Monthly Archives: October 2009

Matthias Flaccius

Matthias Flaccius

Yesterday evening, we attended an annual lecture at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies, where Anna studied for her PhD.  Always an interesting and civilised (!) affair, the annual lecture provides an opportunity to catch up with old friends and to listen to a well renowned speaker.  This year’s annual lecture was given by Mark Greengrass, and was entitled ‘The Reformation of the Past: Protestants and the Middle Ages’.  The paper was based largely on the research Greengrass and others have been undertaking as part of the John Foxe Project, and explored the ways in which early reformers and scholars tried to make sense of Christian past, and the enormous efforts they went to to make sense of and record Church history.  The greatest problem for these sixteenth century academics was how to narrate the contentious ‘Middle Ages’, a period of, it was understood, darkness and spiritual regression, where the true Church was lost amid the teachings of Catholic ‘popery’.

A large part of the lecture focused not on Foxe himself, but on one of his key sources, the Magdeburg Centuries. Driven initially by Matthias Flacius, the Centuries were an attempt to compile all known documentary evidence for the centuries of Christianity, it sought to collate data for each 100-year block into 16 prescribed categories (heresies, rites and ceremonies, schisms and controversies, etc.). Dr Greengrass spoke interestingly about the historiographical and methodological problems with which these historians collided when undertaking this undoubtedly ambitious endeavour, but what came through most strongly was their sense of continuity: that the Christian past had been one of ever-increasing corruption, through which nevertheless ran a thin vein of true faith. The Centuries were an attempt to chronicle this new conception of the past in a sort of encyclopedic format.

Greengrass believes that Foxe used the Centuries and the work of John Bale as his principle reference works, using them as signposts to further reading. In this way, the Foxe Project – and last night’s lecture – illuminate both Foxe’s working pattern, and those of his sources.  Greengrass pointed out that perhaps such scholarly endeavours were a little like PhD projects gone wrong…

“It was pleasant to Doctor Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street which had been the starting-point of so many remarkable adventures.”

"... on tiptoe, his thick stick half raised, he approached the silent figure."

"... On tiptoe, his thick stick half raised, he approached the silent figure."

The Mazarin Stone is, in the opinion of the Watson who appears in Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per-Cent Solution, “forged drivel”. In fact, it is simply a half-hearted adaptation of a stage play, The Crown Diamond. Watson hardly features in the play, and is therefore written out here, too – the extent to which Holmes’s creator here allows himself to be a slave of his source material is very strange – and this results in, after His Last Bow, the second of the two third person narratives in the canon. This one, however, has none of the energy of the first.

Confined to one room and conveyed almost entirely in dialogue, the story is practically a script with very little of any interest added by Conan Doyle (a terrifically terrible final scene featuring Holmes’s client should be ignored). The third person voice is tired and detached, something about Holmes’s characterisation seems not quite right, and the plot itself is both hackneyed and unconvincing. Not only does it recycle the old dummy-in-the-window trick from The Empty House; it has significant shades of The Blue Carbuncle to boot. And yet despite this mining of the canon, still the maneuver by which Holmes sneaks, via a heretofore unknown secret passage in 221B, first behind a curtain then into the chair previously occupied by his wax double, is so strained as to rob the denouement of any tension at all.

The villain, too, is perfunctory – in the play originally Sebastian Moran, here he is Count Negretto Sylvius (though his proclivity for airguns remains). We must assume that Conan Doyle felt he couldn’t in good faith publish so obvious a rip-off of his own stories, and so varnished over matters with a name change. In the event, the reader is still left feeling the story to be embarrassing filler. Even its setting feels odd: is it a late story, as suggested by Holmes and Watson’s awkward reunion? Or is it earlier, as posited by Brad Keefauver, given that Holmes seems so active? The truth, sadly, is that the story doesn’t quite fit anywhere.

“We can make the world a better place by laying them [the villains] by the heels. But that is not what I am out for. It’s the stone I want.” Holmes’s characteristic focus on the problem, not law and order, is the one bright spot in an otherwise very weak story. The worst of the 56? In many ways, undoubtedly. Such adaptation is beneath both Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Flaming Lips - "Embryonic"

The Flaming Lips - "Embryonic"

I had vaguely encountered The Flaming Lips – via the NME, or Later with Jools Holland – before attending on spec their set in, bizarrely, the dance tent of 2001’s V festival. But this dim name recognition, and a hazy memory of Wayne Coyne’s coat, were the sorts of things you learn through osmosis about any other band. Standing in that tent watching the Lips perform practically the entirety of their 1999 opus, The Soft Bulletin, was not, however, like watching any other band: that gig remains one of the most affecting I’ve attended. That evening’s version of ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’, I am big enough to admit on a regular basis, made me weak at the knees.

I confess, too, that the experience led to something of a Lips obsession: more shows followed, and more cover versions, and distinct over-playing of The Soft Bulletin (which, naturally, was never tarnished by such exposure). As the band toured to death their commercially successful follow-up, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, however, I got a little weary. The live shows began to be disconcertingly samey, and then came At War With The Mystics, an album so thin and confused that I may still have only listened to it three times.

I come bearing good news, then: I’ve already listened to Embryonic more, and I only bought it yesterday. Released earlier this month, Embryonic - from its cover art onwards – sees the band return to ground they last explored prior to the release of The Soft Bulletin. Sonically, it is the most adventurous record they have recorded since the quadrophonic excess of 1997’s Zaireeka; the angular difficulty, and pulsing bass, of the record recalls, too, the scuzzy doo-wop of Hit To Death In The Future Head [1995]. The other element of the album which recalls earlier times is its paranoia, its over-riding sense of the sinister. The Lips have come to be known as a life-affirming fun-time band, all cray-zee animal suits and glitter cannons, but here Steven Drozd sings that, “Love is powerful / But not as powerful as evil”, whilst elsewhere Coyne sings about a woman “without hope / without love”.

Not so smiley anymore.

In happier times.

The band never abandoned their more uncomfortable side – as you know, Bob, ‘Do You Realize?’, from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, is about our irrelevance on the cosmic scale – but Embryonic puts it back at the centre of their project. Whimsy survives – Karen O’s animal noises and Wayne Coyne’s chuckles on ‘I Can Be A Frog’ come to mind – but it is sunk deeper into an uneasy world. From the hypnotic swagger of opener ‘Convinced of the Hex’, via the jarring bass shudders of ‘Evil’ and towards the gorgeous danger in ‘Powerless’ (where the first disc of this ‘double album’ ends), Embryonic explores what it is to think they’re out to get you – and to be spot on about it. This going back is no retrogressive step; this is an album doing and saying new things.

Like all double records, Embryonic is unwieldy. Those songs featuring star signs in their titles seem to be sketches of connective tissue; ‘Your Bats’ is a raggedy off-cut of a song, and some of the instrumentals (perhaps through design) aren’t memorable so much as they are harrowing at the time. But this is the most interesting – and interested – the Flaming Lips have been in years. On ‘The Ego’s Last Stand’, the opening track of the ‘second disc’, Coyne sings over shuffling, almost sneering, musical backing, “A man holds a gun / There’s no explanation / Oh, he shoots at the sun.” Shooting and suns were recurring themes on The Soft Bulletin, which sought sense in all things (its own opener, ‘Race For The Prize’, made questing scientists its heroes); Embryonic isn’t looking for answers – just a little peace. On its final track, “the sun’s gonna rise,” are the last words we hear. The record represents a long, but eventful and consistently rewarding, dark night of the soul.

The Thames at Westminster, by Anna

The Thames at Westminster, by Anna

We were briefly in London last Fridat for a visit to the National Portrait Gallery. Anna’s heritage studies continue, and the NPG is a fascinating study – as well as one of our favourite museums in London. It has, of course, one of the largest collecti0n of early modern paintings in the world, and that’s an added bonus. As was the small Bob Dylan exhibition, of photographs taken from the new Barry Feinstein book. Also, the cafe apple juice Dan was joined in enjoying by an ex-pat Brummie chum was rather fine.

Also over the weekend, The Thick of It returned. The best British satire in years, it remains as sharp as ever: “He’s so dense light bends around him,” raged Malcolm Tucker, the show’s Alistair Campbell stand-in, as a last-ditch reshuffle tanked before his very eyes. The relationship between Tucker and the new DoSAC minister, Rebecca Front’s Nicola Murray, looks set to be a particular highlight of the new series. The show’s specials, great as they were, suffered from the conspicuous absence of Chris Langham as the departments now-ousted minister, Hugh Abbot, and the restoration – in fresh form – of this important dynamic will benefit the show considerably. (As will the return of Roger Allam as shadow minister Peter Mannion, please.)

And, finally, from today’s Guardian, an interesting piece on Question Time and the BNP from Peter Preston.

And you thought *your* dinner parties were tense.

And you thought *your* dinner parties were tense.

Did Question Time change anything? Much has been made of a YouGov poll taken in the hours after the programme, which showed that one in four would consider voting for the party. But ‘consider’ is different to ‘would’ – and that hardcore was pegged at 4%, less than the share of the vote the BNP won at the European elections.

Those sorts of figures don’t surprise me. I was born, raised and still live in the sort of white working class area which is precisely the kind of constituency widely regarded as the type Labour has too readily ignored. The BNP put leaflets through the doors here at election time; they tie material to our lamp posts. Sandwell Council, my local authority, plays host to two BNP councillors (neither from my ward, but that’s cold comfort). Bob Piper, who sits on that council himself, makes a fair point that the rise of the BNP is a failure of the whole political class; but the people around here have never looked to the Tories for help. If they have previously been politically active or interested (and Mike Smithson has some data on that), then their sense of powerlessness must be to some extent the fault of the party they have trusted. Either way, though, these figures don’t surprise me – they reflect what I hear around these parts every day.

So did Question Time change anything? There’s a very worthy discussion of the programme at Pickled Politics. There are a whole range of opinions on this topic – whether Griffin should ever have appeared, whether he was dealt with properly given that he did, what ‘properly’ even means, and whether – even if in a free democracy Griffin should appear on a programme like Question Time – the show was the right forum to begin the long work of engaging with and defeating the BNP’s hideous ideology. But the general consensus that come out of the debate in those comments, which I share, seems to be that Griffin did himself no favours – but the other panellists didn’t quite take him apart as they could have done. Sayeeda Warsi had her line in populist reassurance (as Don Paskini writes at Liberal Conspiracy, how far must we go with that, exactly?), Jack Straw started well, and Bonnie Greer seemed to get the conceptual issues better, but by and large all backed off from getting their hands dirty by really engaging with what racism is and how it powers the BNP and perverts the fears of the party’s putative constituents. Instead, they all ganged up on Griffin and laughed at his undergraduate performance.

In the short-term, then, Question Time did no harm but nor did it do very much positive good. In the medium-term, this may well prove to advantage the BNP: they challenge for the majority who don’t want to see that is to use this week as a platform from which to launch the sorts of arguments which will damage the party. No change yet, then.

The ideas of my friend Watson, though limited, are exceedingly pertinacious.

"He was outside the window, Mr. Holmes, with his face pressed against the glass."

"He was outside the window, Mr. Holmes, with his face pressed against the glass."

The Blanched Soldier is narrated by one Mr Sherlock Holmes. With The Lion’s Mane, it is one of only two of the 56 stories told in the voice of their main character – and I choose that word ‘voice’ carefully’. It’s easy sometimes to suggest that Conan Doyle was an artless writer, but this story is a calm refutation of that accusation. Though Holmes admits that Watson was right all along – bald facts do not an engaging story make, and concessions must be made to the reader – The Blanched Soldier nevertheless has a different character than Watson’s stories. It is stonier and colder; less interested in human colour, more in process.

Indeed, this focus on methodology leads to one memorable moment when Holmes must reveal his sleight of hand (or, in this case, nose): “Alas, that I should have to show my hand so when I tell my own story! It was by concealing such links in the chain that Watson was enabled to produce his meretricious finales.” Still, as when the Fonz became his show’s main character, or Spike was made a regular, something is lost in this demystification. Holmes’s voice is not one of singular genius. By the story’s close, it is in fact rather pedestrian – more so than Watson, who at least has a flair for the dramatic.

Holmes, though, admits his lack of facility for fiction. “And here it is,” he writes as he approaches his denouement, “that I miss Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.” Holmes’s modesty is also Conan Doyle’s sceptisim; perhaps here he attempts to murder his creation more surely than he did in The Final Problem. Holmes’s art isn’t so exciting when seen from the inside. He is even shown to be something of a showman, reusing his own catchphrases: “Your problem presents some very unusual features”; “It is my business to know things”; “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

But the story is too well characterised to be a total hatchet job. We get some nice little details: Holmes always situates his clients in the chair facing the window, to see them by the light;  he has “found it wise to impress clients with a sense of power”; he insists that his need for a companion is not a sentimental one. And when earlier in the story he suggests that Watson’s principle skill is his lack of imagination, he is showing that familiarly blasé cruelty. All this is just as well, since the story itself is a little flat, and tailed with an unconvincing happy ending, as if Conan Doyle or his editor isn’t quite comfortable with the rather bleak corner into which the story has painted its characters. Holmes tells us Watson wasn’t around to record this adventure; had he been, he might not have done at all. Still, Holmes’s voice is enough to carry us through the few pages this story takes up, and it’s an intriguing, and ultimately far from disappointing, experience for his long-term readers.


Jason Molina’s Songs:Ohia project remains one of my favourite slices of skewed Americana in recent years. Magnolia Electric Company, another of his musical endeavours, has previously been a heavier affair, but as Matt pointed out in his post on the album, their latest record, Josephine, is a softer effort.

It’s a record with a unified character, which is another way of saying it is, from time to time, a little samey. The songs are largely piano-led ballads, countrified and Gram Parsonsish and speaking of loss, places of American myth, and reflection. The repetition of lines and structures is part of the project, though – this is less a repetitive album as one with a strong centre of gravity.

Josephine is recursive throughout, and moods and refrains bob up to the album’s surface repeatedly . Like Richmond Fontaine, then, MEC have wrought a record which rewards relistens. At first, the repetition seems bloodless; over time, it proves more evocative. Stand-out tracks exist – ‘O Grace’, ‘Josephine’, ‘Little Sad Eyes’ – but they are sunk deep within their context. Gorgeous sounding and tenderly performed, Josephine is no singles album, but it’s a beautifully constructed work.

Not Happy.

Not Happy.

The last political week holds little cheer for politicians of any stripe. It is as if the recess never happened – courtesy of Sir Thomas Legg, the man placed in charge of investigating MPs’ expenses claims by Gordon Brown, the story is still one of pork-barrelling piggies. It isn’t popular to argue thus, but Legg has clearly gone beyond the realms of his original brief, safe in the knowledge that it would be politically impossible to call him on it: his retrospective limits are placed on MPs despite what he himself admits was the total absence of any such laws at the actual time the claims were made. On the other hand, he lacks total fearlessness: by settling on cleaning and gardening as his retrospective targets, he avoids the far thornier – and potentially more criminal – second home claims, flipping and all.

This mix of brazeness and timidity has at least secured more headlines in a vein which cannot help any of the parties. However much damage it will do across the board, though, it will do most to Labour – and the party’s backbench MPs are said to be furious with Gordon and, in common with their colleagues across not the aisles, not a little despondent. The perennial gadfly Frank Field is the first of these to challenge Legg in public, but more cannot be far behind. Cameron, on the other hand, runs a tighter ship – even diehard Labour MP Diane Abbot admitted on last Thursday’s This Week that Brown simply doesn’t command the same unity on his benches. It’s not that Labour MPs, and indeed any of the others complaining about Legg’s report, are wrong. It’s that, politically, it is simply more sensible (as Labour figures as diverse as Johns Hutton and Mann have argued)  to put up and shut up. Cameron has understood this. Brown has, too – he paid back his hefty £12,000 (Legg’s crusade against cleaning costs hit the PM harder than almost anyone else) immediately. But he cannot command his fractious party to do the same as Cameron can.

All of which means that the last political week leaves Labour in a worse position than the other parties. None will emerge from this particular business looking rosy, but more strategically important is what the week shows us about the ability of particularly the two biggest parties to frame and enforce a narrative. Matthew d’Ancona is right to point out that public opinion must in this case be served, however unfair it may be. It is not that the public forgive any of the parties, or that they are convinced by Cameron’s opportunism; but Brown’s inability to shepherd his mob in the right direction is sign enough that the Tory leader will continue to win by default. Cameron and Osborne have got where they are in the polls by parroting the same simple arguments over and over again, until they are sick of them. This requires discipline. Does Labour have any left? The last week, in which some of its members muttered about suing their own party, suggests not.

Santa Bobby ...

Santa Bobby ...

Christmas means the ritual indulgence of two groups, the young and the old. Little Johnny gets all the presents his heart could desire (for at the very least the two hours before his attention span snaps); Great Uncle Monty gets to talk at some length about the Christmases of his own boyhood, and how much better they were. He may also get to listen to some of ‘his’ music, warbling along to a seasonal Perry Como if his voice is up to it, or just putting Frank Sinatra on the stereo, nodding along with a nostalgia few others in the room share.

Christmas In The Heart, the admittedly bizarre 47th studio album from Bob Dylan, has a little of the Uncle Monty about it. The arrangements, expertly played by Dylan’s seasoned band (even David Hidalgo returns from the Together Through Life sessions), are syrupy in that Golden Age way – this is a selection of songs heavily influenced by the tracks Dylan plays on his own Theme Time Radio Hour, suffused with the ghosts of Christmases past. There’s a schmaltzy backing choir of ‘mixed singers'; sleigh and tubular bells; and the sort of tracklisting which pays no heed to any song written later than 1950. This is an old-style crooner’s album, pure and simple.

Bob Dylan, of course, is no crooner – and it is his voice which, of course, represents the fly in the ointment. This is no po-faced exercise in pure nostalgia; anyone who dislikes Dylan’s voice will not be won over by this record, but in part this is because of the strange shapes it is pushed into by Dylan. He is not happy to grumble, a la Uncle Monty, through the festive hits of his youth. On ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ (no, really), he pronounces ‘Herald’ ‘Hearald’ – a typical bit of Dylan fun; on ‘Winter Wonderland’, one of the most joyous little cuts you will hear all year, Dylan’s cracked voice is forced to swagger and swing (“He’ll say are-you-married, we’ll say … NO, man!!”);  ‘Have Your Self A Merry Little Christmas’ is as comforting as a crackling log fire, yet Dylan’s knowing, raddled delivery makes it something like a paen to lost friends, to be met again in some other, unknown Christmas.

Let’s not claim too much for Christmas In The Heart: it’s a novelty record, and all the artist’s royalties go to the charity Crisis (this is reason enough to buy it). But what a lovely novelty record it is. Just listen to ‘Must Be Santa’, ‘The Christmas Blues’ or ‘Christmas Island’, let yourself laugh with Dylan that it is the man who brought us ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Brownsville Girl’ singing “Who laughs this way – Ho, ho, ho” (for surely this is part of the fun!), and listen to those subtle cues that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing – and are having a whale of a time doing it – and it’s impossible not to feel festive, even in mid-October. The traditional material – ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ – are fairly poor, but they are in the minority, surrounded by bluesier and swingier fare.

Admittedly, enjoying the company of those for whom you have the fondest feelings is part of Christmas; others won’t be charmed by Uncle Monty, just, as always, annoyed. It’s a shared history, perhaps, which allows you to forgive him his festive inadequacies – even find pleasure in them. Still, there has been debate (and some red faces) even in the Dylan fan community about the wisdom of this particular venture. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this Uncle Monty would be indulged, by me or any of the others who sail with him: but Christmas In The Heart, though nostalgic and warm in the way one might expect from our current Dylan, who so revels in early recording music, is no messy accident. It’s just good fun. This old fella will be welcome to warble on my December 25th.

An Early Modern Gardener.

An Early Modern Gardener.

We’ve only very recently been saying that we really must make it out to Kenilworth Castle.  The Gentleman Administrator, with a link to more in the comments, has sealed the deal – although, alas, can any garden look good in the grey rain of a turning October? I remember going to Kenilworth years ago as a child and watching some Napoleonic re-enactments (I don’t know); the castle itself has paled in the memory next to the recollection of how heavy a Rifleman’s backpack was.

Meanwhile, like every other blogger with an interest in the early modern period, I am glued to the Eastern Association. Rich, attractive and wonderfully written, it’s a bit special. I like, too, that it is not instantly accessible – you have to work, not too hard but a little, to understand it fully. Add it to your blogroll wotsit, even if you couldn’t give a monkey’s about Charles and Olly.

That is all.


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