Tuesday, 28 October 2008

More on the curse of popularity

When I blogged about the disturbing way that popularity has become the single criterion by which literary or artistic merit is measured, I didn't have academic journals in mind. But according to the Guardian, a single quantitative measure is now being applied here too - how many people are referring to your work?

So presumably, if more researchers refer to the flat earth theory than to the work of modern physicists, that means the flat earthers are right?

Imagine, if you will, a world in which our traffic laws reflected common practice rather than the Highway Code....

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Lavatorial travel

I couldn't resist this story in the Independent about bogs (loos, bathrooms, little boys' rooms, public lavatorial facilities, necessaria, toilets, rest facilities) with a view. It's priceless!

I recently published a piece  in Norfolk Nips (the local CAMRA newsletter, which I edit) about toilet facilities in Norwich pubs - the writer's view was that the ladies' loos show the pub's real view of its customers. There is certainly something rather wonderful when you visit a pub that is not in any way chi-chi or gastro, but the ladies' turns out to be sparkling clean and even palatial. One I've visited has apple-scented soap and fresh towels, boxes of tissues, and even (not always tho) hand moisturiser - what bliss.   And it also has very decent real ale.

It's a pity that we put toilets into this little ghetto of slightly taboo subjects, like death and sex, because toilets do have a huge impact on the experience of travel.  A five hour train journey in Poland with the toilet locked... one of the nastiest toilets I've ever visited, in a factory in St Petersburg,  the floor swimming with shit,  and no light in the cubicle, so I had to lever myself up to stand on the seat,   and hold the door ajar with one hand while trying  to get my tissues out of my bag with the other... the little chalets on the bridge at Puivert, on the Sentier Cathare (now replaced by a more salubrious range of toilettes  in the mairie), from which your waste product takes a long drop to the river many feet below.

Belgo's in London had a marvellous toilet with a unisex hand-washing facility around a circular fountain, if I remember correctly.  It didn't worry the French or Belgians at all,  but English people wandering in without having been warned about the  unisex nature of the facilities quite often came straight out again looking embarassed and puzzled.

Toilets have even become green. I remember visiting a little place on the Offa's Dyke path that had a composting toilet; so after the toilet paper, you also needed to remember to place a ritual  offering of sawdust down the chute.   And I remember staying at a country B&B once where I was warned that I might see the owners taking a leak in the compost heap, but this wasn't compulsory and I could use the inside toilet if I liked.

Indeed toilets even appear in literature. Martin Amis and Harold Brodkey, feature extended passages on lavatorial subjects. You can practically detect a 'toilet school' of angry young men.

But the locus classicus of the shithouse in literature occurs during the Renaissance.

If you have any feeling for the pleasure of a good lavatory,  you need to read Rabelais' 'Gargantua & Pantagruel', in which the hero rhapsodises about the many excellent (and less excellent) materials he has used for arse-wiping duty, including (if my memory serves) the neck of a goose.

Now I've come across squares of newspaper on a nail, à la Steptoe and Son. I've seen little nozzles in Omani toilets to spray your privates with.   I've used sand (it's a desert thing. the Wahiba sands are full of sand, obviously, and not full of the other thing, otherwise they'd be called the Wahiba Toiletpaper). But not the neck of a goose.

Not yet, anyway...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Travelling at home - reprise

A lovely post on Brave New Traveler encapsulates some of the themes of 'travelling in your own back yard'.

I really like what this writer is saying - that we are all, potentially, immigrants, refugees, displaced persons. The more privileged of  us are displaced through choice, not circumstances - but we can develop our empathy with others through our experience of travel.


Quantity vs quality

I'm getting a bit fed up with sites that list their 'top articles' or 'top buys'  - selected purely by number of clicks.

We say we want individual experiences - to be able to see something unusual, out of the ordinary. Yet we travel to places that are in the press, taking our cue from other travellers. We want to read the best travel writing - yet we somehow believe that it's the file that has been most downloaded that is the best.

It's a real pity, because the Internet, with its potential for one-to-one as well as one-to-many (broadcast) interaction,  is a medium that should be tailormade for special interests. But instead, it's become a prisoner to the mass  - obsessed with the quantity rather than the quality of links, with getting hits instead of developing debate, simplistic voting replacing educated peer review.

Quality sometimes accompanies popularity. The Alhambra, or St Peter's Rome, are popular sights - and at the same time two of the greatest  monuments of art and architecture in Europe. But come on; MacD and Burger King are two of the most popular restaurants in the world. Does that mean they are better quality?

Besides, if you really want to understand the cultures that produced the Alhambra and St Peter's, you need to visit some of the smaller gems too. The Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo, a perfect Arab  throne room tucked away   in a rambling garden off a Granada side street; the church of Sant'Ivo della Sapienza, at the bottom of the long, thin courtyard  of the Pontifical University, or Santa Maria dell'Orazione e della Morte,  a church where the Baroque fascination with death becomes all-encompassing, with little skeletons and skulls hiding everywhere in the architecture.

I've come to detest these '100 things to do before you die' lists. And the parasitic 'things not to do before you die' lists that have started to spring up. The attraction is that of the tick list - 100 great books,   as if once you've read everything in Reader's Digest, that's all you need to know about Western civilisation.

Because in fact your hundred things to do are different from mine. Because we are different people.

Istanbul, for instance, was always high on my list. I have a fascination with cities that keep regenerating themselves, from empire to empire, always changing and yet somehow unchanged. Rome, for me, is a city of endless fascination,  with its  onion-skin layers of history  - the Republic, the Empire, the Papacy, Mussolini's fake-Imperial, the foundations of each regime resting on the ruins of the past. That's why Istanbul appealed, with its layers of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern life.

I like routes with a structure. Pilgrimage routes, trade routes, traditional roads.  The Camino de Santiago, one great road from Le Puy to Santiago, or the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, or perhaps, one day, the Silk Road. (When I was younger I loved Elroy Flecker's 'Golden road to Samarkand'.)  For me, there's a spiritual dimension to walking, to the act of placing one foot in front of the other. Writers like Joe Simpson find that spiritual dimension in climbing , in the edge of danger - I find  it  in the inevitability of the dull trudge. Our lists are different - the Eiger or Bridalveil Falls against the Pennine Way and the Via Tolosana.

Besides, we may be looking at the same thing and seeing different aspects.   I want to visit India, soon; and I'm as interested in visiting Bangalore's modern software centres as I am in seeing the Red Fort or the Taj Mahal. It's the intersection of modern and ancient that intrigues me.   And we have different expertisesand experiences to channel our interests -  one of the great delights of Paris, for me, is the fantastic variety of organs, from the  m ulti-manual, hundred-plus-stop Cavaillé Coll monsters to the plangent baroque tones of the organ that François Couperin played. A whole sonorous banquet.

So ignore the top 100 lists. If we all did the same 100 things before we died, the world would be a sad place, full of identikit clones.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Music and architecture

It's taken a long time to convince me that the mathematical appeal of architecture can be as strong as the picturesque.

That may be in part an Anglo-Saxon prejudice. The Gothic still rules in these islands  - crags, castles, cathedrals, a cult of the picturesque, and particularly of the delights of buildings that have been built up over the years, accumulating accretions as they have pinnacles and parapets.

The first time that I visited Florence I was underwhelmed. It's only recently that I've come to appreciate the appeal of Brunelleschi's or Alberti's designs - the geometrical patterns that underlie the scheme, the perfect circles of the Pazzi chapel or the multiple grids of San Lorenzo. The reticence of the great palaces, of the arcaded courtyards, the simplicity and purity of the mouldings,  just wasn't on my  gothic wavelength. Then I came to love the baroque with its wit and theatricality - and still didn't understand the attractions of the Renaissance.

Maybe, too, the fact that every other bank in England put up between 1890 and  1930 seems to be in Florentine Renaissance pastiche style, had something to do with it. I was looking at the Renaissance from the wrong side  - damning it because it looked a bit like the wretched and inadequate copies that I knew.

Now, after twenty years or so, I've been back to Florence again, and this time  I tried looking at the works as if I were an English ecclesiastic of about 1500.  Used to the Perpendicular style with its emphasis on almost i infinit e subdivisions of space into panelling and tracery, and looking at a style that was completely different -  that tried to achieve the perfection of the basic geometrical form, that was about solids rather than planes, circles and grids rather than arches, simplicity rather than multiplication.

It worked.   Brunelleschi seen through these spectacles was assertive, thinking through each geometrical element in turn - circles, grids, arches, domes  (Pazzi Chapel, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, Duomo) ; Alberti, fluent and austere. And I began to appreciate the way that the geometrical proportions underneath the architecture create a sense of harmony and rest - very different from the aspiration of the Gothic or the drama of the Baroque.

It's a feel for the underlying mathematics, too, that distinguishes the music of JS Bach. (One of the things I found distressingly mechanical, at school, was the harmony teaching - rules, rules, rules, so that we could compose 'Palestrina' style  chord progressions. It was so like doing geometry, except that geometry was more enjoyable. Whereas Handel and Vivaldi, more user-friendly contemporaries, create music of great surface appeal, Bach seems to root his music in mathematical progressions.

Sets of variations, the Art of Fugue, the whole edifice of the Well Tempered Keyboard with its  24 keys, show Bach thinking as a mathematician - carrying out processes of change which create new music from a static base.

Now music and architecture are usually kept separate. But a new venture brings them together. The Manchester International Festival has hired Zaha Hadid to create a space within Manchester Art Gallery where Bach's  solo cello, violin and keyboard works will be played during July 2009. The work will attempt to echo  the logic and mathematical rhythm of the music.

I'm intrigued by this concept - a building not just generally 'for music', but for a particular body of musical work. Wagner, famously, wanted to build a wooden theatre by the Rhine for the performance of his Ring cycle, to be burned down at the end of the  tetralogy in a magnificent Goetterdaemmerung. And that's interesting, because this Zaha Hadid work can be seen as a collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) - creating a whole that surpasses the boundaries of individual arts.

(In fact the thing it reminds me of most strongly is the fantastic range of musics and art forms created in Jack Vance's science fiction - attempts to embody a feeling in a perfume,  a musical performance, an organ of torture victims...)