Previous month:
October 2010
Next month:
February 2011

January 2011

‘Sorley’: Gaelic for wanderer

Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1895–1915. He left just 37 complete poems. Adapted from The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1989): 

His posthumous collection, Marlborough and Other Poems (1916), was a popular and critical success in the 1920s, but he has since been neglected, though championed by Robert Graves amongst others. Graves said of Sorley that, with Owen and Rosenberg, he ‘was one of the three poets of importance killed during the War’. The best known of his poems include, ‘The Song of the Ungirt Runners’, ‘Barbury Camp’, and the last, bitter ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ — found in the author’s kit sent home from France after his death.

Sorley’s father, describing his son’s life in a preface (1919) to Marlborough and Other Poems:

He was educated at Marlborough College, which he entered in September 1908 and left in December 1913, after obtaining a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Owing to the war he never went into residence at the University. After leaving school he spent a little more than six months in Germany, first at Schwerin in Mecklenburg and afterwards, for the summer session, at the University of Jena. He was on a walking tour on the banks of the Moselle when the European war broke out. He was put in prison at Trier on the 2nd August, but released the same night with orders to leave the country. After some adventures he reached home on the 6th, and at once applied for a commission in the army. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment before the end of the month, Lieutenant in November, and Captain in the following August. He was sent to France with his battalion on 30th May 1915, and served for some months in the trenches round Ploegsteert. Shortly after he had entered upon his life there, a suggestion was made to him about printing a slim volume of verse. But he put the suggestion aside as premature. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards, more especially of the small-holdings type. For three years or the duration of the war, let be.’ Four months later his warfare was accomplished. His battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos, and he fell on 13th October 1915, in an attack in which the “hair-pin” trench near Hulluch was captured by his company. ‘Being made perfect in a little while, he fulfilled long years.’

When I read his letters and papers, I am always taken aback by the voice that comes through — its unexpected modernity and warm intimacy:

… poetry up till now has been mainly by and for and about the Upper Classes … The voice of our poets and men of letters (ie, contemporary writers) is finely trained and sweet to hear: it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie. … all true poets (that is, poets who insist on truth) have been consciously or unconsciously in revolt. (From papers on Masefield and on Housman, read to the Marlborough College Literary Society, 3 November, 1912 and 15 May, 1913, respectively)

… the penalty of belonging to a public school is that one plays before the looking-glass all the time and has to think about the impression one is making. And as public schools are run on the worn-out fallacy that there can’t be progress without competition, games as well as everything else degenerate into a means of giving free play to the lower instincts of man. … One is positively encouraged to confuse strength of character with petty self-assertion, and conscientiousness with Phariseeism. (Letters: 25 February, and early April, 1914)

Do you know that Richard Jefferies, the greatest of English visionaries, felt exactly the same about the high parts of the downs as you? That you climbed great hills that should overlook the sea, but you could see no sea. Only the whole place is like a vast sea-shell where you can hear the echoes of the sea that has once filled it. Du Gott! One can really live up there! The earth even more than Christ is the ultimate ideal of what man should strive to be. (Letter: 14 November, 1914)

There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan. (Letter: March 1915)

Sorley is the Gaelic for wanderer. I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road. (Letter: 16 June, 1915)

… out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. The death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: ‘We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do’: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse. One is hardened now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns. (Letter: 26 August, 1915)

I can now understand the value of dogma, which is the General Commander-in-Chief of the mind. I am now beginning to think that free thinkers should give their minds into subjection, for we who have given our actions and volitions into subjection gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjection of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master on the part of a great nation that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards, I and my like will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers. … Ridley [a close friend at Marlborough and a Captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers] … recovered from his wound … Ridley with whom I brewed, ‘worked’ and shared a study, and quarrelled absolutely unceasingly for over three years. We have so thoroughly told each other all each other’s faults and oddities for so long a time that nothing now could part our friendship. (Letter to the Master of Marlborough College.
 One of three last letters, all dated 5 October, 1915.)

Eight days later, Sorley was killed, shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20.
 Herbert Ridley won an MC in 1917 and was killed in action at Ypres on 15 July that year, aged 23.

The Letters of Charles Sorley (CUP, 1919)

 Marlborough and Other Poems (fifth edition, CUP, 1922)

The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Cecil Woolf, 1990)

‘My client is civilisation’


There’s an interview with Stewart Brand in Volume, 24 — Counterculture: ‘With the help of countercultural figures, historians and architects, this issue of Volume examines the popularized characteristics of the 60s that have influenced our beliefs about technology, the environment and community’. Fred Turner country. From Jeffrey Inaba’s introduction to the issue:

At first glance, what appears prescient about the 60s when looking at current American culture is the preoccupation then and now with computer technology, the natural environment and alternative forms of community; but today each is disconnected from the radical political action and oppositional ideologies of the earlier era. For instance, concern for the planet, which was cast as flaky and indulgent, is shared by the majority of people despite the ideological differences between the counterculture and popular American opinion now. Sustainability is so much a part of our collective economic consciousness that its importance is cited in business sectors – like real estate development – which once ardently resisted entertaining pro-environmental stances. Similarly, the communal principles of the counterculture – such as participation, sharing information, erring on the side of social inclusion, networking and identifying areas of agreement with others in order to form collaborations – are the basic axioms for building social capital now.


SB: My client is civilisation and my approach is that of a hacker: to figure out the shortcuts that make things happen. …

JI: … What’s your definition of a hacker?

SB: Lazy engineer. The aspect of hacking that appeals to me is looking for the fiendishly clever shortcut. A ‘real’ engineer will do the homework – do the calculations, run the prototypes – all the necessary stuff to make something work. A hacker is usually looking for an easy solution. The code still has to run – it has to do whatever it is you’re attempting. But a hacker tries to find a way to do it with minimal effort, which is considered good; or with great cleverness, which is considered extra good. Fun is finessing an outcome. Stuff like that is just being lazy, and lazy is not necessarily bad. I was trained in the army to be a lazy officer. The worst officer is stupid and industrious. The best officer is brilliant and lazy. I don’t think I would be accused of industry. …

JI: … Would you consider yourself a hacker of policy? From what you say in your book, stewardship of the planet involves vigilance in monitoring all technologies and then deciding to employ some with great speed. Do you look for shortcuts to put into service technologies because the process of governments, institutions, and concerned individuals carefully weighing a technology’s consequences takes time?

SB: Some technologies take off on their own. Cell phones took off in very short order to the great benefit of all. Wikipedia and Google took off that way. The things that people see as beneficial and that don’t do recognizable harm can move quickly. But like you say, by far the best approach with complex systems is diplomatic negotiation with a lot of vigilance to ensure that things don’t go astray.

JI: The last chapter of Whole Earth Discipline is on statecraft. You start it with the Marshall McLuhan quote: ‘After Sputnik there is no nature, only art’. What significance does that statement have in relation to the responsibilities of governance and policymaking?

SB: It’s probably the most radical comment he ever made. Sputnik was shorthand for acting at a planetary scale. We consequently bear a completely different relation to everything on Earth and can no longer treat it, meaning nature, as existing independent of our own artifice – our own purposeful intentions.


Thinning out, tidying up. Books to Oxfam, books to booksellers. Analogue to digital.

Here’s something I’ve long wanted to consign to my outboard brain. In a book bought eight years ago and now on its way out, these words, attributed to an unnamed headmaster (but I think I know who it is — they’d be utterly characteristic of him):

… four questions to ask myself in any situation:
What are the facts?
What are the issues?
What am I going to do?
Who do I have to tell?

Teaching’s changed over the course of my life, becoming suppler and subtler, gentler and wiser. Kinder. Looking back, there was a lot of focus on “facts” and not always much sensitivity to issues. Facts often seemed to be the issues.

Schools, like families, are crucibles of intense engagement. Those four questions are a great way of collecting yourself in the rush of a crisis. They’ve been of help and they can live here now. The book can go.

This archiving business, though … Opening up the book to get that bit and put it down here, I found forgotten notes on index cards — one about the book, but others to do with a job interview I had nearly 10 years ago — and a post-it with a rather good quotation on it from … ? And now that it’s so easy to digitalise and store, what do I keep? When should you forget? What should be put clean away?

Founder’s myopia

Just before Christmas, John Lanchester had a good essay in the LRB, Let us Pay, ‘on the future of the newspaper industry’. It dealt very well with the crippling expense and economics of the physical product and all that that means (something Horace Dediu also tackled late last year — ‘one wit remarked that a newspaper is nothing more than an instrument that permits the depreciation of a printing plant’).

Here’s something from Lanchester’s piece that I’d not heard before (it’s probably very well known):

In some ways, the story of text messaging is a parable for the way the net has evolved. SMS messaging was taken up by Nokia in Finland as a way of allowing engineers to communicate short, factual messages about where they were, what they were doing and how long it would take. Nokia then made the service available on their phones, since, well, there it was, so you might as well let the punters have a go. They were amazed to see the spike in data traffic which suddenly showed up. The reason: Finnish teenagers were using SMS to organise their social lives. From there, texting hasn’t looked back. Nobody decided what the purpose of SMS would be, it just evolved.

(He goes on: ‘It would be hard to deny that texting is a new thing; also hard to argue that it has fundamentally changed the world. I’d say that’s roughly where we are with the journalistic uses of the new media. Their democratising and decentralising effects have barely begun, and aren’t going to go away.’ Both he and Dediu — ‘the medium needs its Orson Welles’ — look ahead to the Murdoch online-only paper, the Daily.)

And here’s Janet Abbate on email (Inventing the Internet, pp 106–111):

Email (initially called “net notes” or simply “mail”) made an inconspicuous entry onto the ARPANET scene. Since many time sharing systems provided ways for users to send messages to others on the same computer, personal electronic mail was already a familiar concept to many ARPANET users. By mid 1971 … several ARPANET sites had begun experimenting with ideas for simple programs that would transfer a message from one computer to another and place it in a designated “mailbox” file. … Email quickly became the network’s most popular and influential service, surpassing all expectations. … From ARPA email began to spread to the rest of the military, and by 1974 “hundreds” of military groups were using the ARPANET for email …

The popularity of email was not foreseen by the ARPANET’s planners. Roberts had not included electronic email in the original blueprint for the network. In fact, in 1967 he had called the ability to send messages between users “not an important motivation for a network of scientific computers” … Yet the idea of electronic mail was not new. MIT’s CTSS computer had had a message feature as early as 1965, and mail programs were common in the time sharing computers that followed …

Why then was the popularity of email such a surprise? … The rationale for building the network had focused on providing access to computers rather than to people. … The paradigm of resource sharing may have blinded the ARPANET community to other potential uses of the network. … Email and mailing lists were crucial to creating and maintaining a feeling of community among ARPANET users. … Even more important, mailing lists allowed a virtual community to take on an identity that was more than the sum of the individuals who made it up … [providing] a way for people to “meet” and interact on the basis of shared interests, rather than relying on physical proximity …

In the process of using the network, the ARPANET community developed a new conception of what networking meant. … the network planners … did not anticipate that people would turn out to be the network’s most valued resources. Network users challenged the initial assumptions, voting with their packets by sending a huge volume of electronic mail but making relatively little use of remote hardware and software. Through grassroots innovations and thousands of individual choices, the old idea of resource sharing that had propelled the ARPANET project forward was gradually replaced by the idea of the network as a means for bringing people together. Email laid the groundwork for creating virtual communities through the network. Increasingly, people within and outside the ARPA community would come to see the ARPANET not as a computing system but rather as a communications system. Succeeding generations of networks inspired by ARPANET would be designed from the start to act as communications media. By embracing email, ARPANET users gave the network a new purpose and initiated a significant change in the theory and practice of networking.

We teach about the unexpected rise of email in our first year ICT course — adding in, for good measure, John Vittal’s 1975 addition of Reply and Forward. We also point out that no-one foresaw the appeal of SMS, but it’s lovely to be able to include that story from Finland.

And here’s something else in the same vein (again centring on our love of communication) that makes a point about invention. I’m reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, and early on there’s this about the early American rural telephone companies (chapter 3):

The Independents, rooted in the farms and small towns of the West, were innovators, but of a conceptual kind, not the technical kind à la Alexander Bell. They saw a different world, in which the telephone was made cheaper and more common, a tool of mass communications, and an aid in daily life. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce, but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, ‘With a telephone in the house, comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.’

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another. Obviously there was no privacy, but there were benefits to communal telephony other than secure person-to-person communications. Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances. …

And so, while the Bell Company may have invented the telephone, it clearly didn’t perceive the full spectrum of its uses. This is such a common affliction that we might name it “founder’s myopia”. Again and again in the development of technology, full appreciation of an invention’s potential importance falls to others—not necessarily technical geniuses themsleves—who develop it in ways that the inventor never dreamed of. The phenomenon is hardly mystical: the inventor, after all, is but one person, with his own blind spots, while there are millions, if not billions, of others with eyes to see new uses that had been right under the inventor’s nose. … it was simple farmers in the early 1900s who pioneered the  use of the phone line for broadcasting long before the rise of radio broadcasting in the 1920s.

Alchemical futures

Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to have the chance to teach a short course about science fiction to a group of 17 year-olds. I’m always intrigued to find out what ‘science fiction’ means to them. This week, kicking off, one lad went straight for super-powers. As it happens, I’ve never had this answer before, but what made me take note was how well he explained what he meant, quickly but thoughtfully: science fiction giving us access to other possible worlds, possible futures … what if … maybe … perhaps … one day … then I could … dream that … build that … I should add, he was the same student who homed in on science fiction and dystopian futures, so he wasn’t sitting there being idly optimistic.

I went through a phase in my teens of reading lots of Jung and, a little later, Freud, considering medicine and psychiatrist / psychoanalyst as a possible future. I still have many of the books I bought then. Jung led me off on curious paths. Alchemy was in there, of course, and has endured as an interest — morphing along the way. I went off certain Jungians at some deep level after a conference (held in Windsor Great Park!), which struck my 18 year-old self as pretty bonkers and anti-science, and I used to get my Jungian books from a very odd bookshop in the middle of nowhere (deep, rural Gloucestershire) which the friends I persuaded to come along (or give me a lift there) ended up calling ‘the magic bookshop’. New Age, though we didn’t know it.

But alchemy’s never gone away. It couldn’t, could it? I loved that Royal Institution talk I went to back in 2006, ‘Alchemy, the occult beginnings of science: Paracelsus, John Dee and Isaac Newton’. The dream of a very special super-power, transforming both matter (world) and self.

Alchemy, originally derived from the Ancient Greek word khemia (Χημεία - in Modern Greek) meaning "art of transmuting metals", later arabicized as the Arabic word al-kimia (الكيمياء, ALA-LCal-kīmiyā’), is both a philosophy and an ancient practice focused on the attempt to change base metals into gold, investigating the preparation of the “elixir of longevity”, and achieving ultimate wisdom, involving the improvement of the alchemist as well as the making of several substances described as possessing unusual properties. The practical aspect of alchemy can be viewed as a protoscience, having generated the basics of modern inorganic chemistry, namely concerning procedures, equipment and the identification and use of many current substances.

Alchemy has been practiced in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), India, Persia (modern Iran), China, Japan, Korea, the classical Greco-Roman world, the medieval Islamic world, and then medieval Europe up to the 20th and 21st centuries, in a complex network of schools and philosophical systems spanning at least 2,500 years.  Wikipedia

And given a background in zoology and theology, I’ve not been able to get this out of my head since stumbling across it the other week:

Once, he called himself a “biologian”, merging the subject matter of life with the method of a theologian. More recently, he told me that he is an alchemist. In Defense of the Memory Theater

Isn’t that great? What a way to think of what you’re engaged on. The work.

It is, by the way, well worth reading all of Nathan Schneider’s post about his uncle, the “alchemist”:

The most remarkable memory theater I’ve ever known is on a computer. It is the work of my uncle, once a biologist at the National Institutes of Health, a designer of fish farms, a nonprofit idealist, and a carpenter. Now he has devoted himself full-time to his theater … [a] single, searchable, integrated organism. When he tells me about it, he uses evolutionary metaphors cribbed from his years researching genetics. The creature mutates and adapts. It learns and grows.

Delicious (I)

I started blogging in November 2003 and my first use of Delicious was on 12 July, 2004. I see that many of my entries for that July are, unsurprisingly, tagged “blogging_community”. They’re still there in Delicious, but I can’t find them via the timeline of pages unless I reverse sort these. Is the Delicious edifice crumbling? I’m glad I’ve a number of local backups dating back over the years. But that is matter for another post.

When I started using Delicious, it was almost entirely as a prop to help me get up to speed with everything I was discovering online. Those years were hectic. I remember when I first started teaching what a learning curve there was and how weekends and nights, in term and holiday alike, disappeared in preparation, reading and marking for at least the first three years (made the more intense as I evolved into an English teacher, a subject I’d last studied formally in my mid-teens). We all know these periods of unavoidable, passionate engagement as we close with a new subject, a new discipline, a new pursuit.

I look back now to another time when, rather late to the party, I began to register what the arrival of the accessible read-write web meant. It was in November 2003, with the birth of TypePad, that it first hit me: a long period, where what had been hard — requiring coding skills that divided the world into the few who had them and the rest of us who, most decidedly, did not, was coming to an end and the ready ability to publish and be heard (who knew by whom?) was upon us. I knew then that I wanted to be involved in this, the future-already-becoming-the-present.

So, for a long while, Delicious, for me, was nearly all about discovery and very rapid note-taking, itself requiring the investment of much time, if I were to gain even a basic grasp of all this stuff. I learned to read fast but attentively, précis-by-excerpt, tag and bookmark, binding knowledge together in a way that had to do duty in the absence of something more adequate (no appropriate memory theatre, then or now).

Back then, as soon as TypePad made it straightforward to use FeedBurner (June 2006?), it seemed to me right to link together the feed for this blog and that of Delicious (a decision I probably wouldn’t make today, were I starting over). Blogging and bookmarking seemed like the two leaves of a diptych in a period when the pace was both frenetic and apparently inexorably determined by technological change.

Things haven’t got slower (as if — though I think I can now be, and am, more discriminating, both knowing more and being a bit the wiser), but my reading habits have certainly changed. With extensive commuting (c 160 miles a day), the time on a train to read and, more significantly, the year-long experience of using an iPad and Instapaper whilst being connected, the way I work, read and think has changed.

One of the pleasures of living in a more connected world is the constant discovery that changes you thought peculiar to you are going on, simultaneously, in others. I noted Read It Later’s post last week, Is Mobile Affecting When We Read?. I can certainly identify with the use of whitespace time, but I’ve been more struck in the last few months with how I’m storing material up in Instapaper, going back to it, archiving things that once I would have bookmarked straightaway in Delicious, ruminating over others and then, finally, sending myself an email reminder to bookmark X later. And later frequently, now, means Saturday — when I have the time to deal with what has become a sizeable backlog. More filtering happens at that stage, too.

Delicious (backed up locally and in Pinboard) has assumed a different role in my life. No longer the bank of preference for instant notes, it’s where I’m putting things that I’ve generally sifted or gone back to (sometimes a number of times). (Of course, some things still seem worth bookmarking at once, but the reason for that can itself turn out to be depressingly ephemeral.) I’m much more interested now, much more able now, to use Delicious as a repository for things which I’ve had the time, and the perspective, to weigh.

All of which makes Delicious, or something like it, even more important. And I haven’t even begun to talk about the network.


from ‘Nonobject’, Branko Lukić

— from Nonobject, Branko Lukić & Barry Katz

Telling the difference between constraints and the limits we impose on ourselves (or accept — compromises?). We surely need to be continually shaken out of ourselves in order to assess and reassess that one.

Nothing that shakes us should be spurned, be it ever so small.

Bonding with the reader

Another cardboard package, but without the Amazon name. And inside:

'Tree of Codes'

What a pleasure to find a book wrapped and presented like this. Visual Editions.

'Tree of Codes'

'Tree of Codes'

From the publisher’s microsite for the book: ‘With the story literally carved out of another book, Tree of Codes has a different die-cut on every single page. Telling the haunting story of “an enormous last day of life”, it is a book that looks every bit like it feels: unlike anything else.’

'Tree of Codes'

'Tree of Codes'

If you’ve not yet looked inside a copy for yourself, you can read more about it, take a peek at the publisher's photo set on Flickr or watch this video by Jonathan Safran Foer — ‘I hope the Tree of Codes in some ways contributes to this conversation that we’re now having about what’s possible with literature and what’s possible with paper’:

I use Amazon a lot for books. With Amazon, I’m in the world of the utilitarian and the books I get often bear all the marks of having been handled with a complete lack of interest in the object, the thing itself.

The experience of buying, receiving, opening, reading and learning about Tree of Codes is another thing entirely. (It makes me think — again! — about what a book is for and what you can do with one, what publishers are for and the varying reasons why you might want to follow their work. And … paper!) Few publishers have ever sent me a book presented with as much care and love.

I was nervous, trying to video flicking through the book, lest my thumb caught on the paper and snagged or tore it. But what a pleasure to handle this: