Musings


The 2010 crop-circle season opened last week with a military-badge-like piece near Old Sarum, and a piece just this past weekend about as close to Stonehenge as the makers might get. Obviously, that has sent many’s a heart a flitter, and the talk of ley-line connections between the two, etc., has already begun in earnest.

Below, I’ve tried to write a piece offering the Old Weird Albion point of view on the phenomena. The OWA stance is that man-made circles are far more interesting than any alien-made phenomena; that contemporary art criticism and ethnological folklore studies give us the appropriate tools to not only view crop circle’s through a more fascinating prism, but to appreciate the aesthetic and conceptual beauty of what must be the art world’s most radical practice.

This piece is, however, a  work-in-progress – comments and suggestions are beyond welcome!

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Ludwig VanThe Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today ran Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill’s essay on the peculiar police state Britain is becoming – in which light, sound, and even the so-called classics of Western culture are all mere tools of the never-ending battle with hoodies, chavs, and ASBO’s.

His piece revolves around a growing number of communities in which classical music is being used to either punish or discourage young people – be that exposure to Mozart in after-school detention, or the use of Shostakovich to keep kids from loitering in various public places. It’s revelatory to see the way that Britain – well, let’s face it, England – has become so security-minded as to turn an entire generation of its populace against the very cultural foundations that we in the West allegedly hold so dear. (Of note, however, is the anti-hoodie playlist, which, at least amongst O’Neill’s brief mentions, boasts no Benjamin Britten, no Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, Frank Bridge or John Ireland. Even when dispersing hooligans, xenophobia plays its part.)

That old British troublemaker, Class, seems to rear its head in the argument, too. Why is it that this generation of hoodies implicitly understands classical music to be punitive? Is there that little exposure – rivaling or event beating-out the lack of arts education in America – that this music is understood from birth to be below even “uncool”? Or is there an understanding that this is music attached, by its very origin and nature, to a Class – that it is understood to be beyond the pale for anyone without an Eton jacket or at least a closet full of Midsomer Murders DVDs?

In the 1950s and early-1960s, the ruffians of the English underculture took their implicit cultural non-existence and turned it on its head, as Teddy Boys and Mods re-imagined the Edwardian dandy and the tailored City banker as street-savvy knife merchants, making dangerous fashions out of the very cloth they’d been taught to read as of a superior class. More recently, before being entirely taken over by the more “casual” side of Casual and the hip-hop elements of funky and grime, the more violent elements of English society turned Burberry, Hackett, and other top-name brands into signifiers of street crime and football extracurricular activities – to the point that as recently as 10 years ago there were pubs with “No Burberry” signs on their doors. (In a rather nasty pub I once met a footie lad of the scariest variety – scar-faced and black-eye’d (glad not to have seen The Other Guy) – and realized that his outfit a) Cost more than my rent and b) would’ve gotten him on the A-list at any ritzy Manhattan gay bar. I did not mention this.)

Might it be that in the not-too-distant future, we’ll see the love of Ludwig Van espoused by Anthony Burgess’ thugs come to a true fruition – that Mahler and Mozart will be the watchwords of a new breed of horrific post-ASBO mugs? That the thunderous conclusions of Frank Bridge’s The Sea (Suite) will become, like a Burberry check or an Edwardian pocket-watch, the nationalist’s pastoral – the signifier of a hidden Stanley knife and a nasty disposition? Maybe my sick admiration for the urban bricoleur is too twisted to be trusted, but somehow it just seems right. And the idea of dodgy Dagenham pub filled with football lads swaying glasses to Ivor Gurney is just sci-fi enough to adore.

The Guardian reports on The Battle to Save the Staffordshire Hoard – an effort to raise £3.3 million to buy, for the British public, the massive hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure discovered last year in a field near Lichfield. Historian David Starkey refers to the 1,800 gold and silver objects – buried for over a millennium – as “gangland bling … the Rolex watch and gold chains of a gang leader.”

Such a quip might seem more press magnet than historical analog, but Starkey goes on to make a rather beautiful statement about the vital ties between history and legend.

“It underscores what I always say, which is that history is not just about reason and logic, which is what you get with the school curriculum, it is about story and myth and emotion. This hoard has got all of those things.”

There have certainly been rumblings about Staffordshire’s importance – particularly the immediate claims, based solely on the treasure’s quantity, that it would be more important than Sutton Hoo. But its importance as a catalyst for furthering study of a cloudy and fascinating time in English history is undoubtable.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the ‘history’ of what happens to Staffordshire: Will the public rally around the appeal, to keep it as the national treasure it most surely ought to be? And what will it become in the popular mindset – what will this collection of martial objects mean as a discovery, rather than a historical or archaeological item? It’s a question raised at the time of the Hoard’s announcement, last September, by this excellent blog post by medievalist Karl Steel.

In it, Steel wins my (belated) analogy of the year award for 2009: “Sutton Hoo ship burial sites … speak of an intent valuing more than just the objects themselves … The Staffordshire find, on the other hand, is a jumble. If Sutton Hoo is a Henry James novel, Staffordshire is (very nearly) Tristan Tzara’s Hat.” He goes on, more importantly, to pose the question of what this discovery says about its contemporary discoverers – one reemphasized by this new appeal’s demand that the worst thing that could happen is that the Hoard might be “split up and that can’t be allowed to happen.” As Steel puts it:

“… I doubt we’re going to understand more culturally from this hoard then we did from Sutton Hoo … But we can perhaps learn something else precisely by virtue of the hoard objects’ cultural irrecoverability. I wonder what value we can get if we can also attempt to preserve our initial fascination with the hoard as a hoard, in this moment in which our desires and those of some eighth-century Mercian coincide? Can this shared desire, that emphasizes the gold, the weight, the worry about ‘mates’ finding out, say anything to us?”


An expansion on the review of a show of modernist California architecture, and how it relates to Thomas Browne, J.G. Ballard, Shelley, and others, over at my personal blog site, may interest some of those who traverse the Old Weird Albion.

Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years: A long title for a short-ish book; one not trapped in the pale of academia, yet lacking in the vibrant writing of a popular creative non-fiction; a book that won’t please your Christian Grandmother, but might get smirked at by the hardcore folkies as well. But the late Phyllis Siefker’s tract on the origins of Santa Claus – tracing this folk figure from, she posits, his initial existence as the “Wild Man” of pan-European paganism – is a wonderful excursion into our own mythologies, regardless of its faults. And, in fact, Last of the Wild Men has become one of the prime movers in getting my personal interest in Christmas back in gear. (more…)

We know by the moon that we are not too soon

And we know by the sky that we are not too high

We know by the stars that we are not too far

And we know by ground that we are within sound

– Phil Tanner singing “Gower Wassail”

For a week or two – and for another few to come – I’ve been listening off-and-on to the brilliant and gorgeous Midwinter box set as released a few years back by the Free Reed label. How’s this for the Xmas spirit of “too much ain’t enough”: Four CD’s, around 100 songs – ranging from the stark beauty of Phil Tanner’s unaccompanied “Gower Wassail” to Boris Karloff reading from “The Grinch,” to Doc Watson, Robert Frost, Bob and Ron Copper, and even Loudon Wainwritght – and a 136-page booklet explaining every damn moment on the thing. There are recordings both new and very old, but besides the occasional contemporary artist to keep things saleable, the songs tend to remain largely rooted in pre- or barely-Xtian folk concepts: Wassailing, the Wren, Mummer’s plays, etc. It’s a geek’s dream come true – as though designed to give someone like me something to buy in December. (more…)

Time to start chatting about the War On Solstice, as so much of the media ramps up to full-speed in its back-and-forth about the Christmas spirit. While they talk about a) Whether or not X or Y is causing damage to the true meaning of Christmas, and, b) all the glorious things you can spend money on, in what is apparently the actual true meaning of Christmas, the Old Weird Albion will have a few posts about the War On Solstice: Christmas, Solstice, Santa Claus, and how it all got to be the way it is.

I would’ve waited another week or two, but it seems the first salvo in the War On Solstice has already been fired – this year, from the ‘left’ of the Yule debate! Ed Buckner, president of American Atheists, Inc., wrote a brief guest post for the Baltimore Sun‘s “In Good Faith” blog reminding people that the Christians weren’t the first to annex the Solstice for their own religious needs.

So apparently, now, even the ‘official’ atheists are getting into the game – certainly more ironic than the Christian argument. I would never claim to be a practicing pagan, by any stretch. But to have one’s holiday season annexed, in a quasi-religious manner, by atheists – well, that seems close to a slap in the face.

I understand the religious quagmire of a holiday based on an actual, astronomical, scientifically provable fact of nature. But if the atheists are looking to commandeer a holiday whose trappings, ceremonies, traditions, and language has been stripped of religiosity, doesn’t Christmas fit the bill better?

I’d love to hear the pagan point of view about this funny little conundrum – check Contact and hit me with an email!

More on the War soon to come…

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