Saturday 26 October 2013

Seduction: Ancient and Modern

Decimalisation and the changes that have taken place in weights and measures have shafted English writers. It’s just too difficult to make the necessary conversions. For example, it is quite unacceptable to modernise “the murderer inched towards his victim, his heart pounding” to “the murderer centimetred towards his victim, his heart kilogramming”. And how can you express the old adage “inch by inch it’s a cinch, by the yard it’s very hard”? Here’s my best attempt “millimetre by millimetre it’s much simpler, by the metre it defeats you”. Hardly trips of the tongue, does it?

Reversing the situation, it is almost impossible for the youngsters of today to understand the words of some dated novels, poems or songs. My prime example is one of the songs I sing down on the huerto when creating yet another plaster arch between the beams. There are sixteen new beams, which makes eighteen spaces to fill. Each space takes about a day to complete and I start by installing six formers then laying twelve or so lathes on top of them. I then spend an age cutting short lengths of bamboo to fill the inevitable gaps where the lathes meet the wobbly beams (they are actually trees with the bark and branches removed). I finish the preparation by placing four leaves on the lathes (to leave their imprint) and by making and installing three wire-ties which will become embedded in the plaster.

Have you followed all that or just lost interest? Anyway, I am then ready to pour plaster between the beams: it usually takes ten mixes of the stuff. All of this means that I climb up and down to my wobbly scaffolding at least twenty-five times each day. In short, it’s all a bit boring which is why I sing. My prime example of dated English is Mary of the Mountain Glen. Here’s the first verse in case you’ve forgotten it.

Mary of the mountain glen
Seduced herself with a fountain pen
The pen it bust, the ink went wild
And she gave birth to a blue-black child
They called the bastard Stephen
They called the bastard Stephen
They called the bastard Stephen
Because that was name of the ink
Not Quink

Singing this to any of my grandchildren would produce an increasingly blank face. They might, just possibly, know what a glen is. After that it will be downhill all the way from the fountain pen to Quink. So, whilst placing all that plaster (nearly one hundred bags) my mind has not been idle. Here is my creation: a modern verse for the song:

Mary grew very fond of her son
She thought she would have another one
One day when she was all alone
She seduced herself with a mobile phone
The phone it rang, Mary went wild
And she gave birth to a cellular child
They called the little one Samsung
They called the little one Samsung
They called the little one Samsung
Because that was the name of his Dad
Step Dad.

So what’s next? Assuming a little health problem is dealt with, I shall be back to work on Monday and will finish the plastering later in the week. Then I will spend a day or two laying a concrete slab on top of the plastered beams followed by replacement of the original roof tiles. Tradition claims that these old clay tiles have been shaped on a virgin’s thigh, which is perhaps why they are so rare nowadays post the invention of the fountain pen and mobile phone.

Monday 14 October 2013

Political order and my Spanish stone hut

I have lots of time to think whilst here in rural Spain. Most of my hours, on most days of the week, are spent all alone working slowly to create a living space within the huerto (garden/orchard/olive grove thingy). I like it there and am making some progress: on this visit I have installed the beams, created a traditional ceiling of arched plaster between them and on Friday poured concrete on top to create a terrace. What do I think about whilst doing all this very practical stuff? The work mostly. It is absorbing and engages most of my conscious thought. Sometimes I sing, so it’s fitting that I’m alone.

In my other life, my home life if you like, I drink plenty of beer and some wine. I eat delicious food, watch some Spanish TV and the occasional English video, greet the villagers at the bar and bid them adios, write notes about what I have done and read. Yes, of course, I read.

Since I have been here, I have read and enjoyed a large biography on Dorothy Hodgkin. I did this with a vague intention of writing about her and Margaret Thatcher. Dorothy was Margaret’s tutor at Oxford and became famous in scientific circles for her work on the structure of molecules (she tied down the nature of penicillin and insulin, for example). She was also an ardent leftist and supporter of the Soviet Union, Communist China and North Vietnam. Margaret Thatcher…well everyone knows about her, though not everyone is aware that she started out as a research chemist. Interestingly, I could only get Dorothy’s biog as a paper book and found it both odd and frustrating to read. I am now a committed eBooker (a reader of eBooks) and miss the facilities that my Kindle provides when forced to read a “real” book.  

My core reading over here is a tome (does that term apply to eBooks?) by Francis Fukuyama. It’s all about the origins of political order which may sound dull, but I find it fascinating. I was equally impressed and enlightened by his previous book entitled The End of History and the Last man. For me he has the ability to clarify things that I half understand about history and particularly the evolution of society, of us that is. To my delight, he does not start his analysis with England and the seventeenth century, though now having read 60% of the book that has become his focus. No, he starts with China of 2,000 plus years ago when Confucius placed the emphasis on learning and when the most able ran the state, i.e. those who had passed the relevant exams rather than the sons of the previous ministers. I learned a little of this when we taught in China and was impressed by the longevity of the Chinese empire and its ability to absorb rather than be usurped by invaders. Of course, what Chinese government lacked was any accountability and it did produce many cruel regimes (the cruelest of which was lead by a woman – Empress Wu), but it was incredibly successful at building vast transport and irrigation systems and stable systems of government capable of holding together an immense empire over millennia.

The thing about a book like Fukuyama’s is that it makes me think. However, this does not apply to my working hours at the huerto. There, if you opened my mind, you might find the words of that old rugby song Mary of the Mountain Glen, or a debate on whether to use a screw or a nail, or the  need to know what a passing farmer is transporting in his tractor trailer, or a curse as a large stone slips from my grasp, or just nothing, nothing at all.