Friday, October 31, 2008

This again

This week's Patrick Wintour award goes to Richard Alleyne, the Telegraph's science correspondent.

Here's his piece about the discovery of Alexander Selkirk's island camp:

Cast away on a desert island, surviving on what nature alone can provide, praying for rescue but at the same time fearing the sight of a boat on the horizon.

These are the imaginative creations of Daniel Defoe in his famous novel Robinson Crusoe.

But the story is believed to be based on the real-life experience of Scottish sailor Selkirk, marooned in 1704 on a small tropical island in the Pacific for more than four years, and now archaeological evidence has been found to support his existence on the island.

A bit over-written, but it's nice when reporters make an effort to inject some originality into their copy, and I'm glad the Telegraph doesn't just insist on its reporters lifting the latest from the Mail's website. But what's this now? Science Daily – your source for the latest research news has more on the story:

Cast away on a desert island, surviving on what nature alone can provide, praying for rescue but fearing the sight of a boat on the horizon. These are the imaginative creations of Daniel Defoe in his famous novel Robinson Crusoe. Yet the story is believed to be based on the real-life experience of sailor Alexander Selkirk, marooned in 1704 on a small tropical island in the Pacific for more than four years, and now archaeological evidence has been found to support contemporary records of his existence on the island.

An article in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology presents evidence from an archaeological dig on the island of Aguas Buenas, since renamed Robinson Crusoe Island, which reveals evidence of the campsite of an early European occupant.

&c &c


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In other news... (why is this news?)

1. Gordon Brown finally finds someone more unpopular than him, and urges the media to get stuck in.

2. Conclusive proof Amanda Knox is innocent: her mother says so.

3. Tinfoil sales soar as the US election nears.* Could the Republicans steal the vote? Maybe says Peter Tatchell on the Indie's website; why aren't we more worried about it? and why don't people take the suggestion that Kerry threw the last election because he was a member of Skull and Bones seriously? asks Keith Mothersson.

You can't wholly scoff at this: US politics is a dirty, shambolic and often corrupt business (à la 2000 election in Florida); but good old incompetence is often the best explanation for things, as Brett Lock argues. You can't just say that cock-ups trump conspiracies, but note that the cock-ups and are generally what allow the "conspirators" to take advantage of them. Here's Time magazine on all the things that could go wrong, there's quite a few.

But in Ohio, the epicentre of claims of wrong-doing last time, I reckon a repeat is pretty unlikely. Unlike in 2004, the Democrats now control the state (perhaps the Republicans forgot to reset their voting machines in 2006) and I think it unlikely, to say the least, that they would be in on a grand conspiracy to rob their man (although they did, amusingly, misspell Joe the Plumber's name). Were a lot of Democrat voters to be turned away from the polls this time round, that really would be the cock-up to end all cock-ups.

* Obviously if Chuck Baldwin steals it in West Virginia I will look like a fool.

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EDW: Oswald von Wolkenstein

Let's revisit Theo Hobson's ravings for a moment. In bemoaning the coarseness, violence and immorality of the James Bond series he complains that Bond debases the traditions of chivalry:

In reality chivalry is simply incompatible with sexual hedonism. The heroic knight of medieval epic is a warning against sexual adventurism: his conquests are not of women but of various temptations. Chivalry is a tradition that encourages us to admire the sublimation of male desire rather than its indulgence.

Ah the good old middle ages: a time of brotherly love, virtue, easy living and tolerance. No matter that the chivalric literature of the day was as much escapism as the Bond stuff: in the 20th/21st century people like to dream of transcending the constraints and moral codes of an ordered society and acting pretty much as they please; in the middle ages courtly literature allowed the aristocracy a constraints from a harsg, cruel life defined by service to one's lord. The Knights Errant of literary tradition, you see, can go off on a whim for whatever cause they please rather than being bound by their feudal obligations and women are transformed from being either peasant girls to be ravished or units of property to mysterious, pure damsels.

At least the latter is how, I assume Hobson sees women in medieval literature. Its all bollocks, of course, there are quite a few "favours" granted to the knights in courtly literature. But it's easiest to grasp how much of a fantasy chivalry is by looking at the lives of some of the real life poet knights. The obvious English example is Thomas Malory: who wrote Le Morte d'Arthur, so tradition has it, while in prison for burglary, banditry and rape.

We don't know Malory's life story for sure, though, so let's go for an Austrian instead. The rather forbidding looking gent up top is Oswald von Wolkestein. He was something of a freebooter, travelling to the Holy Land, across southern Europe and Scandanavia. ("Gen Preussen, Littwan, Tartarei, Türkei, über mer, /gen Lampart, Frankreich, Ispanien mit zwaien küngesher /traib mich die minn auff meines aigen geldes wer.") You'll note he only has one eye, he lost that whilst having fun at a carnival, and spent much of his life feuding with his neighbours. He was also an accomplished poet, the last of the Minnesingers indeed, and an innovative composer.

Sadly I can't find any English translations of his poems, and I don't have one to hand, but his works give you a good flavour of the chivalric lifestyle. Ain guet geporen edelman, for instance, is a long litany of complaint about all the people who'd done him wrong, the misfortunes he'd suffered and includes the classic line "And then I got married just to make things worse." There are also love poems, of course, but many of the women encountered in his ballads are given the James Bond treatment; desires indulged rather than sublimated. In reality one suspects that he didn't indulge his desires as much as he would have liked to (does any man?) and so had to use his imagination instead.

Still, quite a fellow - and has a certain sense of style too (nice ermine that). I doubt Theo Hobson would have approved of him had they met.

Post Script: It's sometimes argued that the Age of Chivalry ended with Agincourt. Last week a group of eccentric Frenchmen tried to get the results retrospectively amended by charging the English with war crimes. Doubtless they would have been by modern standards, but that's the middle ages for you. The long tradition of holding up that era's mass slaughters as moral exemplars is far more pernicious than enjoying the adventures of a louche, fictional spy or a few legendary knights.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: a bad role model

James Bond is, according to quite a few people.

Paul Johnson: "the sadism of a schoolboy bully, the mechanical two-dimensional sex-longings of a frustrated adolescent, and the crude snob-cravings of a suburban adult".

Bidisha: "The Bond films are generally sexist. I don't like anything that descends from a sewer of misogyny."

Theo Hobson: James Bond's sexual career does real harm to the male psyche. Heroism, British boys learn from the age of five or six, involves treating women like toys, thrilling and dangerous toys. Women will admire, even worship you, if you are a cool philanderer. We must resist the urge to titter here: I seriously believe that Bond is a big factor in the sexual malfunction of our times; the difficulty we have finding life-long partners, and the normalisation of pornography.

It's easy to mock this sort of nonsense and quite rightly when it derives from people who have that meta-priggishness of the truly humourless: the inability to spot things that are not intended to be take too seriously; come on, it's not as if Bond is Flashman (more's the pity, Flashy is far more fun).

I'm surprised that this self-righteous attitude hasn't been more directed towards Bond's drinking; this is after all a character who has to be packed off to a health farm to dry out on occasions. Admittedly this aspect is toned down in the later films lest American sensibilities be offended – but you can't have Bond without the martinis and other drinks.

And yet herein lies the problem with Bond's character: his fastidious but promiscuous taste for drinks closely mirrors his creator's (one might say the same about women, I suppose). We might raise an eyebrow at the fact that this supposed Scotsman shows such a fondness for bourbon, but consider the signature martini (taken from Flemming's own favourite recipe).

Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?'...

(The passage is reproduced in full here).

Shaking the stuff weakens it by diluting it with ice-water, lemon peel is a bit effete compared with the sharp salt snap from an olive, and the prissy affectation of insisting on a mass-produced gin (NB: in strict fairness Gordon's was at least a bit stronger in those days, they've watered it down since) indicates a real problem with Bond and drinking. Showy bad taste. As the BBC article linked to at the top notes:

The third major charge against our superspy is harder to excuse - excessive brand usage. Fleming's novels were full of name checks for products. Bond drank Smirnoff vodka and Dom Perignon champagne and wore a Rolex. But the film franchise has taken this to even greater lengths... In Die Another Day he changed his mind on the vodka issue and preferred Finlandia.

… the purpose these brand adverts served in the Fleming novels wasn't as a generator of filthy lucre, but rather as an indicator of class.

How vulgar. Champagne, as I have noted before, is fine at breakfast and lunchtime, but a discreet and constant consumption of claret and brandy bespeaks a far great sophistication. As it is Bond seems like the sort of fellow who would insist one can never drink red wine with fish.

Bond, again like his creator, was an Etonian. One should not be surprised that a man who was schooled there should be a cold-hearted psychopath, a snob and have a brutish attitude to women. But that they should show such poor form with regard to drinks is a grave disappointment. It is, to use the adjective for the second time in successive days, Widmerpoolian; and his gravest failing in Powell's eyes was trying too hard.

It's one reason why I wouldn't even think to ask whether Bond is a good role model: how could he be?

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Monday, October 27, 2008

A pity that yacht didn't sink in shark-infested waters

Conventional wisdom seems to have it that Lord Mandelson, of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham is some sort of Machiavellian genius. That latest manifestation, apparently, is the way in which he made George Osborne look like an utter prat – surely not the most difficult thing to accomplish?

And yet, look at today's headlines: by shafting Osborne, Mandelson has brought on himself a constant drip of questions about his own dealings with Oleg Deripaska. The press scents blood and the pack probably won't be called off anytime soon. Both Mandelson and Osborne will probably survive, but will be weakened and, in turn, more of a liability to their parties. A pleasing symmetry that.

It's hard to take them all too seriously:

The others picked on him. He hadn’t gone to Eton, he wasn’t really one of them. He didn’t have blue blood, that’s why he didn’t quite fit in. They were all snobs. They called his dad a ‘curtain maker’. Because he was overweight they called him Jelly Belly and Georgie Porgy. He used to wear baggy jumpers to hide the flab.

But he’s always been ambitious and he tolerated that bunch because he used them as a stepping-stone. He knew he had to hang around in the right circles to get where he wanted.

Until you realise that this is the very type of person that enters politics these days: Widmerpoolian figures have always been with us - but it is troubling that he seems a role-model for so many leading political figures in both major parties today.

That politicians should seek to curry favour with the very rich is unfortunate, but not really much of a surprise. What's far more worrying is the fact that ones doing that currying seem to be people who have lived their lives entirely in the bubble of politicking, scheming, todaying without ever having anything to do with everyday life as it is lived by most people. American politics may be a vile, stinking snakepit but at least it throws up the likes of Obama and McCain: where are the British politcos with such varied life stories?

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: restoring liquidity

As policymakers and commentators scramble to rediscover Keynes in a desperate attempt to defuck the economy, let's follow the pack (for a moment) and remind ourselves of one of his most enduring statements: "My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne."

Remember also his dictum that when you save money in a time of recession you put someone out of work and - surely you'll all remember this - "in the long run we are all dead" and it's clear what we should do.

Remember champagne is best as a morning drink. The odd glass at breakfast time isn't enough to stave of a recession in itself, mark you, but it should make it a whole lot shorter than would otherwise be the case.


There's no one as Irish as Barack O'Bamaigh

Tongue in cheek (at least I really hope so), but just the thing to sing out when Massachusetts gives its electoral votes to the Democrat.

Kenyan to Fenian it's the American way.

Still, let's indulge in another great Irish tradition and enjoy a bit of begrudgery.

1. His great-great-grandfather was from Offaly.
See this is a worry. The place does not have an encouraging track record when it comes to churning out politicians. The current taoiseach, Biffo, is an Offaly man himself, of course. And his stint in office has not been terribly successful. Frankly Kenya offers a better set of role models compared with some of the place's politicians.

2. He's as Irish as our own JFK.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was your classic liberal elitist, you know. Far happier hob-nobbing with the English aristocracy and Hollywood stars. Anyone who prefers women to drink is not, by definition, a true Irishman. I think we'd better find out what Obama's preferences are in this matter.

3. John McCain is a true son of Ulster.
Stubborn as hell and belligerent, pretty much the archetype for the northern province of Ireland.* If even the Irish-Americans are adopting a partionist mindset towards all this then the unionists can surely say they have won.

4. Close links to a dodgy property developer.
That might be a little too much like a true Irish politician, you know.

Via, Roy Greenslade.

*NB: A small prediction. Obama will win comfortably. However, he will not take Ohio or West Virginia because Appalachia will not vote for him. Maybe it's not all about race after all, just the Scots-Irish backing their man over the Offaly man.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Trollied Tuesday II: what's in a name?

A couple of examples of the self-important foolishness to which this blog, and the Trollied Tuesday thing particularly, stand firmly in opposition.

The first is the suggestion that the Orcardian beer Skullsplitter be withdrawn from sale. The name was singled out in a study for the Portman Group.

It was highlighted in a report by management consultancy PIPC on the grounds its name could imply violence and also the impact the strength may have on the drinker.

Management consultants. Is there no field of life which they cannot make intolerable? Now if a well-known Belgian beer were to market itself as Wife Beater, PIPC might have a point. As it is, they can sod right off. You'll be fascinated to know that I have tried this beer– an entertaining taste, I thought, but it did not make me want to cleave anyone's skill in two – and I'd thought that the name was a warning of what would happen if you drank too many.

In reality, it's named after a Viking earl of Orkney – Thorfinn Hausakluif. There's a reason why there aren't many Viking chieftans with names like Ragnar the Responsible or Sigurd the Social Worker, but the ignorance aside, the logic of the Portman Group's recommendation is difficult to follow. There is a rather weaselly objection that is that if a name is "associated with" violence it should not be permitted: either they object on the grounds of taste (God knows what they'd make of the Dog's Bollocks beer) or they believe that the name might somehow inspire violence. To take this logic to an extreme, the beer should make drinkers want to rape and pillage along the east cost and maybe sack Newcastle on the way home. I don't think the sort of people who drink craft beers really do this very often, however.

The second suggestion comes from the government. It's part of a wider code of conduct for the drinks industry, including a ban on free drink being offered in bars, and contains the following suggestion:

It warns that drinks should not be promoted as a means of boosting one’s “social, sexual, physical, mental, financial or sporting performance”. The practice of selling cocktails called Sex on the Beach, or more sexually graphic names, will also be scrapped.

I don't particularly object to the main proposal. One could argue that getting a bunch of girls liquored up has a social benefit. I make no comment. However the banning of names that might associate alcohol with fun is plan silly. It so happens that I find drinks with names like Sex on the Beach to be garish, tasteless and vulgar and the type of person who drinks them to be of the same type. (Then again sex on the beach is a bit, well.. the sand is a problem) But it's really no business of government to be trying to stop any of this.

The idea that naming a drink is an absurd infantalising of people and suggests that no one can be trusted to make decisions about how they conduct themselves. I can see why the average drinker of Sex on the Beach might give you this idea, but using your prejudices as an excuse to interfere in people's lives is something always to be resisted.

As with Skullsplitter, there is a suggestion that, somehow, the name given to a drink dictates the way people will consume it and how they well act after drinking it. I've a nagging suspicion that there is a term from philosophy to describe this, but I'm damned if I can remember it. In any case, does anyone seriously think if the following gaudy, cloying concoctions were renamed along the lines I've suggested, that the people who enjoy them would turn into the sort of earnest puritan who ends up deciding policy.

  • Sex on the Beach - Diversity Awareness Seminar
  • Slippery Nipple - Empowering Women to Reject Objectification and Gender Stereotyping
  • Screaming Orgasm - Speech by the Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, Minister for Women
  • Long, Slow, Comfortable Screw - Public Health Initiative
William is drinking: Famous Grouse. Doubtless if it changed his name he'd be finding fewer things to complain about.

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Trollied Tuesday: Family Friendly Pubs.

Are generally a bad idea.

An increasing trend towards more “family friendly” pubs has not created the atmosphere of similar establishments on the Contintent. The “baby lager louts” who run wild and are left unchecked by parents have triggered a record number of complaints to compilers of The Good Pub Guide 2009.

Rising numbers of protests about children in bars have been registered from pubgoers who say that relaxing over a pint or a meal out is increasingly likely to be ruined by children’s unruly behaviour.

Quite. People who don't have kids themselves don't want to be around kids. Many parents will admit to finding other people's kids not quite so appealing as their own kids. Some parents, I believe, occasionally like a break from tantrum-throwing toddlers.

It's a similar argument to that used in favour of the smoking ban, that people who previously hadn't gone into pubs will now go into pubs. It ignores the fact that by doing so many more people who had been frequenting the pubs will go somewhere else.

Is it really so hard to train kids to stand outside with a packet of crisps and a can of vimto for a couple of hours?

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Brel encore

Another follow-up, this time to last week's Jacques Brel's post. Thanks to Charles Bremner's blog on The Times website, I learn that the auction of memorabilia was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Belgian singer's death. In discussing his enduring appeal, Bremner touches on the fact that Brel does not enjoy the full recognition and credit he merits in the English speaking world, and yet:

For people who lived those years, his anthems -- Madeleine, Les Bourgeois, Le Plat Pays, La Valse à Quatre Temps, Le Port d'Amsterdam -- are as much part of the soul as Beatles tunes are for English-speakers of that generation. Non-Francophones certainly know Ne Me Quitte Pas, which was reprised by Sinatra, Nina Simone, David Bowie and many others as If You Go Away.

If you want English versions of his songs, Scott Walker's your man as far as I'm concerned (Here's Mathilde for an example, poor picture quality but never mind). However Brel's been done a far graver dis-service by the Anglophone world in the transmission of his songs. You see the one that virtually everybody does know – sorta – is Seasons in the Sun. Terry Jack's mawkish dirge is an "adaptation" of Brel's Le Moribond; it was more recently given a whole extra layer of ghastliness by Westlife, the thought of it haunts me still.

This might help explain why Brel does not enjoy the status he ought to have in this part of the world. And yet, as you will ready perceive from listening to the original at the top of this post, Jacks didn't so much translate the song as perform a form of musical cannibalism in which he dismembered, chewed up and then regurgitated Le Moribond in a wholly different form. Brel's song is far spikier and terser; more bitter, cynical and subtle – and of course has far more humanity and pathos than the cloying, false and sentimental thing which has someone become so well known.

As a belated tribute on the 30th anniversary of Jacques Brel's death, it's worth remembering this.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

History in the making, poor old history

It's as good a time as any to revisit my predictions on Sarah Palin; not so much a pitbull with lipstick, then, more one of those annoying little yappy dogs that keeps snapping at your ankles but which you cannot boot into touch for fear some misguided fool will think badly of you for so doing - with lipstick. Looking back she's not quite an Eagleton-esqe liability, but nor is she a Nixon-esqe master of turning attack into defence (this is 1952 I'm talking about, remember).

However, I did highlight the potential for Troopergate to embarrass her: though the report on the affair is a classic example of the political compromise that satisfies no one. It found, in essence, that she abused her powers but was legally entitled to do so. (Thanks for that chaps). I also failed to spot the full capacity of a religious extremist for pandering to the more ignorant and hate-filled elements of society. Anyway, let's put her somewhere between Dan Quayle and Spiro Agnew in the scale of foolish picks and be done with the matter. Certainly I think my prediction holds up better than Dominic's comment on my original post "Well, here's to her becoming next VP. She should prove well up to the task."

Anyway, it would seem that McCain is regretting his choice (or the fact that he agreed to her being foisted upon him), as this report from the Sunday Times suggests. (NB: British reports on US politics always carry a health warning, however, it sometimes suits American politicians to leak things they are unwilling to release to the British media to the Brits in the full knowledge it will be picked up back home).

McCain has become alarmed about the fury unleashed by Sarah Palin, the moose-hunting “pitbull in lipstick”, against Senator Barack Obama. Cries of “terrorist” and “kill him” have accompanied the tirades by the governor of Alaska against the Democratic nominee at Republican rallies.

I suspect that both think the election is lost and Palin is planning her run for the White House next time round (with the support of the most detestable elements of her own party). But while Palin with one hand waves the Bible, with the other releasing the rats from the sewer; McCain on the other hand appears to have chosen the path of decency and honour by taking on the more deranged and hateful elements of his own party – getting booed for telling them that no, actually, Obama isn't a Muslim terrorist and would you please shut up about it as it makes the rest of us look bad. I won't help him at the polls, but if he can take on the worse elements of his own party, he might ensure that he goes down in history as one of the great honourable losers (like Wendell Wilkie in 1940, perhaps) rather than a gambler who staked his reputation and lost.

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A financial kneecapping

A forgotten victim of the credit crunch is... the Provisional IRA, according to the Irish Sunday Independent.*

Sources say that in recent years the IRA's financial bosses moved large amounts of money through front companies into a number of Wall Street financial institutions that were offering high dividends, but which have been devastated by the sub-prime market collapse. One source put the amount invested in the US institutions at €200m. They said most of this was made through the sale of commercial properties mainly here in the Republic.

*NB: not a reliable source when it comes to the Provos. But this is one of the stories that really ought to be true.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

EDW: Françoise Hardy

I haven't done one of these for a while, but this makes a nice follow-up to my post on Brel and Gainsbourg.

See, I don't think the French get enough credit for their throw-away pop music (much less their first-rate song writers). So here's Françoise Hardy with one of the finest examples of the former.

The combination of jaunty tune and melancholy is not an easy one to pull off (really, I think we had to wait for The Smiths to see its full effect in English) but this is such a fine example of it.

There is something so very French about this video - including the disastrously unsuccessful attempt at slapstick humour - that has an ageless charm to it.

Et la fille de Yé-Yé, elle est assez chic, n'est ce pas?

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: the best and worst of Scotland

A splendid idea from Scotland: a beer to help conserve red squirrels.

Part of the proceeds from sales of Red Squirrel Ale will be donated to the Dingwall-based Highland Red Squirrel Group.

Would you like to be asked, in a few years' time, "What did you do to help the red squirrel, Daddy?" and to find yourself unable to answer? I would not, and so I will be doing what I can to encourage the Atlas Brewery in Kinlochleven.

Now a lousy idea from Scotland. Bad as being over run by hordes of grey squirrels is, the fact that Scotland has apparently been over-run by a bunch of bullying, small-minded puritans is of far greater concern. The Scottish National Party's great idea to tackle drink-fuelled violence was to ban all those under-21 from buying alcohol from off licences.

Now, speaking as someone who, when I lived in Scotland, was assaulted on several occasions by precisely the type of person this law is targetting , I may say this is an abomination. Being bothered by Fife and Dundonian neds was bad enough, but not being able to drink wine at home would have been far, far worse.

It's bad enough that fans of the national football team aren't being allowed to get drunk before their game against Norway (good luck stopping the Norwegians, by the way, they put the Brits in the shade at that sort of thing), but the Under-21s ban is the sort of vindictive and pointless stunt that politicians love because it gives them cheap headlines and deflects attention way from the fact they aren't doing the boring long-term things that solve these problems.

Shuggy, is on the money by describing it as "stupid and illiberal". If the majority of Holyrood politicians think it's a bad idea, you really are getting into the palbably moronic territory. (As one of the MSPs says "a soldier returning from a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan at the age of 20 cannot buy a bottle of champagne from the off-licence to celebrate with his wife on his return".)

The people of Scotland have been asked for their views on this proposal. I hope and trust that the people of Scotland used their national genius for invective to full effect.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Ceci n'est pas une relique

Jacques Brel's pipe and other knickknacks associated with the great man are going under the hammer at Southeby's of Paris. The main attraction is the manuscript for Amsterdam, which is expected to fetch €50,000-70,000. The Economist lists some of the other items on sale.

In a remarkably comprehensive sale of Brel's manuscripts, recordings, photographs and personal belongings, which include his pilots' licence, his wallet, and his pipe. Sotheby's refuses to identify the seller, but it is clearly an intimate of Brel's who believed that his reputation would last a lot longer than that of an ephemeral pop singer.

In the current economic climate it might be a smart investment; like wine or maybe a form of cultural gold. A few of these YouTube clips will remind those of you who need reminding why this is so, even if such a comparatively humble item as a concert poster will set you back a thousand euros or so. (Than again, the euro might well be about to collapse, so those with dollars or - better - Swiss francs to hand might pick up a bargain that way).

But it's not the economics of the thing that fascinate so much as the question of why one would want to buy up Brel's personal effects. There is a particular pleasure in imagining oneself smoking his pipe, hoping that the tobacco will transfer - by a sort of spiritual osmosis - some of his qualities to oneself. It's nonsense of course, though one might pick up a sympathetic cancer by so doing, I suppose.

It's a curious thing, if you think about it, this desire to collect souvenirs of the great men of the past. There something of the gathering of relics to it; as if, to get to the French meaning of the word, the souvenirs themselves carried memories - and maybe other qualities too.

As an example of what I mean consider the other pre-eminent French language songwriter of the last century. Here's an excellent Vanity Fair article about plans to turn Serge Gainsbourg's house into a museum – something I would most certainly want to visit. It's understandable that his daughter, Charlotte, should want to keep the house exactly as it was at the time of his death (memory again) but there is something of magical (or at least the would-be magical) about it too - especially in the fans leaving votive offerings, like bottles of pastis, or plaintive messages on the walls of the house. It is reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the cult of the saints. "We miss you Serge – life is such a bore" is a prayer of sorts, after all, a plea for intercession against the tedium of life.

Now, I like the idea of a lecherous Jewish alcoholic as a Medieval saint. In fact one could extend the analogy. Jeanne Moureau's comment: "Even if you play Serge's songs in the middle of Africa, where nobody understands the words, they'll be caught" is the same principle behind the use of Latin in the Mass. Of course, we live in a post-Reformation age and the message works in the vernacular too. Here's a rare English language performance by Serge, I strongly urge you to listen to it, it'll take you on to another plane of existence altogether; the words may lack the debauched majesty of the original ("Me surexcitent/Tes petits seins de Bakélite/Qui s'agitent"), but the spirit survives the translation.

But then, we live in a post-Enlightenment age too. And yet the desire to collect relics and mementos doesn't translate well into the modern era - as the Catholic church's thwarted attempt to turn the remains of Cardinal Newman into an object of idolatry demonstrates. David T likes to think of it as a secular miracle, I'd rather see it as reminder that there is more mystery and wonder in our modern views of science and time than there is in a Medieval form of religion that dates back to a time when the living and the dead were seen as coexisting on the same plane. (It's hard to stress strongly enough that even today's most archaic Catholics would find that era a terrifying and alien place should they be transported back there).

Now the yearning for a process that turns a souvenir into a relic is clearly something hard-wired into the human soul - it long predates Christianity and will probably outlast it too, sympathetic magic as the Golden Bough described it if I remember correctly.

For all that, the desire to buy, sell and attach a value to mementos from the lives of secular-minded, sceptical singers who specialised in that most transient of artforms, the popular song is – I think – an echo of that. Admittedly it's only a distant echo – but perhaps Matthew Arnold was on to something with his religion of art idea; or it may just be that the most important human quality of all is the imagination and the way it allows us to respond to and understand the universe.

If Jacques Brel's pipe serves as a portal to the sublime then, no matter what it fetches at auction, it is beyond price.

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