down the stream, on that element from which I have been debarred for three months and a half. I taste a spring cranberry, save a floating rail, feel the element fluctuate beneath me, and am tossed bodily as I am in thought and sentiment. Then longen folk to go on voyages."

Thoreau, Journal 16th March 1860.

(Thoreau usually launched his boat for the year in the third week of March).

"We become, as it were, pliant and ductile again to strange but memorable influences; we are led a little way by our genius. We are affected like the earth, and yield to the elemental tenderness; winter breaks up within us; the frost is coming out of me, and I am heaved like the road; accumulated masses of ice and snow dissolve, and thoughts like a freshet pour down unwonted channels."

Ibid., 21st March 1853

22nd March 2002

August Sander,
'Three Farmers
on the way to a
Dance, 1913.'

There they are, boys on the brink of adulthood, forever poised on that dirt road, forever wearing their best clothes, full of the confidence that their dandyish canes and hats give them, as they prepare to be cocks of the walk at the evening's shindig.
But for me, the sucker-punch of the picture, what Barthes calls the 'punctum' ('that accident [of photographic detail] which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me')), is not part of the image at all, but is in the caption.
It is the date:  1913.
These young men are destined to go into the trenches in Flanders and die. Maybe they didn't - maybe one or all of them survived, but the statistics show that in all probability they had only a few years to live at the time the photograph was taken, and none of their arrogance or swaggering charm could help them.

(Minutes after this entry went up, a reader mailed me to point out that Richard Powers has written a novel circling around this subject. As Paul has said many times, 'there is not a thought in our heads that has not been worn shiny by other brains.')

23rd March 2002

To the Eynhallow kirk, my fishing boat Skua,
The sail and the oar also.
Erling, our holy prodigal is there,
Gaunt with heavenly bread.
His net is a bunch of various holes,
A thing of laughter to fish.
Lost in prayer, the hands of the brothers
Are clumsy with ploughshares.
Rooted in praise, their tongues
Compel corn and oil
From the seven ox-dragged seasons.
Their queen is a stone woman,
Their lord a scarecrow with five red tatters.
Mild as a tree of doves,
Bui's wrath is no more to them
Than a painted hawk on a sail.
The net to those long robes
Who call the codling 'little silver brothers'
Even as they suck the bones clean
All the brightening days of Lent.

from Viking Testament, by George Mackay Brown

24th March 2002

Two cartoons, both set in zoos

Heard both these described on the radio, so if anyone knows who drew them or where they're to be found . . .

Cartoon no. 1
Bored-looking middle-aged woman at zoo, shopping bag, hat etc, passing bear cage. Bear holding out paws through bars imploringly.

Bear:  Surely you remember - the porridge, the beds . . . No? You must remember, you broke the chair!

Cartoon no. 2
At the penguin enclosure. Irritable-looking man and zookeeper leaning over wall looking at penguins.

Man:  So what's the idea of having some larger than others?

26th March 2002

Catalogue of artworks present in Pictures From An Institution

On campus at Benton:

David Smith sculpture
'. . . in the months since the figure had been put in place a shrike had deserted for it a neighbouring thorn tree, and an archer had skinned her leg against its farthest spike.'

In Constance's office:

'four or five black and orange ellipsoids, set on grey wires, trembled in the faint breeze of the air conditioning unit . . .'

In Gertrude's apartment:

Bronze sweet potato
'the first thing Sidney had ever been afraid of . . . its ramifications were so alarming as almost to make it (what they said it was) sculpture.'

'romantic, showed a kidney being married to the issue of a sterile womb, amid trailing clouds of mustard . . .'

'classical, and showed two lines on a plain - or plane, perhaps.'

At the Whittakers' house:

'their motto was, If it isn't a Holbein, it isn't a picture.'

Snake pictures
Made by John, in indian ink with a crowquill pen.

In Dr Rosenbaum's classroom:

'A Representation of Several Areas, Some of Them Grey, one might have called it; yet this would have been unjust to it - it was non-representational.'

At the Rosenbaums':

Cro-Magnon painting of a buffalo
Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat
Vermeer, Girl with the Flute
Degas, Degas' Father listening to Pagans
Several Cezannes
Delacroix, Portrait of Paganini
Kokoschka, The Tempest
Uccello, The Rout of San Romano
Persian painting of a battle between Owls and Crows
Sketch of Mahler Conducting

A Vuillard
Two Klees

'an odd little statuette, a bull cut and twisted from black sheet-metal . . .'

Art Night at Benton College:

Wooden sculptures
'some of the statues looked like improbably polished objets trouves, others looked as if the class had divided a piece of furniture among themselves, lovingly finished the fragments, and mounted the results as a term's work.'

'that part of the gallery looked like dawn in a cuckoo-clock factory.'

Welded statues
'Sometimes a statue had four legs and was an animal; sometimes it had two legs and two arms, and was a man. But sometimes it had neither arms nor legs, and was an abstraction . . . Gottfried said that dey madt him feel goodt ven he lookedt at dem.'

'. . . animals in marshes - or jungles:  all glowed.'
'. . . paintings of nothing at all . . . by the time a Benton artist got through exploiting the possibilities of her medium, it was too dark to do anything else that day.'

Miss Rasmussen's studio:

East Wind, sculpture with railroad tie and brass rod.
'a man who floated in the air . . . he fitted into the rectangle of the railroad tie as a cat, fast asleep, fits into the circle of itself.'

27th March 2002

Ineluctable modality of the visible

28th March 2002

You do not play things as they are


El nino busca su voz.
(La tenia el rey de los grillos.)
En una gota de agua
Buscaba su voz el nino.

- Lorca

[A man] is like a quincunx of trees, which counts five - east, west, north, or south

- Emerson

For casual reading, in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch, there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl's Own Paper.

- George Orwell

The Abatwa are very much smaller people than all small people; they go under the grass and sleep in anthills; they go in the mist; they live in the up country in the rocks... Their village is where they kill game; they consume the whole of it, and go away

- anonymous Zulu

One of the characteristics of the dream is that nothing surprises us in it. With no regret, we agree to live in it with strangers, completely cut off from our habits and our friends.

- Jean Cocteau

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