Saturday, February 13, 2016

Marina Warner at The John Rylands Library

To the John Rylands library to see Marina Warner (does the Dame come before or after the Professor?) give her lecture Oracular Narrative: Timing and Truth Telling. This was a very pleasant event, with a drinks reception beforehand, and then the lecture itself in the historic reading room of the grand neo-Gothic building:
( Image: © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

The lecture, accompanied by some striking visuals in a slide show, had clearly grown out of Dame Marina's recent work on fairy tale, particularly the Thousand and One Nights. She made the point that prophecy, in its widest sense, dominates discourse: markets deal in futures, reporters and experts speculate on what happens next, rather than accounting for what has happened, and so on. She linked this to the presence of prophecy in art and literature, in a very wide-ranging talk that took in Shakespeare (particularly The Winter's Tale), the carvings of Amiens cathedral, the Mabinogion, Kafka, Judith and Holofernes, and the Qalendars' tales in the Arabian Nights, among many other topics.

As well as exploring the role of "what will be" in these texts and artefacts, she looked at how that tradition manifests itself in contemporary world literature. The novels she chose were by writers who had been considered for the International Booker Prize, whose panel she chaired last year. All, shamefully, were new to me - more titles for the TBR pile.   Mabanckou's  Memoirs of a Porcupine sounded intriguing, maybe an African Rushdie; Ibrahim al-Koni' s Gold Dust deals with universal themes in a desert setting; Gamal al-Ghitani's  Zayni Barakat uses the fictional biography of a historical figure to make political points about recent Egyptian politics; Radwa Ashour's Siraaj  is an Arabic take on sub-Daharan African geopolitics;  and the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai's novel The Melancholy of Resistance seems like an extraordinary tour-de-force from Dame Marina's description on the Man Booker prize site.

So, much food for thought, expressed in clear and crisp sentences that engaged the listener without attempting to baffle with jargon. Marina Warner is a genuine public intellectual. We need more like her.
(Image of Marina Warner: Dan Welldon)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Big in Japan 4

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, enchants the visitor at every turn. And it's not just the temples and shrines. The modern buildings, too, command attention, none more so than the railway station, which we saw quite a bit of in our travels. It's a massive glass-fronted edifice in the centre of the city, and you can travel to a rooftop garden via the escalators to take in the view - though only through glass panels, which reflect when you take a photo of course. Still, spectacular:

We set out to see some of the major sights on our second day in Kyoto, and on another bright and sunny morning, we walked south from the station the few blocks to began with the  Toji temple, which dates from the eighth century, but what strikes the visitor immediately is the pagoda, the tallest in Japan, and one that has been cunningly built to survive earthquakes. The current structure is over three hundred years old, and is built to last.

We walked north of the station to seek out the Hongan-ji Temples.  These massive complexes date back in parts to the sixteenth century, and remain very important sites for Japanese Buddhism. The first, Nishi Hongan-ji, has all sorts of treasures, including what's thought to be the oldest Noh stage in Japan. The scale of the buildings was impressive, as was the air of quiet dedication about the place. All was calm and serene as we strolled around the grounds, and glimpsed inside the halls where some people were at prayer.

The Higashi temple was undergoing refurbishment, so we caught the bus back up to the Gion district, where we embarked on a walk around eastern Gion and Higashiyama. This district is very distinctive, almost a separate enclave, which has retained its traditional character. The paved streets are narrow, and quite touristy now, but the district is packed with architectural and cultural interest. We took the walk recommended in the guide book, which involved a steep trek up the hill to the Kiyomizu temple and then a stroll around the packed streets. The temple area was thronged with people, and we made the decision not to join the crowds, but to head for the little streets. It was the season for school trips, and everywhere we saw very well-organised groups of kids, all sporting distinctive caps to mark them out. Here's a group joining the masses at the Kiyomizu temple:
Apparently, the Kiyomizu temple, founded in 778, is one of those places that every Japanese will visit at least once. Most of them seemed to be there that day! Back on the streets, it was not unusual to see people in traditional dress, often, we were told, hired for the occasion, so that the wearers could promenade around the area:
The streets are full of shops selling handicrafts to tourists, both foreign and Japanese. They are of very high quality, and priced appropriately. We just window-shopped. After another walk up the hill we arrived at the Kodai-ji Temple, next to which was, rather incongruously, the main coach park for the district. There is an impressive bell:

It was getting towards dusk by now, so we went out by the startlingly colourful Yasaka shrine and on to the bustling streets of fashionable Gion, where fashionistas and politicians mix.

That was enough for the day, especially since we had an early start the next morning. We really loved Kyoto, but we would be leaving it for our flying visit to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen the next day.


Sunday, February 07, 2016

Dan Hicks

I suppose it will have been in late 1971 or early 1972. I was meeting my girlfriend, but had stopped on the way to pick up my monthly copy of Zigzag, an odd, rather amateurishly produced alternative magazine that featured articles and interviews about mainly American rock music. It wasn't like Sounds or NME, which concentrated on the charts. The fact that it was named after a Capt. Beefheart song gives an indication of where it was coming from. It also had Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees, where the various incarnations of groups would be presented in diagram form - ideal material for me, who liked to know everything about the bands I favoured. Anyway, when I arrived at my girlfriend's house, I remember her saying "I see you've got your instructions, then," referring to the copy of Zigzag in my hand. I argued feebly that I could make my own mind up about what to like, but she was right. I tended to follow the advice I found there, as a way of broadening my collection of records by loon-panted denizens of Laurel Canyon. And sometimes, this led to my acquiring albums that really weren't worth persevering with, but I would try because Zigzag said they were good. Thus, I had a copy of Poco's A Good Feeling to Know, which was not a good album to buy, try as I might to like it. There were a few other duds of this proto-Eagles country-rock type. But Zigzag also alerted me to people I would never otherwise have come across, and whose music I have been listening to in the intervening forty-odd years.

One such is Dan Hicks, whose death was announced yesterday. I took a chance on his album Striking it Rich, bought from Rare Records in Manchester. Along with his backing group the Hot Licks, Dan went on a streak of brilliant records in the early seventies, but for me, that album, with its giant matchbox design, was the pinnacle of his achievement. The sound has elements of Django Reinhardt, and of western swing. The songs are often wryly observational, and frequently funny, delivered by Dan in a laconic, throwaway style, and supported by the Andrews sisters-style harmonies of the Lickettes. I played that album over and over again - to my soon-to-be-departed girlfriend's annoyance. I loved the interplay of the voices, the timbre of Sid Page's violin, and the timeless quality of the sound: this didn't seem to be music of the seventies, or any other decade. It still sounds, to me, brilliantly fresh now. Have a listen to "I Scare Myself" from Striking it Rich to see if you agree: