History

Colin Banks

In the same graveyard, beside the Grigsons, lies Colin Banks, son-in-law to Geoffrey Grigson.

Colin Banks

The gravestone is the work of Incisive Letterwork:

Colin Banks bought our dual text slate ‘Inceptis Gravibus’ at our exhibition The Ground Beneath our Feet in 2000. He had apparently had his eye on it since the Spirit of the Letter show at the Crafts Council in 1989.

We first met his wife Caroline when we went to fix the slate on their garden wall in Blackheath, memorably for us, in the pouring rain. We were really honoured to see it there as we had long been admirers of Colin’s typographic work.

After Colin died Caroline contacted us to discuss the possibility of making his headstone. He is buried in the churchyard at Broad Town in Wiltshire next to their daughter Frances whose greenslate headstone had been carved at the Kindersley studio. Caroline wanted a companion stone but not a facsimile. This meant taking into account the proportion of the stone, tall and narrow, and the overall feeling and spirit of the place and Frances’s memorial. When we delivered the stone to the church rain was again bucketing down.

In 2006 Caroline asked us to carve a stone for her mother, Geoffrey Grigson’s first wife Frances, who is buried in the churchyard at Pelynt in Cornwall. Caroline’s grandfather is buried close by and his memorial was carved by Eric Gill. She suggested that we use the same stone, Delabole slate, and the same shaped top to imply the family relationship. Many years previously Colin himself had made a preliminary drawing for this stone. Caroline felt she would like something of its flavour to be expressed here and provided a copy of his original drawing for us to look at. We used his lettering style but made it bolder for carving purposes. The layout was started from scratch. After trying to make the stone look like Gill’s and not succeeding because of the wording, it almost inevitably grew into a tall and narrow memorial. We simplified the top and used a carved line to echo the moulding on the Gill stone. In the end the relationship was there and the stone has a contemporary look rather than being a copy of something from the earlier part of the twentieth century. On seeing the stone in place Caroline wrote to say that Colin would have approved. — Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling: Threads of lettering 

The Independent’s obituary placed Colin Banks in that disciplined tradition of designers, ‘a craftsman schooled in hot metal type’, opposed to ‘quick-fix tactics’, ‘greatly influenced by the traditions of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose principle typographers were stonemasons’: ‘His death does not so much bring down a curtain on an evocative era of well-crafted British graphics but serves to remind us of the continuing relevance of typographic standards and social compassion in design today’.

It was in a printing class at Maidstone that he met his future business partner, John Miles. "We took up typography," recalls Miles, "because we thought we'd make the world a better place. There was a huge amount of idealism in the early 1950s and Colin was very idealistic indeed." … Banks made many trips to India, working with local agencies on schemes for rural sanitation, cooking, schooling and low-cost artificial limb manufacture, always ready for the next challenge, always eager to show how design can be a force for good. He also lectured widely in Eastern Bloc countries before access was easy.’

Three years ago, my neighbour, formerly the printer at Libanus Press, moved to Cornwall and asked me if I’d like to buy a large book (folio) he no longer had room for, London’s Handwriting. The book was the work of Colin Banks (I knew very little about him then), honouring the work of Edward Johnston, and subtitled, ‘The development of Edward Johnston’s Underground Railway Block-Letter’. I still haven’t really digested this monument of a book, very beautiful in itself and the result of such evident attention, passionate knowledge and close observation. I love the simple dignity of Wikipedia’s current opening to Johnston’s entry: ‘Edward Johnston, CBE (11 February 1872 – 26 November 1944) was a British craftsman’ … Johnston would surely have admired the craftsmanship of London’s Handwriting.

The book bears an epigraph from Firmin Didot, ‘the punch-cutter in 1783 of the first true ‘modern’ face Roman type’:

For we must not confine ourselves to perfecting the art in the sphere of luxury … but rather we ought always make it serve the public good.

Colin Banks must have invested so much in London’s Handwriting. For one thing, his love for his subject is so clear: ‘The wider importance of Edward Johnston’s work is based on his single-handed rediscovery of the medieval techniques involved in writing with a broad-nibbed reed pen. … His book Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (1906) became the vade-mecum for all future letterers and typographers.’

He touched many future designers by a laying-on of hands from generation to generation: we are all his children. This unbroken human chain was all the more important as his philosophy of his work was not collected together and published until 1986, forty-two years after his death. This philosophy is exerting considerable pull on the current revival and interest in crafts and deserves a separate study.

We lingered in the churchyard that afternoon, talking and thinking about what these people have come to mean to us, and about this place.

Towards the Broad Town White Horse


The particular and the peculiar

Geoffrey Grigson

I find I’m seeking out older guide books about the areas of England I particularly like. In the good ones there’s a wealth of knowledge and an intensity of observation that’s very rewarding to work with — and of course they’ve become an object of cultural interest in their own right. So I’m pleased that Geoffrey Grigson’s The Shell Country Alphabet is back in print after 43 years. (That and The Englishman’s Flora are two books of his I’m glad to have to hand.)

I found this on the web (linked to from Wikipedia’s entry on Geoffrey Grigson):

His worldview is clearly evident in the enthusiasms he championed: brightly burning poets of the countryside such as John Clare; visionary artists from Samuel Palmer to his contemporaries and friends, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, John Piper, Wyndham Lewis. Grigson revelled in finding the extra-ordinary in the seeming ordinariness of a rural life that twentieth century short term thinking was beginning to eradicate. Flora, fauna and rural lore were presented in inspirational compendia and essay collections such as the Shell Country Book, The Englishman's Flora, Freedom of the Parish and the Shell Country Alphabet. For the Festival of Britain in 1951 he edited the series of About Britain guides, penning the text of the volumes on Wessex and the West Country. Grigson also wrote books to lead children into an appreciation of the countryside, poetry and the visual arts; later he became an 'anthologist's anthologist', with a seemingly endless train of collections of epigrams and epitaphs, nonsense verse, 'unrespectable' verse. He revealed much light to be found in apparently dark and (at that time) neglected and disdained periods of literary history, the Romantics, the Victorians. He revived interest in forgotten poets such as William Diaper.

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You can get a flavour of the Country Alphabet book from the large page spreads Penguin’s put online. Penguin’s done an attractive job with the presentation of this book (published under their imprint, Particular Books) and has this to say about it:

In the 1960s Geoffrey Grigson travelled around England writing the story of the secret landscape that is all around us, if only we take the time to look and see. The result is a book that will take you on an imaginative journey, revealing hidden stories, unexpected places and strange phenomena. From green men, ice-scratches, cross-legged knights and weathercocks to rainbows, clouds and stars; from place-names and poets to mazes, dene-holes and sham ruins, via avenues, dewponds and village greens, The Shell Country Alphabet will help you discover the world that remains, just off the motorway.

I like what Toby Barnard says about Grigson: ‘Geoffrey Grigson resurrected the minor, the provincial and the parochial ... [he was] an erudite and unrivalled topographer … ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place’. That’s well put: ardent in promoting informed awareness of the distinctiveness of place.

I’ve been out a couple of times recently to Broad Town, where Grigson and his third wife, Jane, lived and are buried. The farmhouse that was theirs, where they both worked and wrote and where, it’s said, Edward Thomas once learned to make hay ropes, is close to Christ Church, the church that serves Broad Town. Locked when we went, the church itself seems undistinguished, but the churchyard is a spacious, sunny and quiet spot that looks out towards the Broad Town White Horse. The Country Alphabet tells me this was cut in 1863.

Last month I read Joe Moran’s excellent On Roads. Reviewing this, Craig Brown wrote:

Joe Moran is a young academic (and if his lecturing is half as good as his writing, I’d advise any young student to make a bee-line for the cultural history department at Liverpool University). Unlike most academics he is excited by the particular and the peculiar, and is obviously happy to spend time ferreting out odd information that more po-faced academics would dismiss as merely anecdotal. … Reading On Roads, I felt as though I was being introduced to a place I thought I knew well, and seeing it for the first time. Moran has the poet’s ability to find the remarkable in the commonplace.

And before On Roads, I was reading Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm. The things he sees, feels, hears, touches and then writes about — and that stick in my mind! (Too much to choose from … ‘There are 243 beams in this house, proportions natural, set by the size of the trees and their girth. … Trees are the measure of things. … The first measures of length must surely have been cut on sticks. … Trees have given proportions to things too. … The standard width of a timber-framed house or barn, between sixteen and twenty-one feet, is the distance a single beam from an oak will normally span.’ ‘People ask how a writer connects with the land. The answer is through work. … And when we work on the land, what is our connection with it? Tools, and especially hand tools. Much can be learnt about the land from the seat of a tractor, the older and more exposed the better, but to observe the detail, you must work with hand tools.’)

I was fortunate to be taught Biology at school by a fine field biologist, Arnold Darlington. I was a poor student and am still learning to have my eyes wide open, but he set me off on a course I’m still on, observing and naming as best I can. There’s a thread here that connects all these writers and it’s why I really liked this article in the NYT, Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World:

We are, all of us, abandoning taxonomy, the ordering and naming of life … losing the ability to order and name and therefore losing a connection to and a place in the living world. No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. … we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism … and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. … Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.

Once you start noticing … once you have a name for (the) particular … you can’t help seeing life … just where it has always been, all around you.


What will remain of us

Smithsonian has an article about nautical archaeology, focusing on Dunwich:

The sea that brought trade to Dunwich was not entirely benevolent. The town was losing ground as early as 1086 when the Domesday Book, a survey of all holdings in England, was published; between 1066 and 1086 more than half of Dunwich’s taxable farmland had washed away. Major storms in 1287, 1328, 1347, and 1740 swallowed up more land. By 1844, only 237 people lived in Dunwich. Today, less than half as many reside there in a handful of ruins on dry land.

Here’s Henry James on Dunwich, in English Hours (‘Old Suffolk’ — originally published in Harper's Weekly, 25 September, 1897), 1905:

If at low tide you walk on the shore, the cliffs, of little height, show you a defence picked as bare as a bone … [The land] stretched, within historic times, out into towns and promontories for which there is now no more to show than the empty eye-holes of a skull; and half the effect of the whole thing, half the secret of the impression, and what I may really call, I think, the source of the distinction, is this very visibility of the mutilation. Such at any rate is the case for a mind that can properly brood. There is a presence in what is missing — there is history in there being so little. It is so little, to-day, that every item of the handful counts.

The biggest items are of course the two ruins, the great church and its tall tower, now quite on the verge of the cliff, and the crumbled, ivied wall of the immense cincture of the Priory. These things have parted with almost every grace, but they still keep up the work that they have been engaged in for centuries and that cannot better be described than as the adding of mystery to mystery. … The mystery sounds for ever in the hard, straight tide, and hangs, through the long, still summer days and over the low, diked fields, in the soft, thick light. We play with it as with the answerless question, the question of the spirit and attitude, never again to be recovered, of the little city submerged. For it was a city, the main port of Suffolk, as even its poor relics show ; with a fleet of its own on the North Sea, and a big religious house on the hill. We wonder what were then the apparent conditions of security, and on what rough calculation a community could so build itself out to meet its fate. It keeps one easy company here to-day to think of the whole business as a magnificent mistake.

I’m keeping The Rings of Saturn for when we have a chance to go walking in Suffolk, but, via John Naughton, here’s Sebald on Dunwich:

The Dunwich of the present day is what remains of what was one of the most important ports of Europe in the Middle Ages. There were more than fifty churches, monasteries and convents, and hospitals here; there were shipyards and fortifications and a fisheries and merchant fleet of eighty vessels; and there were dozens of windmills … The parish churches of St James, St Leonard, St Martin, St Bartholomew, St Michael, St Patrick, St Mary, St John, St Peter, St Nicholas and St Felix, one after the other, toppled down the steadily-receding cliff-face and sank in the depths, along with the earth and stone of which the town had been built. All that survived, strange to say, were the walled well-shafts, which, for centuries, freed of what had once enclosed them, rose aloft like the chimney stacks of some subterranean smithy, as various chronicles report, until in due course these symbols of the vanished town also fell down.

Thinking about Dunwich and nautical archaeology made me read again about the project to use 3D seismic data to map the North Sea Palaeolandscapes — lands of hunter-gatherer communities, lost as water levels changed over 8000 years ago:

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Professor Vince Gaffney:

It's like finding another country. … At times this change would have been insidious and slow — but at times, it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people. … It would be a mistake to think that these people were unsophisticated or without culture. … they would have had names for the rivers and hills and spiritual associations - it would have been a catastrophic loss. … In 10,000 BC, hunter-gatherers were living on the land in the middle of the North Sea. By 6,000 BC, Britain was an island. The area we have mapped was wiped out in the space of 4,000 years. BBC News

From the project’s introduction:

The British continental shelf contains one of the most detailed and comprehensive records of the Late Quaternary and Holocene landscapes in Europe. This landscape is unique in that it was extensively populated by humans but was rapidly inundated during the Mesolithic as a consequence of rising sea levels as a result of rapid climate change. Previous researchers have recognised the rapid inundation may have preserved topographic features and caches of environmental data of high quality which may be used to provide insights into Holocene landscapes which, if located and sampled, may be unparalleled by terrestrial sites. Knowledge of the development of this landscape is also critical to our understanding of the impact of climate change on palaeobathymetry and shoreline sequences. It is clear that the exploitation of the Southern North Sea for energy and mineral resources, most notably aggregate extraction, remains a strategic goal for the UK and without adequate data this remarkable landscape is under significant threat from development. Furthermore, given that this landscape suffered changes comparable with those predicted for the British shoreline over the next century, the value in providing comparative data for the future impact of global warming seems clear.


Berlin

Notes (for next time) …

It won my affection very early on: cosmopolitan, easy-going, alive with street life and cafés, art and music. It felt simultaneously safe and louche — and very, very European. History was obvious in nearly every street we walked. The area we were living in and exploring, Kreuzberg and its neighbourhood, is relatively poor and lacks pretension. It was easy to unwind there — and this despite that always present sense of the past and its burdens. A worldly city, urbane, accommodating, with a thin crust between the day-to-day and the life underground that is the past or the lot of the marginal. (The lobby area to our local U-Bahn always had one, sometimes two, much-the-worse-for-wear guys making little attempt to hide their role as drug peddlers: taking written and spoken messages hurriedly passed to them by people coming off a train or based in or near the station, like someone out of The Wire they would read or listen, rush off — or nod and carry on mumbling to the U-Bahn passengers as they flowed out of the station.)

Safe and louche, then, but with a whiff of something more just off-stage, somewhere over there …

Volkspark Hasenheide

We came home to tales of systematic car burning: Berlin's luxury car arsonists - Boing Boing. More here. And here.

So what have I taken away this first time round? Far, far less fraught than London (I could probably live in Berlin, but London would exhaust me) and with none of Paris’ self-satisfaction, it’s still re-creating itself after so many decades of the most traumatic history. Cranes are everywhere, buildings are going up, coming down, being re-purposed or awaiting their time. There’s a wealth of cultural life and diversity and much evident (relative) poverty. It’s a strikingly student-centric city and a place where ideas still matter and are actually … discussed. (How refreshing.)

We rented a flat a stone’s throw, we discovered, from Blu’s work:

Graffiti

I found a couple of videos of these being created:



(Blu; Blu in Berlin, 2008, here and here; JR.)

The NYT has a 2008 piece about Berlin graffiti, One Wall Down, Thousands to Paint (and they have a video, Graffiti in Berlin, here):

The city’s skyline might be defined by a Sputnik-era TV tower, bombed-out churches and the ghost of a certain wall that once split the German capital. But its streetscape is largely molded by graffiti. … The roots of graffiti culture can be traced back to West Berlin in the early 1980s, when the American-occupied sector was the reluctant melting pot of anarchist punks, Turkish immigrants and West German draft resisters. Kreuzberg, a neighborhood surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall, blossomed particularly well, with miles of wall space and little police scrutiny.

We walked a lot. Not because of the S-Bahn drama (my thanks to Chris and Paul, through delicious, for these links, there to greet me when we arrived :) — Economist, The Local, World Socialist Web Site) but because we enjoy that: it lets you get to grips with a city at a level of intimacy that matters. I thought I knew about the wall, but the reality of it (the 43.7-kilometres, the path it took, its utter centrality) is quite staggering. Lots to choose from on the web: “Berlin's official Internet site”, Berlin International, was useful — Where was the Wall?; The Wall inside the city; Aerial views of the Wall from 1989.

1989, Brandenburg Gate

Talking with friends and then placing the divided city in the divided Germanies (‘to a West Berliner, everywhere was East’) took us mentally to the Helmstedt-Marienborn border crossing:

The Border checkpoint Helmstedt–Marienborn (German: Grenzübergang Helmstedt-Marienborn), called Grenzübergangsstelle Marienborn (GÜSt) (border crossing Marienborn) by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), was the largest and most important border crossing on the inner German border during the division of Germany. Due to its geographical location, allowing for the shortest land route between West Germany and West Berlin, most transit traffic to and from West Berlin was handled by the Helmstedt-Marienborn crossing. Most travel routes from West Germany to East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia also used this crossing. The border crossing existed from 1945 to 1990 and was situated near the East German village of Marienborn at the edge of the Lappwald. The crossing interrupted the Bundesautobahn 2 between the junctions Helmstedt-Ost and Ostingersleben.


View Larger Map

Back in 2004, we drove to Krakow. One day, I’d like to drive to Berlin, taking the Helmstedt–Marienborn route. Driving these very non-UK distances, crossing land fought over and carved up, again and again, brings home the history.

Amongst other things, we saw the Stasi Museum. The building, numbingly dull, drained the joy from that particular afternoon. If it had been fiction, it could have been laughed off (I heard someone else say, ‘This is all like James Bond’), and it took us a while to fathom the reality behind this:

Yes, the Stasi Had a Giant Smell Register of Dissidents.

I was 10 when George Blake escaped from Wormwood Scrubs, an event which made enough impact on me then for this to pull me up short:

At the Stasi Museum 

Back home, I was delighted to hear again Tom Bower’s 1980s documentary about Blake:

For 18 years, Blake served as a trusted and senior MI6 officer. But secretly, in 1952, he became a double agent, betraying MI6 operations and personnel to the KGB. Over the course of nine years, at a critical period of the Cold War, he destroyed most of MI6's activities in Eastern Europe. 'I don't know what I handed over', he admitted, 'because it was so much'.

More, and more links, at Stasimuseum Berlin - Stasi headquarters.

We didn’t go to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the main remand prison for those detained by the Stasi. I think we should go to these places but, although it didn’t reduce me to tears (unlike the information centre at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), the Stasi Museum was life-sapping enough for this brief stay.

We did go to the Soviet War Memorial, about which I’ve made various notes on Flickr. Immense, and immensely moving (7,000 men). Much to learn here.

Memo to self: dig out a copy of Deyan Sudjic's book The Edifice Complex and read the chapter Geoff Manaugh rates, ‘The Long March to the Leader's Desk’. (And is that red marble story true?)

Museum island, of course, and lots to explore another time. Google Maps for Berlin is not keeping up with the pace of change: the map of the area around the Palast der Republik, that area between Schloßplatz and the Lustgarten, confused me. Thanks again to Chris for the link which explained all — Brokedown Palast, a 2006 film about the Palast der Republik by Clockwise Media:

How best to respect, or remember, the past and move on?

CCTV sign, Frankfurter Allee            View across Frankfurter Allee to Karl-Marx-Allee: "a monumental socialist boulevard built by the young GDR between 1952 and 1960" (Wikipedia)

In a spot which has become subsumed into a rather tawdry, touristy area, the outdoor exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie does a good job of bringing the history to life:

Checkpoint Charlie, 10 April 1986  Checkpoint Charlie, 10 April 1986. Friedrichstraße

The New National Gallery has been given over (until 22 November) to an exhibition, Dream Images, of surrealist and early American abstract expressionist works in the private collection of Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. From the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin site:

The Pietzsch Collection ranks as one of the internationally most significant collections of Surrealist art, with principle works by André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Joan Miró, André Masson and Yves Tanguy, as well as numerous works by other artists more broadly connected to the Surrealist movement. A second important core aspect to the collection lies in works by the Abstract Expressionists in America, whose art movement rose directly from the roots of Surrealism to flourish in the New York of the nineteen-fifties. Works by important figures who have since become legends in their own right, such as Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman are all represented in the collection together with works by the great Mexicans Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

FT review is online.

I was particularly taken by the fragments of ‘Capricorn’ (1948), included near casts of the complete piece:

ernst_capricorn  (from bildertraeumeinberlin.org)

From The Burlington Magazine:

In an interview with Patrick Waldberg he [Ernst] announced with refreshing candour: 'Painting is like chess: you have to give your whole mind to it. You live in a state of concentration that is almost unbearable. But with sculpture I can relax. I enjoy it, the way that I enjoyed making sandcastles on the beach when I was a boy'.

From the LA Times:

His sculptural tableau, "Capricorn," incorporated various ethnographic influences visible in exaggerated body proportions and serenely simplified faces. But the piece also was uniquely an Ernst creation, a paean to impromptu inspiration. Everything was pieced together from cement casts of odds and ends: milk cartons cast and piled on top of each other to make the king's scepter (also reminiscent of Brancusi's undulating "Endless Column"), eggshells for the queen's downcast eyes, a cello (harking back to Cubist still lifes) for her body. Like most of his other sculptures from the '30s and '40s, this piece was seldom seen publicly until it was cast in bronze years later (in this case, in a slightly different form). … The sensibility that informed these large and small three-dimensional works was the same puckish, deliberately irrational and willfully inventive spirit that earlier led Ernst to make collages of bizarre encounters (based on illustrations clipped from magazines), fantasy drawings based on rubbings ( frottages ) from pieces of wood, leaves and other materials, and dreamlike paintings. What we tend to forget is that these sculptures also represented a revolutionary way of viewing the human body, beyond traditional Western representations of ideal or actual human figures. During the first few decades of the 20th Century, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Ernst and others dared to raise the curtain that separated polite, normative behavior from secret and "forbidden" thoughts and actions.

The photo of Ernst and Dorothea Tanning with the sculpture (in Sedona, Arizona) is terrific:

capricorne

One reviewer commented:

This is a truly historic exhibition, not only because it marks a rare example of the activities, against the odds, of two sophisticated post-war German collectors, but mainly because it represents the transition of great modernist art from Europe to the USA and in so doing commemorates the incalculable damage the Nazis managed to effect upon Germany and Europe, and almost on the rest of the world, too, and finally because it represents the triumph of artistic creativity over totalitarian orthodoxy.

I’d like (almost) to end on this note of play and creativity triumphant.

*****

Berlin, a city emergent, the contours of its past so evident, its new form not yet settled. In Berlin, I was very much aware of a living history and of living in history. Leszek Kolakowski died last month and these much cited words of his came back to me many times during our time in Berlin: ‘We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are’.

My photos are online.


leaving Berlin: dawn at the Hauptbahnhof

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Amongst poets

Adam Foulds came in to school on Thursday and read from The Broken Word (Sunday Times review here, Guardian here). Earlier this term, I read the poem in one sitting: it’s not difficult to do this, but it was, in any case, simply not a poem I wanted to break off from reading. It is very disturbing, not least because of the contrast between the quality of the telling and what it has to tell. Hearing so much of it read affected me greatly and, in winding up the reading, I slipped and called Adam ‘Robin’ — as his reading had melded in my mind with Robin Robertson’s also dark reading from earlier in the term.

Adam talked afterwards about the LRB review which lies behind the poem. You need a subscription, but the review, Bernard Porter: How did they get away with it?, discussed two books, David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire and Caroline Elkins’ Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Adam spoke about how Porter’s review, and then the two books themselves, shook the sense he had grown up with that, on the whole, and despite some shortcomings, British colonial rule had been a good thing. He had, he said, shared the ambient complacency about British rule. Porter’s review put it like this: “The accepted view of Britain’s decolonisation hitherto has been that it was done in a more dignified, enlightened and consensual way than by other countries – meaning, of course, France. It will be difficult now to argue this so glibly.”

Ambient complacency is a potent phrase, is it not?

Something else — unrelated — that Adam said after the reading also struck me: novels ‘take a group effort’. (His previous book is a novel, The Truth About These Strange Times.) They are so long — they can grow so ‘thin and wispy’ — a writer needs the collaboration of others to bring a novel into the world.

Of course, every author is different. Writing in The Observer’s Book of Books (a slim volume, given away free with the paper in May this year) about how he works as an editor (and drawing on his lengthy experience in publishing), Robin made just this point. His short piece should be read in full, but I can’t find it online. Here are some excerpts:

… an editor’s eye shouldn’t pass over a text too often for fear of losing the very objectivity the writer lacks. During a first read … I’m always watching myself for the first signs of inattention; any time that I’m stopped or distracted means there’s probably a problem in the text … If any changes do need to be made, I’d always ask the author to make them. After all, it is their book, and at this stage it’s still a thing in flux … You have to encourage the writer to see the problem, not just tell them there is one. Editing is about reading and listening attentively … I’ve always considered editing to involve quite a large degree of pastoral care.


Ted Nelson @ St Paul's II

The Bush years have not been kind to those Americans living abroad and dependent on the dollar exchange rate. Out of necessity, then, Ted and Marlene, who first came to St Paul's in July 2007 (see here), are soon to return to the States — but, before leaving, they revisited St Paul's. Today, Ted spoke about his work, his current book-in-progress (Geeks Bearing Gifts) and Xanadu.

Farhan's blogged Ted's talk so well that there's little left for me to add. Thanks!

There were some lovely glimpses into Ted's childhood — a boy who loved reading and words and knew, by ten, who had coined tintinnabulatechortleserendipity; growing up in Greenwich Village without realising it, then reading about it and longing to see this Bohemian paradise; experiencing Mrs Roosevelt as a near neighbour. He was (as expected) both amusing and savage about the blackhole which is the clipboard. His father had taught him that writing is mostly re-writing, and re-writing is mostly rearrangement — so why devise writing tools that are so bad they hide the very material you're cutting? (CTRL+C, CTRL+V: cram and vomit.) By the time he went to college, he'd written a lot by linking cut and pasted pieces of writing.

Graduate school in 1960 and a computing course saw him suddenly quite sure that personal computers would come and that his job was to design the documents of the future: make it possible to see the parts and compare the versions, to visualise the origins of quotations, to expose deep rearrangements. Hypertext was first used by Ted in 1963, but it was 1986 before it was used outside his immediate circle.

It was great to have Ted and Marlene here again. I was particularly pleased that a number of our 13/14 year-old students came along: Ted has been a name to them in their ICT course — and here he was.

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Satire under the Nazis

Via the excellent Smashing Telly, Laughing With Hitler, originally on BBC Four and now on Google Video. It has its weaknesses, but if you're interested in satire you'll surely get a lot out of watching it. Much struck home — some of it amusing, plenty that was simply shocking:

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  • Werner Finck ('The bad times are over, we now have a thousand year Reich to get through'; 'How odd: it's spring, but everything is turning brown') and his club, Die Katakombe — look around the 8 minute mark.
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  • Traubert Petter and his performing chimps (c 28 minutes). The chimps were taught to give the Hitler salute (to the initial, stupid acclaim of party members — 'Even the monkeys greet us'), but then a party decree was issued banning apes from saluting the Führer. Traubert Petter was sent to serve on the Russian front (and survived).
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  • Fritz Muliar (c 32 minutes) who at 21 wrote his last will and testament, thinking he would be sentenced to death for making jokes about Hitler. Instead, he endured five years of hard labour in a penal battalion in Russia: 'I thought I would never laugh again'.

  • Robert Dorsay (c 48 minutes): opponent of the Nazis, he was betrayed by a fellow actor and was executed on 29 October, 1943, for telling jokes and making defeatist remarks.
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  • Dieter Hildebrandt (c 51/52 minutes): 'In those days you took a tiny hammer and hit a small bell and it went [loud, reverberating noise]. Today, you hit a huge bell with a huge hammer and it goes 'ping'.'

  • Fr Joseph Müller (c 52 minutes): parish priest of Groß Düngen, he was arrested (11 May, 1944) by the Gestapo. Appearing in the People's Court before Roland Freisler, he was found guilty, sentenced to the guillotine and was executed on 11 September, 1944 — for preaching Christian values and telling a joke about a dying soldier: 'Show me the people that I'm dying for', says the dying solider. A picture of Hitler and a picture of Göring are placed by him, one on each side. The soldier dies, saying, 'Now I shall die like Jesus Christ, between two criminals'.
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Ted Nelson

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Ted came to speak at St Paul's last Tuesday. He was on great form. Just turned 70, he spoke with few notes and to the theme of his book-in-progress, Geeks Bearing Gifts — a look at how technology advances not by deep intent and precise planning but through accident and politics ('the clash and resolution of agendas'): nineteenth century rail track development (Brunel's broad gauge vs standard gauge), space travel (the science was developed by the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but Goddard gets the credit), the invention of radio — Tesla ('the man who invented the twentieth century') vs Marconi, the American space programme (V-2 rockets, von Braun — Operation Paperclip — and the course of NASA's development) …

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Including von Braun allowed Ted to mention the 1960 film about his work, I Aim at the Stars — subtitled by wits, 'But Sometimes I Hit London'. This was a talk peppered with good jokes. (Photos left and right by Frode Hegland.)

Then on to computing technology, software and hardware, and the erratic, kludgy nature of its development. The highly partisan Apple/Microsoft war-of-loyalty is wholly beside the point when the angle of approach is the one Ted takes, but he still had a great line on Windows: you can tell that it was designed from the ground up 'because there's a lot of … ground still up there'. In a Nelson world, the clipboard of either OS would have been fundamentally overhauled and made useful, not reduced to a feeble echo of the real-life clipboard on which it was modelled.

I hope Geeks Bearing Gifts sees the light to day: listening to Ted talk about the history of computing you appreciate how deeply he has lived and known its history over the last 45+ years. He understands Doug Engelbart's vision from the inside (the mouse was a detail — 'the work of a weekend', so to speak) and he had so much to communicate in the hour he had with us he only had 15 minutes in which to demo Xanadu (beginning with the Cosmic Book) and ZigZag.

Lunch came and discussion went on. Several of our students followed up next day, emailing Ted to maintain the link he'd established so well with them. Ted and Marlene (Mallicoat) made great guests.

Ted left us with working versions of both Xanadu and ZigZag. The latter can be downloaded from here and Xanadu is now available here. There's an excellent video available of Adam Moore (Nottingham University), working with ZigZag and biological and chemical data:

Further ZigZag resources are available online here.

All in all, we had a really good few hours together. What's more, a chance discovery by Ted of some mint first editions of Computer Lib meant we could buy a copy for departmental use (student and staff), as well as one for our main reference library. It was published in 1974 and you only have to dip into it to see it was way ahead of its time.

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Ice Age art

Something beautiful …

Archaeologists at the University of Tübingen have recovered the first entirely intact woolly mammoth figurine from the Swabian Jura, a plateau in the state of Baden-Württemberg, thought to have been made by the first modern humans some 35,000 years ago. It is believed to be the oldest ivory carving ever found. "You can be sure," Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "that there has been art in Swabia for over 35,000 years." Spiegel Online

Mammoth 1
Universität Tübingen 

The figure of the woolly mammoth is tiny, measuring just 3.7 cm long and weighing a mere 7.5 grams, and displays skilfully detailed carvings. It is unique in its slim form, pointed tail, powerful legs and dynamically arched trunk. It is decorated with six short incisions, and the soles of the pachyderm's feet show a crosshatch pattern. …

The geological context of the discoveries and radiocarbon dating indicate that the figurines belong to the Aurignacian culture, which refers to an area of southern France and is associated with the arrival of the first modern humans in Europe. Multiple radiocarbon dates from sediment in the Vogelherd Cave yielded ages between 30,000 and 36,000 years ago, the University of Tübingen reports. Some methods give an even older date. Spiegel Online

Mammoth 2
Universität Tübingen 

These tiny artworks, recently unearthed, are among the oldest examples of figurative art ever found. (For comparison, the oldest known cave/rock paintings go back to 32,000-40,000 years ago. The paintings at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain are somewhere around 15,000 years old.) Thinking Meat

via 3 Quarks Daily

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