Old Man Shouts

Am unwell, so am catching up on old bookmarks. This from a week or so ago, on designing constrained spaces, is quite good.


I mean, the old thing that constraint brings freedom is just that… extremely old… uh now I’m wondering what the history of that is: it’s certainly religious – certain rules enable societies to function, areas of complete liberty cause them to break down (sins, for example).

But the main reason I read with some intent is that the London Library allows laptops in the main reading room now (a post covid degradation) and by fuck some people are noisy on their laptops. Also, typing reflects the cadence of their thought and is extremely distracting, as distracting as talk, where, say, the sound of traffic or aircraft, or even a shout in the street, is not.

I mean they have kept a no laptop room, but it’s cold and dark. You’re a library! Do your thing!

The Wreck of the Sierra Madre

There is something particularly piquant about the mixture of elements in this story:

Biden to warn Beijing against meddling in South China Sea

A rusting wreck called the Sierra Madre in the South China Sea, with Philippine marines stationed on it, at the centre of a diplomatic flashpoint.

I was mentally tagging this as #futureaesthetic, or “the future’s here today”. Or is it like a projection from the past about what the future would look like? Or is it just that many of the elements here – the wreck, the film name resonating around it all, the name The Second Thomas Shoal, the set up for a new film, about marines on the edge of a global conflict on a rusting hulk, the geopolitical heft focused on this point of fragility – an accidental artefact of geopolitics – feel like they’re of the past, not new, the newness being provided only by the conflict, and even that of course, well established…


It wasn’t the best picture in the exhibition. The Impressionists on Paper was in part curated around capturing the tempo of the early modernist world, the City – the City being Paris mainly – and sketches that caught moments “imbued with our surroundings, our sentiments, the things of our age” (Edmond Duranty). Degas’ ballet dancers, joking with each other at the barre or behind stage. Toulouse Lautrec’s sketched intimacies among the women at the brothel. Others, like Jean-Louis Forain’s Dance Card, conveying nicely a woman practically assessing her options at the dance, expressive of a light, wry humour – the dance card being the perfect example of a ’thing of our age’, an apparently transitory object that nevertheless connects with sex, society, and the night. Moments behind the manners of the age, behind the stage – many of the pictures were of people dressing or undressing, lacing and unlacing, before going out or just coming back, of thrown comments to a passer by, or blurs of faces caught through the windows of cabs (Giuseppe de Nittis’ wonderful In the Cab). Motion and sentiment, little rapidly sketched dance cards, the moments around the performance, the things of our age.

It was a vivid charcoal silhouette by Seurat caught my eye though. It was static and seemed timeless rather than of the moment, and symbolic rather than anecdotal; from a distance across the room at first I thought it an image of Death. The Gleaner. Someone who scratches at the ground of a field that’s been harvested to glean what they can.

So, not Death, what happens after Death has visited. 

Also, forcibly, to me, at this moment, an image of mental decay. What it feels like to be scratching around your mind for information, thoughts, words, that will not come. A sudden, vivid expression of how I’ve been feeling as I experience what seems to be a decay in my mental and intellectual faculties as rapid as the sudden decay of my eyesight.

That dark underlayer of ground the region of information: intractable, obscure, barren and cognate with synapses/nerves tangled, plaqued and sclerotic. Any fruit or grain already reaped and carelessly squandered.

Also maybe what it’s like also to engage in psychotherapy, gleaning from roots and chaff and scattered seeds. 

Seurat's picture The Gleaner, the dark charcoal silhouette of a hatted peasant bending down to scratch at a field for gleanings

Maybe I’m just tired.

Bodies and Faces/Passages and Rubens

Passages is a v good fuck-about-and-find-out 3-hander. Was it Agnes Varda who said that film is all about faces? If it was she said it better, but ever since I heard it I notice it, both in film and as a qualifying aspect of television. It’s not just about size of screen, or rather the size of screen is clearly a cause of the historical importance of the face in cinema so that it is an intrinsic aspect of film, film as method, film as perception, film as definably different from television.

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A Spain Diary – Day 1: The Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla

On holiday in Cádiz. Flew out yesterday, and I’ll try to keep this blog updated throughout.

The trip was a little contended; a 3am wake-up call, a glitch in the taxi system, late arrival at a busy Gatwick, and on getting to Sevilla Santa-Justa station at 10:15am, the discovery that all trains to Cádiz were fully booked for the day.

There is a sort of failure of moral hazard at play here – Renfe reimburse all of the ticket fee if you cancel well before the planned trip (I think 3hrs?) and 70% if you cancel up to five minutes beforehand.

What this means is that people will book in advance, even if they’re only thinking of going, and of course this is what I myself should have done. The other thing it means is that if you keep refreshing the site, tickets come up as people cancel. And indeed I managed to get one for four o’clock.

What this meant was that I had time to kill in Sevilla: it is by such trials that God tests his truest servants.

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Where was I?

Or, where was I…. when the dead woman smiled at me? It was last week, on Rotten Row, cycling to work.

Sometimes you start writing something, put your pen down because it’s not really playing out, or other things intervene, and then you never pick it up again

Where was I… when I put the pen down? istr it was about the time I went to the Wyndham Lewis ballet and was listening to a lot of improv jazz. 

Where was I? Well never mind. Where am I now? Here are some good things I read in the last week.

The Mystery of Bloomfield Bridge

Everyone has now read the piece on the apparently pointless footbridge across the interstate in Minneapolis, but it is good, so I’m bookmarking it here. why’s it good?

it’s good because it shows the productive value of asking questions about the detail of history, and doesn’t give up until its as satisfied as it can be that the detail and reasoning is correct; look at all the responses and memories the writer’s quixotic journey has produced! it’s also good because it shows how our built, social, emotional, intellectual environments are littered with items just like this – bridges connecting spaces for no apparent reason, oxbow lakes of irrationality that once were connected with the flow of meaning around them.

Finally it’s good because, connected with the first point really, it’s what I might call proper history. It does the spadework. It’s stubborn. It doesn’t take the easy reason when one is available. Where matters are undetermined, it keeps going, where they are overdetermined, it looks for the vital threads and sifts.

That connects it with this other good piece, by Anton Howes, on the reproducibility crisis in history:

Does History have a Replication Crisis?

Taken to an extreme, the implications of this piece might be considered too puritanical for any history to be conducted at all. After all it is an interpretative discipline, based on available evidence. And, as Burrow details well in his historiographic book, A History of Histories, that interpretation and presentation is like most things subject to explicit and implicit expressoins of ideology. Or as the classic GCSE marginal comment on primary evidence goes: It is bias

It had me nodding and agreeing with vim, though; not only do factoids litter the path of historical understanding and clog up the channels of its thought, they often come, as the article details, from inside the house. This is particularly the case with the more popular and journalistic efforts in the field, whose mode gives them every latitude for intellectual sloppiness.

Generally it’s fair to say I read extremely warily and on the alert. For what? For stuff that isn’t right, for stuff I think needs examining further by customs before being deposited in my brainpan. A search for contraband epistemic goods being snuck in amidst otherwise innocuous freight. 

It’s generally the tone that first sets you going. Your antennae start vibrating, you become wary. You start saying things like really? says who? Every invisibly asserted generalisation only makes things worse.

As I say, the journalistic mode seems particularly culpable: shortcuts, avoiding asking the hard questions, bypassing mental inquisition by using description, only going two layers down, whatever. 

So, to balance it out, two very good recent features (and good feature writing, as William E Blundell’s excellent The Art and Craft of Feature Writing shows, is a skill, and not just with the typrewriter, pen or laptop):

Jennifer Williams is disliked by some on the left for occasionally expressed Opinions but does good journalism (inability to separate the two, always vexed tbf, and made worse by some of its practitioners, does seem for many online to have come decisively down on the side of journalism being entirely tainted by the fact there’s a person behind it): recently the Teesside Freeport corruption scandal, and this excellent piece on a year at Newman Roman Catholic College secondary school in Oldham.

One year in a struggling British state school

And a Thing I Learned or relearned or something recently – and you may not have heard this – is that The New Yorker is really a very good magazine with consistently high quality features. I felt it strongly while and immediately after reading this feature on Country Music’s Culture Wars and the Remaking of Nashville.

The dead woman was Hilary Mason, recognised immediately as one of the two questionably malign psychics in Don’t Look Now, named later with a quick google. She was cycling towards me, and turned a very sunny smile on me and me alone as she passed. As if to say ‘you shall be with us soon’. Or perhaps, ‘With our special insight of the future from our vantage point of the dead, we can see unforeseeable fortune coming your way.’ Either way, I remained pre-occupied with the experience well into Holland Park.

Transference Valence

Four favourites from the week, four absolutely a-grade tracks too.

Horace Ferguson – Tranquilizer

Reissued on the excellent Death is Not the End label, a track off the 1987 album Sensi Addict. Produced by Prince Jazzbo, this cut has the sweet-voiced Horace Ferguson riding that compulsive Sleng Teng riddim.

Skeng – Elvis Presley

Track of the year so far, no question – that bass! And ok, I accept Skeng isn’t exactly the most wholesome role model for young people, but he’s got a way with the lyrics and delivery, and the burberry ofc. London was everywhere and was a track of the year last year, as I expect this one will be. Good video too. V thin. Do you think he gets enough to eat 😐

Som.1 – Ultimatum

Coming straight out of Montpellier, hefty, buzzsawing breakbeats, dark and lowering bass and a driving ’don’t stop, gooooo!’ catchline. Killing it.

Bree Bree – Eva Bless!

Clean, catchy and direct. Confidence in the skill and the song. Great riddim too, that little shuffle that Bree Bree rides to deliver the momentum.

YouTube playlist link:

Reading Janet Malcolm The Impossible Profession at the moment, hence the playlist title.

col tocco d’arrosto

May Day leftovers

I’ve written about pasta col tocco d’arrosto before. ‘With a touch of the roast’: pasta cooked and thrown in to the roasting pan with a little of its water, swirled around on the gas with some parmesan, until the ‘sauce’ is somewhat but not entirely reduced and sticking to the pasta, and the roasting pan is almost entirely clean.

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