A Chaste Maid In Cheapside, Rose Bankside 5 March

March 6, 2015


The box office still had a poster up advertising ‘A Trick To Catch The Old One’ from about a year ago, and this production inhabited the same kind of territory with music and costumes suggesting a generic 1950s. Unfortunately, rather too much had been removed from the original text for the remainder to be viable–one kept on waiting for Yellowhammer’s son Tim and the Welsh ‘heiress’ to appear, and large amounts of satire on contemporary mores were omitted, along with the corresponding characters.  Rather than fitting into a range of satirical types, Allwit the professionally complaisant husband was left like a frozen minor planet vainly orbiting a remote and faded star.

It was not clear–at least to me–that Moll Yellowhammer fell ill after being drenched in the Thames; it seemed more like a nervous collapse due to thwarted elopement, and the trick by which the lovers overcame the opposition of their elders went by so rapidly–like a telegraph pole going past a train–that we didn’t realise that the play was ended until the cast stood around sheepishly waiting for applause.

The acting had a lot of ‘get into position–pause–act’ and our Touchwood Senior did wave his hands about a great deal. That could have been an ironic reference to Freud’s remark about male gesticulation being associated with impotence, but I don’t think it was.

The promised 90 minutes’ running time turned out to be 75 minutes, but even so one observed a certain amount of surreptitious consulting of watches in the audience.

Better luck next time!

Ukraine: The War for Truth

February 26, 2015
Awaiting the off

Awaiting the off

This lecture by Timothy Snyder, well-known as the author of Bloodlands, attracted a large and attentive audience.

Setting the historical background, Professor Snyder said there was no current of Europena history that had not affected Ukraine while Muscovy had gone its own way as the successor of the Tatar Khanate.  More recently, Ukrainians saw the Great Famine of 1933 as something directed against their country specifically, while for Russians it had been a common misfortune; and WWII had seen the whole of Ukraine occupied as against 5% of the territory of the present-day Russian Federation.

Since 2013, the Russian media had portrayed events in Ukraine in terms of WWII–for Russians, WWII had been something that largely happened elsewhere.

The present situation could be traced back to the events of 2011/12 in Russia.  Anti-regime protests had led to the Government turning away from the middle classes and appealing to the broader masses.  This had been accompanied by Eurasianism in foreign policy, comprising a combination of conservatism and hostility to the EU.  Yanukovych responding to pressure to turn away from the EU had led first of all to the Maidan, and then to a ‘bourgeois revolution’ among the Russian-speaking middle classes of Kiev, who saw their path obstructed by a glass ceiling of corruption.  Those killed had been representative of the mixed local population.

Russian tactics had been based on reversed asymmetrical warfare, where as the stronger side they had used approaches such as deliberately drawing fire onto populated areas so as to alienate the populace that were normally the province of the weaker.  But they portrayed themselves as heroic resisters of Fascism.

The Russian leadership had applied strategic relativism in for instance relativizing the existence of Ukraine as a state.  Since the EU was strong and Russia was weak, they had tried to bring it down to their level by breaking up the connections that held it together.  Edward Snowden had been employed at the Transatlantic level, but the heart of the strategy was to break up the EU.  This had involved seeking client states such as Cyprus and Hungary, supporting separatists like UKIP and calling for a recount in the Scottish referendum, supporting the far right, attempting to control access to hydrocarbons and to undermine a Common Energy Policy for the EU.

Addressing the question of whether civil society actually existed, professor Snyder asked his audience Were you paid off to be here?  The Russian authorities did not believe in the existence of civil society as a concept, which did not hinder them from preventing it in practice.

The philosophy of applied postmodernism had a number of elements.  Making up things that were not true hardly required further comment while liberation from context had been pioneered by Fox News.  Things they did especially well were political marketing and organised cacophony.  Political marketing meant that different audiences received tailored messages (‘Ukraine is gay/fascistic/anti-Semitic/part of worldwide Jewish conspiracy’).  Organised cacophony meant improvising a range of discourses in response to an event such as the shooting-down of MH17 so as to muddy the waters until the event had lost its impact. The motto was you can’t trust anybody because everybody lies equally. The consequence of this was that the Western powers had allowed themselves not to know what was going on in Ukraine and so, for instance, had failed to re-route civilian air traffic.

Certain types of truth were important to maintain. Aristotelian non-contradiction meant that Ukraine could not be both Jewish and anti-Semitic. Legal truth meant that a state had an existence as a legal entity–for instance, Canada certainly used the same language as the US but was a separate state on the basis of law. Existential truth meant that you could take a risk and get killed, your existence was authentic and not that of a hired extra. Social truth meant that you could try things out with people you trusted and form civil society.

Russian TV used the methods of British TV, one could not speak of different civilizations. Rather it was a question of what you thought existed: one the one hand you had the state with supra-national organisations above it and civil society below; on the other hand it was the state and a variety of charades.

Ukrainian propaganda was weak, while Russian propaganda was effective. While the war on Ukraine was going worse than expected (there had been no spontaneous uprisings in Donetsk or Lugansk) the war on the EU was going rather better than expected.

As  to What should we do? Europeans should beware of American-style optimism whereby democracy would effortlessly spring up everywhere.  The two or more generations of peace, prosperity and freedom they had enjoyed were a historical anomaly and needed to be carefully guarded.  Russian propaganda had no traction in the states that had been subject to the  Molotov-Ribbentrop pact:  Poland, Latvia, Lithuania,  Estonia.

Oligarchy and the rule of law did not sit well together, but the West needed to accept sovereignty and work with states like Ukraine as they were so as to make progress.

Another account of this lecture may be found here.

Try Books! read in 2014

February 20, 2015
Stoner 9 8 0
The Road 8.5 3 0
We Need New Names 8 0 0
This Boy 8 2 1
Under The Skin 8 1 1
Gone Girl 7 1 1
Old Filth 7 1 0
A Winter in the Hills 7 0 2
The Children Act 7 0 0
Telling Liddy 6.5 0 0
Almost English 6 0 3
Seizure 5 0 5

The table shows the books read by Try Books! in 2014 and their median scores, along with the number of times someone gave it their highest or lowest rating for the year (remember ties!)


John Williams and Stoner are the clear winners here, while Erica Wagner and Seizure were rather less successful.  But it was A Winter in the Hills  that caused the real excitement, of course.

Seizure Other
Stoner Howard, Jo Aruni, Christine, Dick, Heather, Judy, Linda
Other Jocelyn, Stephanie, Suzannah Vicky

The table above classifies people according to whether Stoner and Seizure were indeed their best and worst books respectively. As ever, this was complicated by not everyone having read (scored) every book, but Howard and Jo seem to be representing the mainstream with Vicky as the rebel.

Warwick University Ltd, 45 years on…

February 1, 2015


On a recent visit to Warwick University, I was told that it was now beholden to large employers I financial services and the students came from independent schools. And indeed, on the bus to Leamington Spa they were talking of Credit Suisse in reverential terms.

All of that reminded me of Warwick University Ltd by E P Thompson, which I pictured as condemning the domination of the university by the local motor industry.  A 2014 reissue has allowed me to check my impressions against the original, and it turns out I was broadly right.  Of course, nowadays something that provided large-scale employment for locals and non-graduates would nowadays be hailed as miraculous.  Thompson never really manages to overcome his patrician disdain for the process of making a living, which he manages to calumniate under the name of profiteering, while his doubts about the academic content of Business Studies would also apply to Medicine and Law for example.

It was interesting to see that the name ‘Warwick’ was chosen to extract funding from Warwickshire County Council and in those far-off days students who received a grant also felt that the world should be organised according to their wishes.

So in the end capitalism triumphed in spite of a couple of sit-ins at Warwick and the world where you had to be white, male, and a smoker disappeared too.

Berenice, The Space, 1500 24 January

January 24, 2015


A publicity photo suggesting the black-and-white romantic difficulties of attractive young people

A publicity photo suggesting the black-and-white romantic difficulties of attractive young people

This adaptation of the tragedy by Racine was really very good.  The basis of the story is that having become Emperor on the death of his father Vespasian Titus feels he has to send away his beloved, the Queen Berenice, for fear of rousing the anger of the populace by marrying a monarch and a foreigner.  Meanwhile, Antiochus, friend and ally of Titus, has for five long years been hiding his own love for Berenice.  In this adaptation, the action is set in an alternate future 2050, as explained in a trailer here.

But for me what really worked was the whole In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister thing, with the subsidiary characters conflated into Phenice as a spin doctor and the characters all dressed in black, apart from Berenice who had a red dress.  The one artistic decision I would quarrel with would be emphasising Berenice’s Jewishness, visually at least–she has a Greek name after all.  The direction was wonderfully effective in suggesting the characters struggling and failing to break free of their allotted roles.

I also enjoyed the translation by director Fay Lomas, while also trying to work out whether it was isosyllabic, in sprung rhythm, or what.  In fact, she produced some very effective lines by making something more concrete (and so English) out of the Racinian:

Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse,
Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice,
Sans que de tout le jour je puisse voir Titus?


Je sais que tant d’amour n’en peut être effacée;
Que ma douleur présente et ma bonté passée,
Mon sang, qu’en ce palais je veux même verser,
Sont autant d’ennemis que je vais vous laisser;
Et, sans me repentir de ma persévérance,
J e me remets sur eux de toute ma vengeance.

Among the actors, I especially appreciated Ally Manson as Antiochus, bent this way and that by a cruel fate, while I felt that our Berenice could usefully have shown more reaction on first hearing of her dismissal, stood up straighter and generally given the impression of someone (a queen or an actress) used to living with the eyes of the public on her–but she was also very touching in many of the later scenes.

A pity that this didn’t have a longer run!



January 20, 2015

Karen Hewitt writes:

The Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre [of St Antony’s College, Oxford] together with the University’s Department for Continuing Education is arranging for a group of eight people to visit Perm as guests of the Perm State University. They will live in families with at least one English speaker and will have many opportunities to observe real Russian life. The visit is part of an exchange scheme in which the payment made by you supports the visit of a Perm teacher to Oxford.

 The visit is open to anyone but we give preference to people in Oxfordshire or with an Oxford connection such as attendance at OUDCE summer schools. The programme of the fortnight can vary according to individual interests. As guests of Perm University you will be asked to talk to University students, while your activities can include: visits around the city, and to the Urals countryside; canoeing along the Silva river; professional and specialist contacts with economists, lawyers, local politicians, (and lectures if you are willing and able); visits to art galleries, concerts, ballet; studying the work of the city council and local voluntary groups; taking part in family life with your hosts and their friends. Previous visitors on this scheme have seized all sorts of opportunities to see how Russian society works. Several have returned for a second visit.

 A knowledge of Russian is not necessary since interpreters will be provided, but obviously you will learn more if you know a little Russian. Participants should be physically fit and willing to walk reasonable distances. Many of our hosts do not have cars, and walking, climbing flights of stairs and public transport are normal. And you should be adaptable…

DATES: Saturday 5th September to Sunday 20th September 2015 (Fifteen nights) The journey is by British Airways scheduled flight to Moscow. You will travel from Moscow to Perm by train – about 900 miles and the first day of the Trans-Siberian route. You will have a few hours in Moscow on the return journey.

 COST: £990 This includes air fares, train fares, other travel in Russia, accommodation with a family, breakfast and many other meals, a programme of activities including two visits to the opera or ballet, and two full day tours. It does not include visas, insurance, and some meals. We will arrange your visas and inform you in June of the cost. Currently official visas are £50 plus admin and special delivery postage – in total about £80. Commercial visas are less hassle and about twice as much. All this will be explained.

 NOTE: The group will be limited to seven or eight people, so if you are interested, PLEASE FILL IN THE FORM OVERLEAF AND SEND IT TO PROMPTLY to Karen Hewitt (address overleaf), For specific enquiries, please ring 01865 515635. For more general information there will be a meeting in late June or early July for those going to Perm in which useful details of all kinds will be passed on.

Group Form

Experiences in 2012

‘On my hip I find there is no mole…’ (Larisa Dobrozorova)

January 11, 2015

On my hip I find there is no mole.
Everything is in its place when I wake
but that mustard-coloured flake…
Now, without distinguishing marks, I am whole.

Where is it? Did it flee? Was it kissed away?
Was it charmed away? Displaying your fidelity
at least to it, I suppose it’s likely that you may
not acknowledge in the public morgue a living me.


Просыпаюсь – а родинки нет
на бедре. Все на месте, а эта –
как снежинка, горчичного цвета…
Я теперь – без особых примет.

Где? Сбежала сама? Сцеловали?
Сколдовали? – Ей верность храня,
ты теперь опознаешь едва ли
в общем морге живую меня.

What does ‘The Information Capital’ have to do with South London?

January 3, 2015


This book presents 100 maps and graphics that will change the way you view the city.  Leaving aside Oliver Uberti’s…sketches…of some of the animals to be found in London Zoo, let’s have a look at some data and see what it means for South London.

South London--City Of Dreadful Night

South London–City Of Dreadful Night

The illustration above shows the locations where pictures posted on Flickr were taken.  Not South London it seems, apart from the Elephant, Walworth Road and Greenwich Park.  South Londoners are condemned to perpetual darkness, starved of the light of exposure on Flickr…

Concentrations of crime

Concentrations of violent crime

Here we see violent crime hotspots, which seem to pick out railway/Underground stations with unerring accuracy.  3 is Brixton, 8 the Elephant, 9 Peckham, 10 Croydon, 18 Woolwich.



Above we see deprivation, coloured according to the scheme below:


So, Lewisham varies between ‘Most deprived’ red and a yellow which has no label but probably means something neutral. If the green was instead blue on this map, one might begin to suspect some hidden agenda…


How we get to work...

How we get to work…

Here we have the most popular modes of transport for getting to work by home location, coded according to the scheme below.


Cor, that’s found me out–when I lived in Peckham I used to get the bus to work, but now I get the train. Are those light blue types really driving to work or to the station say?

Occupational tree (or graph)

Occupational tree (or graph)

Now this would be really interesting if it was explained properly.  The idea is that wards are grouped together according to their concentrations of different job types; but we don’t learn what the distances or branching or angles mean.  My earliest memories are of Charlton 50 years ago and I’ve made it as far as Crofton Park, or travelled 3 nodes on this map.  Clearly I’ve not made very much progress at all, but it would be nice to know the details of my lack of achievement.

Cohabiting in Peckham

Cohabiting in Peckham

As for that love and romance thing, it is suggested that cohabiting is prevalent in Peckham (above) separation is noteworthy in New Cross (below).

Separated in New Cross

Separated in New Cross

Finally, we return to dodgy statistics on obesity.  The figure below shows obesity…



or rather, the boroughs expanded or contracted to reflect the percentage of 10-11 year olds there classified obese in 2012-13.  Which is a slightly strange measure to use–presumably those were the figures closest to hand.

So, Sarf London: a land of obesity and irregular liaisons, subsisting in obscurity (apart from Greenwich Park during the Olympics), lit only by the odd flare of crime…And no Tube either…


Best Poems of 2010

December 31, 2014


What’s it all about?

This is an anthology of poems for the year 2010; it contains from one to three poems by each of 129 authors.  I have translated the poems here.  Those rewarded with three entries are Natalya Gorbanyevskaya, Evgeny Karasev, Kirill Koval’dzhi, Aleksandr Kushner, Vadim Muratkhanov, Vera Pavlova, Vladimir Salimon, Sergei Stratanovsky, and Oleg Chukhontsev.  As far as I can see, however, Timur Kibirov wins first prize for the amount of space occupied with four pages when nobody else has more than three.  I think I agree with this assessment of Kibirov’s stature as a poet.

That immediately leads me to ask whether these can really be the best poems of 2010, with a maximum of three per author.  Surely the fourth best poem of the best author is likely to be better than the best poem of the 129th best one, assuming that ‘best’ means something unequivocal here?  On general principles, one would expect something like Zapf’s law to apply, so that the best poet had N poems of the required standard, the second best had N/2, the third best had N/3 and so on.  Maybe it’s something more like ‘A selection of poems produced by the best poets of 2010′.  In his preface, editor Maksim Amelin says that he wants to present not so much the poets themselves, more their works

Why did I decide to do it?

It certainly seemed at the time that I was giving something back to the community, since trying to find a translation for poems in foreign languages is something that I use the Internet for.  It also made sure that I read every item in a book of poems with some care and attention, probably for the first time since George MacBeth’s Poetry 1900 to 1965 some 40-odd years ago.

What have I learned from doing it?

The overall impression was like one of those holidays where your coach drives into the next town, you get off, look round the points of interest (as we have seen, between one and three in number and of varying magnitudes), and then drive on to the next stopping-place.

I was struck by the wide range of forms, from the strictly traditional to free verse and poésie concrète.  Indeed, there were some poems that both in form and content could I thought have been dated to 1910, if not 1810.

As against that, it was good to see that a wide range of subjects were tackled:  mathematics, for instance, appeared three times, in connection with Grigory Perel’man, St Ursula, and Lili Brik.  There was also an engagement with public affairs if for instance Geopolitics of clothing, which seems to have been taken as a call to action in the Kremlin and elsewhere:

A torn-off sleeve got to call itself Ukraine
Forgetting about discipline, Russia once again

Didn’t mend that vexing tear–it was left undone
And continued her enjoyment, about the field to run.

You need a thread, a needle, and also dark of night
Close the gate and window, and sew that hole up tight.

As for translating the poems, those that are most fun are the ones that seem to be impossible at first sight, such as MRÓTS!  SKAÉR BNOÓS MRÓTS!. Otherwise, the main question is what to do about various kinds of closed forms. If you more-or-less reproduce them…well, to start off with, there are fewer rhymes in English than in Russian and feminine rhymes can easily sound very silly. A more principled argument is that if you conserve traditional forms, you are mapping the original onto a point that does not exist in contemporary English poetry, and perhaps thus making it an object of purely antiquarian interest.

As Vladimir Nabokov famously observed:

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.

He was perhaps being overly charitable, something that did not happen very often.
Which are the best poems (and translations)?

The word ‘best’ is fraught with difficulties here, as we have seen above.  As regarding the original poems, I would go for Death of an old woman, which contains more than one kingdom of Russianness in a very small space, as a favourite.  I also liked From five to seven a lot, and ‘Do not be ill…’ is lovely as well.  ‘That which comes apart…’  and Sky are bloody good, and I was also impressed  by  ‘No canteen, and no shop…’ and ‘….to learn to react to the world’ .   I have to say that ‘Blessed is he…’ really is very very good, and thanks to some help from  Erik McDonald the translation’s not bad either.

Among the translations, I think that ‘Love does not pass…’ has the ring of a genuine poem.  At night  is pretty good as a translation, and I think that the English version of ‘Behind the curtain there hides a local god…’ is quite pleasingly Audenesque.

Public opinion

Judging by the number of ‘likes’ left on the various postings by users of wordpress, the most popular poems would be Pan Ch_sky, followed by ‘Without us, the critics will decide….’ and then After the storm.  The statistics for visits to individual postings would give first place to ‘The blind man’s getting bills for light’, followed in second place by ‘Along the fence…’ and in third ‘this city is flooded by glowing beams of light…’.  This last would also be in joint fourth place for ‘likes’, so may be the overall popular favourite.

And finally

Do feel free to leave a comment or to email me about any of this.  I would also like to thank Erik McDonald of xixvek for his encouragement and helpful suggestions, especially in being so diplomatic in cases where where I’d just misunderstood the original.

‘The pain has not worn off…’ (Yuri Kazarin)

December 31, 2014

The pain has not worn off, it has not passed–
and the soul has not grown tired, even so,
of dragging winglessly the body that was cast
so heavily into some heaps of snow,
where the toes pinched together are found so nesh
and ice beneath the heel is like a widow’s mite.

We are shadows of angels. We are flesh
not yet of darkness, no longer of light.

Не отболело, не прошло —
и как душе не надоело
влачить без крыльев, тяжело
в сугробах брошенное тело,
где пальцы ног свело в щепоть
и лед под пяткой, как монета.

Мы тени ангелов. Мы плоть
ещё не тьмы, уже не света.


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