there are some authors who employ their talent in the delicate description of varying states of the soul, character traits etc. I shall not be counted among these. All that accumulation of realistic detail, with clearly differentiated characters hogging the limelight, has always seemed pure bullshit to me

August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment


In The London Spy (1703), Ned Ward described coffee as a ‘Mahometan gruel’, whilst in 1665 an anonymous description of The Character of a Coffee-House insisted on its title-page that ‘When Coffee once was vended here, / The Alc’ron shortly did appear’. Another anonymous writer launched A Broadside against Coffee: or, The Marriage of the Turk in 1672.

Recognising the foreign roots of this increasingly popular drink, English writers worried that the potency of the fashionable beverage might cause imbibers to ‘turn Turk’, or become muslims. This was a surprisingly common fear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as Matar has shown, fuelled by stories of Englishmen prospering as muslims. Stories of conversion and compulsion persisted, despite the fact that Islam was much more tolerant of other religions than were the Christian churches and that the Qur’an accords a special place to the two other religions of the book: Christianity and Judaism.

Coffee might affect body and soul together: changing the complexion to a swarthier hue and, as ‘an ugly Turkish enchantress’, putting the drinker under the ‘spell’ of another religion (The city-wifes petition against coffee (1700)). In 1663, the writer of a broadsheet description of A Cup of Coffee: or Coffee in its Colours complained:

For Men and Christians to turn Turks, and think
T’excuse the Crime because ’tis in their drink,
Is more then Magick, and does plainly tell
Coffee’s extraction has its heats from hell.

The complaint at coffee and its apostasizing effects seems to have had numerous causes: a patriotic attempt to keep native industries alive by persuading Englishmen to keep drinking the more traditional ale and beer; a fear of the very real military might of the Ottoman Empire; and a way to explain the physical effects of coffee (argued by some to be an aphrodisiac, whilst others complained it turned English husbands into ‘Eunuchs’).  read more

STILL: Christian Roger

He spoke of latent causes, sterile gauzes and the bedside morale

July 31, 2013 § Leave a comment


Stoker opened by telling Whitman that he could burn the letter, but hoped that he would resist. “I don’t think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn’t like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world—a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them.”  He greatly valued Whitman’s candor, regarding him as different from other men, and hoped that they could be friends. “If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call you Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk.” Stoker then declared Whitman to be a “true man,” confessing that he yearned to be one himself, “and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.”

Having made his admiration known, Stoker described his life: He was twenty-four years old, named after his father; his friends called him Bram, and he earned a small salary working as a clerk for the government. Next came his person and demeanor:

I am six feet two inches high and twelve stone weight naked and used to be forty-one or forty-two inches round the chest. I am ugly but strong and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips—sensitive nostrils—a snubnose and straight hair. I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self control and am naturally secretive to the world. I take a delight in letting people I don’t like— people of mean or cruel or sneaking or cowardly disposition—see the worst side of me.

Stoker included his physical description, because he surmised from Whitman’s works and his photograph that he would be interested to know the “personal appearance of your correspondents.” Wrote Stoker: “You are I know a keen physiognomist.”

Stoker attempted to convey what Whitman’s poetry meant to him. “I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night, and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book lying open before me.” Whitman’s verse had been life-changing for a self- confessed conservative from a conservative country. “But be assured of this, Walt Whitman—that a man . . . who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts.”

Stoker closed by acknowledging his frankness. “I have been more candid with you—have said more about myself to you than I have ever said to any one before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was with no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more.”  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: [unattributed]

What Hook means when he says that those wretched streets ‘covered the site of Regent Street’ is that Regent Street was really there first; it was just necessary to get rid of the rubbish on top of it

July 22, 2013 § Leave a comment


You photographed the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. What effect did the invasion have on you personally?
My photographs of the Soviet invasion in 1968 are a very personal testimony, an expression of bewilderment, despair and unspeakable sadness. When I decided to go live in the West, I left my best negatives with a friend in Prague, because if the negatives were to be found in my luggage at the airport, I would not have been able to leave the country. I also left with this friend my negatives of the Soviet invasion. Unfortunately, his home was raided by the secret police, who were looking for anti-government documents. They did not find my negatives. However, after the police left, my friend, out of fear that they might return, burned my best negatives of the invasion.

Have you ever shown those pictures?
For years I searched in vain, trying to find at least some prints. Only recently did I find some photographs from the 1968 invasion in a box of my letters to my father, which his second wife gave to me after he died. He lived in the country, and I had sent him some photographs so that he could see how it looked in Prague in those days. I had totally forgotten that I sent them. About 20 of them were exhibited for the first time in the spring of 2009 at Michigan State University. Four photographs were exhibited and published in a catalog of a large show mounted to mark the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion in Prague.

Czech photography has a rich history of innovation. Do you feel kinship with other documentary photographers like Josef Koudelka or Milon Novotný? And did you associate with any Czech photographers?
I used to visit an old and famous Czech photographer named Josef Sudek. He described my questions about his photographs as “picking his cherries.” Josef Koudelka is an old friend. We became friends in 1963, when he was working in a Prague airport designing aircraft. Milon Novotný was a friend of my husband, and once a week we would go to the pub together.

Is there such a thing as a “Czech” photographic aesthetic?
I don’t think so. But Czechs and Slovaks take photography very seriously. The Czech avant-garde art groups in the early 20th century included writers, painters, photographers and sculptors. And even during communism the official state body “The Artists Union” had departments of painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography. I became a member of The Artists Union in 1969, and in my identity card, in the column “profession,” was written: “visual artists—photographer.”…

I’m struck by the graphic power of your work, especially the strong contrast and pronounced grain. How did you arrive at this visual aesthetic?
In Czechoslovakia in the 1960s high-speed 35mm photographic film was not available. We used high-speed cinematographic film, which we bought on the black market from film cameramen. When pushed, the film was quite grainy, and I liked it very much. The style was born out of necessity, but I like the grain, I like the texture, even the faults in the emulsion. I don’t mind them; I consider them part of the image.  read more

ART: Pieter Brueghel

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

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