Thin End of the Wedge

Or, my way of sliding back into blogging on a daily basis. I blame the Guardian and its comment section, cif. I spend all the time frittering away my deathless prose on idle posts, instead of focusing the energy on Beautiful Railway Bridge.

Some photos, while I try to work out where to go from here. These are from Campbeltown.

And this little Dutch barge is from Tarbert.

These last two are from Keswick, in the Lake District, where I went for a few days in July. I lived there in the 1980s, and the visit was part walk down memory lane, part meeting an old friend from Seattle, who was visiting the UK.

I despair of taking a good photo in the Lake District. It’s been so blighted by the picturesque that all paths lead to views out of which an enterprising postcard company has already sucked the life. Wordsworth and his cronies have much to answer for. These are the best I could do.

Thanks for visiting in such numbers, even while I’ve posted nothing new. I will do better.

Here Be Dragons

Dragon Killing St. George

Today is Saint George’s Day, when the English celebrate the killing of exotic mega-fauna on the dubious theological grounds that they represent Satan and all his Works. Or, for the political Right, the non-white hordes sweeping in like a tsunami to steal our jobs and housing. I’ve no idea if the gentleman below feels the same way, but if you crave a tattoo like this, then you have strong feelings about being English.

George and the Dragon Tattoo

Saint George is reputed to be a Roman centurion from Greece, tortured and executed by Diocletian in the last great persecution of Christianity. The legend states that the Empress Alexandra and a pagan priest, Athanasius, were so impressed they converted on the spot and were also martyred. Crusaders brought the legend back to Europe, along with a story drawn from Greek Orthodox iconography, which portrays George slaying Satan, represented by the Dragon.

So all the elements were there for the standard artistic iconography. George is of course a knight, mounted on a rearing horse, stabbing downwards with his lance at the cowering beast. Who isn’t very big. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like a fair fight. The captive Maiden represents Alexandra, but Athanasius doesn’t get a look in. Here’s Paolo Uccello’s portrayal, in which the inherent unfairness is highlighted by the Maiden seeming to lead the Dragon on a leash. Far from being under threat, she is actually inviting Saint George to stab her pet through the eye.

St  George and the Dragon Paolo_Uccello

There was always the possibility of romantic involvement in this scenario, and it took the sentimental Victorians to bring that into the art. Here is Edward Burne-Jones’ take on the situation. The Maiden is clearly besotted by her Hero.

Saint George and the Dragon Edward Burne-Jones 1600

It took those filthy-minded Surrealists, and a Johnny Foreigner, to really open up the can of worms lurking inside the symbolism. Giorgio de Chirico’s Maiden is naked and lusting after her saviour. There are even waves crashing on the shore to go with the whole lance thing.

Saint George and Dragon Giorgio de Chirico

But is she? Could it be a look of apprehension at being caught up once more in the Patriarchy, after a blissful respite with the Dragon? Here is Silvia Pastore on the benefits of an absence of George.

The Absence of George

The legend of Saint George and the Dragon carries a lot of interpretations. For me, the Dragon represents every wild and natural thing in this world, a world with no place or tolerance for anything unregulated, unprofitable, or without an official purpose. We’re the monsters, and the Dragons are defenceless against us.

The Cottingley Fairies

In 1917, two cousins from Cottingley, near Bradford, photographed what they claimed were fairies. Frances Griffiths, 10 years old at the time, is seen here with their fairy friends, and Elsie Wright, age 16, is behind the camera. These were the famous Cottingley Fairies, vouched for by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of the world’s most rational detective.

I make no bones about messing with an actual photo, since the photo is itself a very successful hoax. It seemed only right to put young Frances in a leaf. Below are the five original photos, the first of which I used in my mash-up. It’s sad to think that these enterprising girls went on to live thoroughly conventional lives. But I’ll leave the last devastating word to Frances:

I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.

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Tales of Rigg Beck

I’ve written a couple of posts on Beautiful Railway Bridge about Rigg Beck, the purple house in the Newlands Valley, where I lived from 1985 to 1988. The first, in 2009, was a reminiscence about life there after hearing it had burned down in 2008. The second, a year later, was a request for stories and photos to celebrate Rigg beck in its glory days.

It’s impossible to separate Rigg Beck from its owner, Varya Vee, who was a friend as well as a landlady. So I was delighted to receive an email from Liam Merlyn, Varya’s grandson, who agreed to write something about his memories of his grandmother and Rigg Beck. Here he talks about helping Varya move to a nursing home in Kendal. Thanks, Liam, for sharing this.

Words of a Grandson

The biggest memory of Rigg Beck that I have is from when I was around eleven to twelve years-old. Me and my father went up to help my grandmother clean out the larder. When we walked through the huge wooden door, I was welcomed by that ever famous smell of mould, damp, and age. There were boxes lining the corridor, all ready to be shipped off to Kendal where my grandmother was moving to. By this time the house was broken beyond repair, walls were cracking, leaving deposits of dirt and dust along the floorboards. We made our way down the stairs, down into the basement where she had taken up permanent residence, barely going to the upper floors. On reaching the basement, the first thing I noticed was that the stuffed red fox in the glass case had gone. I asked where it was, and was told that people had broken in and stolen it. We walked into the sitting room to the right. It was dank, wet and fairly unpleasant, the ivy had grown up the windows, blocking most of the sunlight. By this time the cupboards had been emptied and things packed away. After leaving my grandmother to do her own thing, me and my father had gone to the larder to get it cleared out, although I spent most of the time in the library or exploring the house. In the larder, there were shelves lined with bottles and packets of food. There was also a basket on the floor, half-filled with grass straw, with a half-dozen egg shells in it. They were perfectly shaped and in fine condition, never having been used – they must have been there for a number of years. As we packed things up I found a lot of items with “best before” dates that ended during World War II! Cigarette packets, wine and whiskey bottles, food packets and rations.  This interested me a lot, I hadn’t even known these items still existed today.

Bag by bag, we moved everything up into the corridor, filling it till we could barely move through. Considering how small the larder was, there was an unbelievable number of items to come out of there. Doing just this took up around three or four hours, and by the time we were finished we were hungry. My grandmother made us some jacket potatoes in the Aga – needless to say these came out like rocks so we had a sandwich instead. I spent the rest of the day roaming the house and garden, or perhaps forest is a better term as that’s what it was, a vast area filled with huge trees and bushes. I spent some time down by the beck, skipping stones and jumping from one rock to the other before going back up to the house.

Back in the library, I browsed the many shelves filled with books before settling for one by Oscar Wilde, at the time not knowing who he was. I went room-to-room, each time finding something new to pique my curiosity. I spent quite a lot of time imagining the house as it was, back in the day when the family was living there as children, mentally seeing them sat around in the dining room on the ground floor, or my father in his bedroom on the top floor.

I haven’t been inside Rigg Beck since that day.

As a child, I hadn’t been interested in knowing about my grandmother’s life, where she was from, what she did twenty, thirty, forty years ago. That is one of my regrets. As with my grandfather, I’d have loved to have asked them about their stories of the war, and what their lives were like before that. Had I have been older, I’d have understood them better, instead of seeing them as just another person – my grandparents, war veterans, artists, and part of the working class of 1950.


Cutty Sark: Riding High

It’s wonderful to see the Cutty Sark fully restored after what seemed like a disastrous   fire in 2007. And the decision to raise her up on a sea of glass, allowing the public to walk beneath her keel, was inspired. Here is the Official Website for the ship, and photo galleries from the Guardian and Independent.

There’s something about sailing ships that makes me go all misty-eyed. Perhaps it’s the idea of a vessel not imposing itself on the world, but shaped by the world – the exigencies of wind and wave perfectly harnessed and in communion with its element. Hence the elegance, both visually and in the scientific sense, of a theory fitting the facts as a hand fits a glove.

Long may she delight generations of people not yet born.

Missing the Point by a Mile: Stewart Lee and the Observer Commentariat

Stewart Lee, stand-up comedian, has been writing an Observer column for the past few months. Part of the pleasure is seeing how many of the commentariat think he’s serious. He does make serious points, but they’re cloaked in absurdist humour that makes categorical statements appear as if he actually believes them. Some readers get extremely offended and even try to correct his mischievous misinformation. I think he understands this and consciously writes his material as a snare for the ones who won’t get it.

This week’s article by Stewart Lee – Shame on you, Alex Salmond, for selling us out to the Bullingdon Club – is subtitled, The loss of 5.5 million Scots would mean 5.5 million fewer voices to say no to Cameron’s cronies. Fair point, now that Scottish independence is front and centre of the political parade ground. Bit of a back-hander, though, implying as it does that the English are so thick they’ll vote against their own interests every time. To be fair, he also attacks Alex Salmond and makes surrealistically egregious slurs against Scotland. I particularly enjoyed, “It was that treacly Scottish heroin that finally freed my imagination to make me the important artist I am today.”

Some of the material in the article is a retread of this video of Stewart Lee talking about national identity. The article’s brilliant, as much for some of the baffled, spluttering responses as for the content. And the video is hilarious. His Glasgow nightclub audience has a sense of humour, unlike some of the people commenting on the article.

A Temple to Atheism? Dear God, No!

I have been driven to prayer by faux philosopher, Alain de Botton’s idea for a “temple to atheism” in the City of London, as outlined in this Guardian article. Why does he want this temple? Because he thinks Richard DawkinsChristopher Hitchens, and other militant atheists are a “destructive force.” In other words, he wants a kinder, gentler atheism that stresses positivity and goodness, with an awe-inspiring building to evoke the correct response.

I think most people seek positivity and goodness in their own way, atheists and believers alike. Including Dawkins, who recognizes that the lies and institutionalised power of religion are the enemies of reason, and any happiness derived from religion depends on studiously ignoring the reality of how the world works. I don’t think Dawkins et al are being overly zealous in combatting what would be insane ideas if someone had only invented them just a moment ago. With hundreds or thousands of years of tradition behind them, they have accumulated an entirely undeserved authority. We think Scientology is utter bollocks, a cynical, money-making scam, but time will turn it into an established Truth.

That said, I part company with Dawkins in not thinking that religion will eventually succumb to the forces of reason, or that believers are influenced by everything in their holy books. Institutional religion has such deep roots in human societies that digging them all up is impossible – they’re like weeds, springing up where fear and longing meet a supernatural idea.

What makes this truth palatable is that we’re only human, and only give practical credence and expression to those parts of a holy book or political dogma that accord with the manners and mores of the society we inhabit. Obviously, it’s a chicken and egg situation, but societies do evolve in response to real events and real knowledge. Bad news if you live in a theocracy, because real knowledge is in short supply. For citizens of liberal democracies, religious institutions are generally more benign, their practiced doctrines more or less compatible with civilization. Even these societies have their fundamentalists, but they’re more likely to be marginalized. A glaring exception is the US, which has a thriving Christian Taliban, currently choosing the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

So I try to respond to people as fellow human beings, and refrain from criticizing their religious beliefs unless they bring them up, or behave in a completely unacceptable way. People are interesting and generally do the decent thing – I’d rather talk and try to understand where they’re coming from. I reserve my criticism and anger for the institutional coercion of secular societies and special pleading. Nobody should be exempt from secular laws.

This is the “temple” proposed by de Botton:

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.

Brilliant. Sounds like a really imaginative architectural project. I’d be proud to back something like that if only he didn’t tack the silly label of “temple to atheism” on it. Ask yourself, what does this project have to do with belief or non-belief? It’s about science, evolution, the whole glorious panoply of emerging life on earth. Isn’t that enough? And we already have such buildings. They’re called the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum among many others. The only way de Botton’s project could be a temple to atheism is if he installed an altar at its centre, housing an illuminated copy of The God Delusion. Even then, it would be pure idolatry.

The fact is that being religious does not preclude either respect for the scientific method or the well-established theories derived from it. Catholics, for example, accept the Big Bang and evolution, although they insist on a God somewhere in the process. By and large, only fundamentalists reject the basic tenets of science. By calling this a temple to atheism, he is in fact shutting the door in the faces of those believers who respect science. As atheists, we can’t afford to do this. We need all the help we can get to establish and maintain secular societies where both belief and non-belief are protected and tolerated.

As it happens, de Botton has already run into trouble with his daft label.

Discussions with City authorities about a possible site stalled because “they can’t be seen to be connected to anything to do with atheism”, the project’s architect, Tom Greenall, said.

Well, d’uh!

Please read the Guardian article, which has all the meat on its bones. I hope there’s a cif article on the subject soon, so we can all pile in with comments.