Enter a gentle Astringer

July 15, 2013 § Leave a comment


Harvey, who has written most of his books using the initials AD rather than his first name Arnold, which he dislikes, has been exposed in the Times Literary Supplement as the possessor of multiple identities in print, a mischief-maker who among other things had invented a fictitious meeting in 1862 between Dickens and Dostoevsky. This startling encounter was first written up by one Stephanie Harvey in the Dickensian, the magazine of the Dickens Fellowship, in 2002, and quickly hardened into fact, cited in Michael Slater’s biography of Dickens in 2009 and repeated by Claire Tomalin in her biography two years later.

It was only after a New York Times review of Tomalin’s book that American specialists in Russian literature started to wonder about this meeting, Dostoevsky’s account of which, according to Stephanie Harvey, had been documented in the journal Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakskoi (News of the Academy of Sciences of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic). “In what language did Dickens and Dostoevsky converse?” asked Russian scholars. Why had Dostoevsky’s revealing portrait of Dickens – “There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite” – not been included in his collected works? And why had they never previously come across the distinguished journal Vedomosti Akademii Nauk Kazakskoi?

Doubts about the authenticity of the Dickens-Dostoevsky meeting spread, retractions were made, the Dickensian had egg on its face. But only recently did the full story of the deception emerge when Eric Naiman, a professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an immensely detailed six-page article in the TLS (“three days’ work”, says Harvey dismissively when I praise Naiman for his industry) establishing Harvey’s academic avatars – not just Stephanie Harvey, but Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham (author of Oxford: The Novel), Michael Lindsay and Ludovico Parra. Naiman traced the way in which, over the past 30 years, this group had been commenting on one another’s work in scholarly journals and little magazines, sometimes praising one ano ther but occasionally finding fault too. “How comforting,” Naiman commented drily, “to construct a community of scholars who can analyse, supplement and occasionally even ruthlessly criticise each other’s work.”

AD Harvey doesn’t deny he is the creator of that community. Indeed, he says there are several identities which even Naiman has failed to unearth: Stephen Harvey, author of an article titled The Italian War Effort and the Strategic Bombing of Italy, published in the journal History in 1985; the Latvian poet Janis Blodnieks (“I search but cannot find the key/ Which will unlock the glowing door/ To the life which runs parallel/ To the world in which I am trapped”); and a variety of internet personalities which he prefers not to disclose as he says they might not reflect well on his output and interests.  read more

ART: Hayv Kahraman

Who cares if they’re rolling in bed? There’s only darkness upstairs

July 4, 2013 § Leave a comment


That’s one of the most extraordinary bird songs in the British Isles…

At first there was nothing and then a low and gentle noise came very softly from the Bowl, a faint sound, almost indescribable, but as if one held the tongue against the roof of the mouth and expelled the breath.  listen

ART: Nina Tichava

Understand death? Sure. That was when the monsters got you

July 1, 2013 § Leave a comment


An extraordinary fuss about eavesdropping started in the spring of 1844, when Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian exile in London, became convinced that the British government was opening his mail. Mazzini, a revolutionary who’d been thrown in jail in Genoa, imprisoned in Savona, sentenced to death in absentia, and arrested in Paris, was plotting the unification of the kingdoms of Italy and the founding of an Italian republic. He suspected that, in London, he’d been the victim of what he called “post-office espionage”: he believed that the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, had ordered his mail to be opened, at the request of the Austrian Ambassador, who, like many people, feared what Mazzini hoped—that an insurrection in Italy would spark a series of revolutions across Europe. Mazzini knew how to find out: he put poppy seeds, strands of hair, and grains of sand into envelopes, sealed the envelopes with wax, and sent them, by post, to himself. When the letters arrived—still sealed—they contained no poppy seeds, no hair, and no grains of sand. Mazzini then had his friend Thomas Duncombe, a Member of Parliament, submit a petition to the House of Commons. Duncombe wanted to know if Graham really had ordered the opening of Mazzini’s mail. Was the British government in the business of prying into people’s private correspondence? Graham said the answer to that question was a secret.

Questions raised this month about surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency have been met, so far, with much the same response that Duncombe got from Graham in 1844: the program is classified. (This, a secret secret, is known as a double secret.) Luckily, old secrets aren’t secret; old secrets are history. The Mazzini affair, as the historian David Vincent argued in “The Culture of Secrecy,” led to “the first modern attack on official secrecy.” It stirred a public uproar, and eventually the House of Commons appointed a Committee of Secrecy “to inquire into the State of the Law in respect of the Detaining and Opening of Letters at the General Post-office, and into the Mode under which the Authority given for such Detaining and Opening has been exercised.” In August of 1844, the committee issued a hundred-and-sixteen-page report on the goings on at the post office. Fascinating to historians, it must have bored Parliament silly. It includes a history of the delivery of the mail, back to the sixteenth century. (The committee members had “showed so much antiquarian research,” Lord John Russell remarked, that he was surprised they hadn’t gone all the way back to “the case of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who opened the letters which had been committed to his charge, and got Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death instead of himself.”)

The report revealed that Mazzini’s mail had indeed been opened and that there existed something called the Secret Department of the Post Office. Warrants had been issued for reading the mail of the king’s subjects for centuries. Before Mazzini and the poppy seeds, the practice was scarcely questioned. It was not, however, widespread. “The general average of Warrants issued during the present century, does not much exceed 8 a-year,” the investigation revealed. “This number would comprehend, on an average, the Letters of about 16 persons annually.” The Committee of Secrecy was relieved to report that rumors that the Secret Department of the Post Office had, at times, sent “entire mail-bags” to the Home Office were false: “None but separate Letters or Packets are ever sent.”

The entire episode was closely watched in the United States, where the New-York Tribune condemned the opening of Mazzini’s mail as “a barbarian breach of honor and decency.” After the Committee of Secrecy issued its report, Mazzini published an essay called “Letter-Opening at the Post-Office.” Two months after the Mazzini affair began, the Secret Department of the Post Office was abolished. What replaced it, in the long run, was even sneakier: better-kept secrets.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Derek Vincent

I am almost frightened out of my seven senses

June 13, 2013 § Leave a comment


I went out during the day and recorded sounds that I thought might be useful and evocative. It turned out that most of the sounds – even the church organ in Southwark Cathedral – seemed to converge around a common rhythm. It’s a bit too good to be true – that every large city should have its own rhythm, but here it is.

Byrne’s claim that London has a fundamental rhythm of 122.86 bpm could be generously described as a poetic truth. The most common rhythmical sound outdoors in the city is footsteps, the individual rate of which is usually between 80 and 100 steps a minute…
There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris.
This must be true for some parts of Paris, but it also seems likely that there will be others which don’t sound very different to their equivalents in Lyon or Toulouse. If people’s voices are excluded, they may not be easily distinguished by ear from many cities throughout the industrialised world. Economic development tends to reduce the variety of public sound environments at the same time as it multiplies what you can choose to hear in private.
Let’s set aside the issue of comparisons and consider if it’s worth asking what the characteristic sound profile of a single city might be, a bit like how astronomers have tried to discover the average colour of the universe. This is the sort of question which journalists like to ask – so, what exactly is the sound of London? – and one which Byrne astutely foresaw. Unfortunately, it’s also ill-posed. First, any measure along a single dimension, such as London’s average sound frequency being x-number of hertz, doesn’t contain much information of interest. What understanding could such a fact lead to? Second, differences in what’s sampled and how will produce wildly different results. You can’t record everything.  read more

One can approve vulgarity in theory as a comment on vulgarity, but in practice all vulgarity is inseparable

May 30, 2013 § 2 Comments


One of the great proponents of moving walkways was Jesse Wilford Reno (1861-1947). In 1891 he applied for the first US patent for what we would recognize as a relatively modern moving walkway (granted 1892). However this early concept had to wait while Reno concerned himself with a slightly different idea.

Reno’s first machine was installed in 1896 as a mere pleasure ride at Coney Island, New York, at the Old Iron Pier. He termed it his ‘inclined elevator’ and it was inclined at 20 degrees and had a rise of only seven feet and a speed of about 75 ft/minute. In fact it was provided to act as a means of demonstrating its capabilities to potential customers, such as the trustees of the Brooklyn Bridge and subway and elevated railway operators. This ploy seems to have worked as machines were deployed at each end of the bridge (I think in 1896). Strange to say that it was only after this that the idea of constructing a horizontal machine was suggested, initially as a means of crossing the bridge, but this was not pursued.

So far as I have been able to establish, his 7 ft demonstrator only ran for two weeks but had the peculiar property that passengers were required to sit on it, as though it were some kind of inverted ski lift. It was therefore a passenger conveyor, but not a walkway. I am yet to discover more about this, especially as it is reputed to have gone to Brooklyn Bridge to impress the managers there (I believe for two months but struggle to confirm this). There is an image, produced below, of a sitting-down type conveyor at Coney Island, probably made by Reno, but it is obviously much more than 7 ft high and has a permanent look about it. Perhaps it was installed soon after as a result of a successful trial. It is apparent that this design departed very considerably from his 1892 patent and does not seem to have been repeated. Though Coney island is frequently cited as ‘the first escalator’, the evidence tends to suggest it was very different in conception and not part of the mainstream development of passenger conveyors.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Richard Perkins

Too, there is no theme

May 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today I have been mostly investigating the rules of irony. It turns out they are set in stone.

I had a slightly puzzling start with two spurious defects before I’d even got out of a siding. I say “spurious” but I’m not entirely sure. The trains have been acting funny lately with all sorts of things happening that shouldn’t. The current favourite game in the messroom is chucking around theories on what went wrong with particular trains and how to fix them. As I was alone in the siding I didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off but I did spend some time trying to work out how the train could have been defective. For the first defect I couldn’t come up with anything mechanical. When you find yourself seriously considering the actions of a passing badger in the middle of the night you realise you might need a bit more coffee. So I had some and continued to think about badgers.  read more

FILM: thisnoisecountry

proverbial say, we can hear the words decay

May 10, 2013 § 1 Comment


The Old Bailey Proceedings Online makes available a fully searchable, digitised collection of all surviving editions of the Old Bailey Proceedings from 1674 to 1913, and of the Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts between 1676 and 1772. It allows access to over 197,000 trials and biographical details of approximately 2,500 men and women executed at Tyburn, free of charge for non-commercial use.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Ralph Gibson

As you can imagine you go forward and you do not remember exactly what you have done

May 6, 2013 § Leave a comment


Kossoff speaks reluctantly; he hates talking about painting. “It’s all right,” is the most he shrugs at the sooty charcoal drawings of building sites and train tracks – “Railway Bridge Mornington Crescent”, “Building Site St Paul’s”, “York Way” – as he re-encounters them after half a century. “I was very young! It was all done on the spot. Then I would take them back to the studio, look at them, a few days later decide whether they’re finished. If not, I redrew them completely – like scraping off a painting. I destroy an enormous amount, it’s my greatest regret. I could kick myself. It’s part of my madness.”

Travelling by overground train to an early studio in Dalston, he began observing railways, which “always provide an interesting landscape, it’s all about space and light”. A rush of sensations is packed into converging lines in “Here Comes the Diesel” (the title from a grandson’s scream; a railway line passes Kossoff’s garden); shafts of sunshine illuminate gleaming rails in “Between Kilburn and Willesden, Spring Afternoon”. Building sites too, “beautiful as well as dark”, are “very exciting to see”. In their processes of demolition, excavation, construction, their sense of disequilibrium, they parallel Kossoff’s method of creation, anxiously accumulating then scraping away paint, criss-crossing networks of lines to make stormy drawings – “Demolition of YMCA Building, London”, “Kings Cross Building Site Early Days” – as vividly textural as paintings.

Structure against transience and instability, coherence against chaos, is perhaps the inevitable battleground for any painter picking up the European representational tradition after Cézanne. “I feel embarrassed to use the word ‘Cézanne’, but it’s Cézanne all the time,” Kossoff answers when I ask about influences. “Cézanne gets bigger and bigger. The older I get – I’m pretty old – he could be another Giotto as far as I’m concerned.”

No painter is more steeped in Old Masters than Kossoff, who, aged nine, walked from the east end to the National Gallery and began to teach himself to draw. “My parents weren’t interested in me becoming an artist. They were puzzled by me altogether. I wasn’t much good at anything at school, and at St Martins they didn’t like what I was doing. I always felt I couldn’t draw.”  read more


Hilarious Foreign Uncle Becomes Viral Star For Expressing Deep Emotion About Death Caused by Family Members VIDEO

April 25, 2013 § Leave a comment


Beck’s Paris Metro map is clearly related to his schematic map for the London Underground, all its angles at either 90 or 45 degrees, any unnecessary details erased. The Seine river’s meander through the city is stylised into a symmetrical sweep across the map’s bottom left quarter, its bracket-like shape broken only by the Île de la Cité. The smaller Île Saint-Louis has been erased off the map: unlike its larger neighbour, it doesn’t have a metro stop.

Capturing the Paris Metro in a schematic map proved even more challenging than reducing the London Tube to the now-famous diagram: the Parisian stations were more concentrated in the centre, and its lines were much more interwoven, leading to a higher number of interchanges – and to some very curvaceous lines. Beck picked out a few metrolines to form what seems to be the eternally recurring, basic matrix of a metro map: an axial line (the Ligne 1, running east-west), and a circular line (by juxtaposing Ligne 2 and Ligne 6 on the map to form a rounded rectangle). He added in the other lines, straightening them out as much as possible.

Beck’s initial proposal was rejected by the Paris Metro operator RATP – but the same fate had befallen his first suggestions for the London Underground. Undaunted, the draughtsman returned to his drawing board. But his second, improved, full-colour map, presented in 1951, was also given le cold shoulder. Some speculate that Beck’s oversimplification of Parisian geography was simply too unpalatable for local tastes. It could also be argued that the map looked too ‘British’ for Paris. The map fell into oblivion, and was only published for the first time in Mark Ovenden’s 2008 book on the Paris Metro.

But in the end, Beck won – albeit posthumously.  read more

ART: Martin Creed

Society is like sex in that no one knows what perversions it can develop once aesthetic considerations are allowed to dictate its choices

February 25, 2013 § Leave a comment


M. John Harrison, the great British anti-fantasy writer has written brilliant screeds against world creation. He deliberately messes with the reader’s expectations of world creation. He likes to torture us with that nerdy desire we have for a stable secondary world—and I speak as one who shares it. So, for example, the name of the city he’s created in Viriconium changes from story to story with no particular explanation. The map shifts. A character who is dead in one story comes back later on. This of course makes continuity freaks scream in physical pain. I really love this about him. It’s incredibly provocative, and while it’s not the paradigm I write within, I do try to take some of the lessons from that.

What that would mean would be, for example, don’t fill in everything on a map. If you don’t know what’s on a map in the real world, how can you possibly fill one in in a world that doesn’t exist? It’s meaningless. Leave things unknown.

With The City & the City, one of the things that fascinated me was the number of people who criticized it on the grounds of wanting to know how the cities got like that. Look, I’m not the police, so if not finding out bugged them, and the book didn’t work for them because of it, then it didn’t work for them. Personally that has no traction for me as a reader, partly because I like mystery—I like not understanding things in the books that I read. But also because—and I know we’re not talking about the real world—it’s an equivalent question to asking, “How did London come to be?” “Why is Budapest like that?” It’s a question that demands such an amount of history that the weight of totality is so great that you can’t possibly answer it. Totality evades our complete understanding, not because the world is unknowable, but because there’s so fucking much of it.

For all those reasons, I think one of the most important things in world creation is to leave certain things unsaid. I think there’s nothing wrong with frustrating your readers about that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pissing them off at all, as long as they’re interested.

To mention Harrison one more time, there is a lovely formulation from when he was at his slightly more “world create-y” early on in his career. He has a lovely phrase in the opening of Pastel City where he says, “There were some seventeen notable empires in the later ages of man. None of them concern us here.” And I love that. It’s so cheeky to pitch this historical weight of world creation, but then say, “Well, I’m not going to go into that because it’s really not relevant.” That to me is sort of like the most elegant and funny moment of world creation in speculative fiction in the last thirty years. “None of them concern us here.” That could be the slogan of the epistemologically rigorous world creator.  read more


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