November 19, 2015

For some months I’ve been thinking about the labels we use to define ourselves, prompted partly by this article by Charlie Mitchell, which is perceptive about several things like the reductiveness of labels and, contrarily, the necessity of having words to hang our identities on. You might consider yourself above labels, but if you’re on Twitter (for instance) then there’s a good chance there are several in your 160-character biography alone. Your job, your age, your interests, your gender, your location. We label ourselves to help others build up a picture of us, and for our own sake too.

You’ll be familiar with the sensation of noticing a word for the first time and then seeing it everywhere. That word for me, at the moment, is ‘intersectionality’, which relates to the interaction of overlapping systems of discrimination. One of the central theses of Julia Serano’s brilliant book Whipping Girl is that trans women face discrimination not merely because they’re trans, but because they’re women. Throw in factors like race, class, education, dis/ability, and you have a multiplicity of intersectional permutations.

I’ve been reading what by my standards is an absurd amount of theory this year (approximately two books), and something that becomes apparent is that you can’t understand queer theory, say, without a grounding in gender theory and feminist theory, and probably other theories of oppression too. I struggled with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble because I haven’t read Foucault; but by the same token I’d struggle with Foucault because I haven’t read Nietzsche, for instance. Everything is connected. No person is an island, entire of itself, as John Donne meant to write. Intersectionality.

It wasn’t until I attended a performance of Tribes by Nina Raine a couple of weeks ago that I realised how ubiquitous labelling is in my life. Raine’s play is about a deaf young man, Billy, brought up in a hearing household, who comes to realise that his own family is as cloistered in its way as the ‘deaf community’ that he has avoided all his life. It can be nice to feel included in a tribe, but it can also be oppressive, and not helped by every member being an individual with a different understanding of what should define membership. The problem with so many tribes is the nuance-free ‘them and us’-style tribalism that in time evolves.

No Homers

Watching the play, I started thinking about the semblance of order I try to impose on these blog posts, assigning broad and unsatisfactory categories and then adding narrower tags so that (in theory) someone can click on one and be met with a raft of similar results. We have a thousand tags we could attach to ourselves in a similar manner, if we were only computerised. I don’t often tag myself as a Chelsea fan, or as a sufferer of a chronic illness, because although I would place myself in both demographics, however tentatively, neither feels of primary importance to my being; but I could if I wanted to.

Then, suddenly, came a realisation of the extent to which my daily work, cataloguing, relies on labels. The cataloguer’s greatest friend is the Library of Congress Authorities website. This is a database of names and subject headings expressed in a standardised way to enable matching. Search it yourself. If you know a published author, they will (in theory) have a name entry in the database. Subject headings are the most interesting. A keyword search for ‘librarians’ brings up 2,000+ entries, including the following:

  • Academic librarians–Effect of automation on
  • African American librarians–Kentucky–History–19th century
  • Bisexual librarians–Canada
  • Christian Librarians’ Fellowship
  • Cuban American librarians
  • Detroit Suburban Librarians’ Round Table
  • Gay librarians–United States–Directories
  • Jewish librarians–Lithuania–Vilnius–Biography
  • Librarians–Anecdotes
  • Librarians for Nuclear Arms Control
  • Librarians in motion pictures
  • Louisiana Teen-age Librarians Association. Convention (1989 : Baton Rouge, La.)
  • National Workshop on Effective Management of Polytechnic Library Resources for Polytechnic Librarians in Nigeria
  • Part-time librarians–Germany (East)
  • Transgender librarians
  • Ukrainian Librarians Association of Canada
  • Women librarians–Job satisfaction–India
  • If you’re above a certain age, you’ll have seen this sort of thing in card catalogues; nowadays a bibliographic record online will contain several of these headings as hyperlinks, to facilitate the identification of similar books. A global web of connections.

    At the end of Tribes, following estrangement, comes reconciliation. Dan, the older brother, reaches out to Billy, offering his hand and asking him the sign for LOVE, sign language having been a bone of contention throughout the play. That, I suggest, I hope, is what is behind labelling. Wanting to make a connection, wanting someone else to hold our hand, figuratively or actually. So let’s try not to let our differences set us against other people. Let’s celebrate the differences, acknowledge the humanity we have in common, and unite against our one common enemy: the government.

    Biedermann und die Brandstifter

    November 15, 2015


    Last night I went to Sadler’s Wells to see the UK premiere of Šimon Voseček’s operatic adaptation of the Max Frisch play Biedermann und die Brandstifter, presented in David Pountney’s English translation as Biedermann and the Arsonists and directed by Max Hoehn.

    The play’s been a favourite of mine for years. It’s touch and go with things you study at school, isn’t it. How many people have been turned off Shakespeare for life as a result of doing Othello at GCSE? Of course it’s rarely Shakespeare’s fault, more likely to be a combination of the teacher and the child and other variables. But with Biedermann, which I did for A-level German, I was lucky to have an excellent teacher and an excellent class.

    Gottlieb Biedermann is an ostensibly respectable businessman selling his own phoney brand of hair tonic (Hormoflor) and living with his wife Babette and their maid Anna. His town is in the grip of a spate of arson attacks. The play opens with Biedermann reading the paper (translations mine):

    BIEDERMANN: They should hang them … Another arson attack. And always the same story, believe it or not: a peddler, who makes his nest in the attic, a harmless peddler… They should hang them!
    ANNA: Herr Biedermann –
    BIEDERMANN: What now?
    ANNA: He’s still there.
    ANNA: The peddler who wants to talk to you.

    The peddler is Schmitz, an unemployed wrestler, who insinuates himself into Biedermann’s house and, with the help of his colleague Eisenring, proceeds to burn it down, with Biedermann’s tacit endorsement. It’s not that Biedermann’s an idiot exactly, but he’s hamstrung by his middle-class guilt. One reason why he doesn’t chuck Schmitz and Eisenring out is that he can’t bear to be thought of as prejudiced.

    The arsonists are also crafty: they dodge and wheedle, using manipulation and negative psychology. My favourite of Eisenring’s deflections:

    EISENRING: Don’t worry about the bathroom, Herr Biedermann. There was no bathroom in prison, you know.
    BIEDERMANN: Prison?
    EISENRING: Didn’t Sepp tell you I came from prison?
    EISENRING: Not a word?
    EISENRING: He only ever talks about himself!

    Crucially, they don’t lie: as Eisenring observes to Biedermann, he has found telling the truth to be the most effective strategy (ahead of sentimentality and jokes), since no one believes it. Biedermann goes so far as to help him measure out the fuse for the detonator. The arsonists’ plan almost fails at the end, as they have no matches, but Biedermann comes to the rescue.

    BABETTE: What did you give them? I saw it – matches?
    BIEDERMANN: Why not?
    BABETTE: Matches?
    BIEDERMANN: If they were really arsonists, why would they have no matches?

    I love the play’s dark and absurd humour. A secondary plot strand involves the suicide of an employee of Biedermann. Biedermann arranges for a wreath to be sent to the widow, but an administrative mix-up means she is sent the bill and he receives a wreath with a bow attached bearing the legend ‘TO OUR UNFORGETTABLE GOTTLIEB BIEDERMANN’.

    The play is a popular choice for study in school because the morality is so ambiguous. To what extent is Biedermann complicit in the arson attacks? The arsonists never pretend to be anything other than what they are, though their brazenness increases as the end approaches. Does Biedermann’s blindness stem from delusion, or embarrassment, or what?

    The familiar and unattributable quote about the only thing necessary for evil to triumph being for good men to do nothing inevitably comes to mind. When one views the play in its historical context, it’s most easily read as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, perhaps with special reference to Frisch’s country Switzerland. Michael Billington, in his recently published book The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present, notes that the Communist coup in postwar Czechoslovakia was the immediate catalyst for the play’s composition. Whatever Frisch may have had in mind, his play speaks to us of ourselves, often uncomfortably so.

    As does Voseček’s opera. I’m very poorly versed in opera post-Britten, and perhaps it was a result of my own shortcomings in this respect and of the opera being sung in English that I found myself thinking most regularly of Britten as I attempted to place it musically. Some of the opening scene’s rhythmic urgency put me in mind of the vigour of the arrival of the new crew members in Billy Budd, while Biedermann’s (Mark Le Brocq) stridency occasionally recalled Bob Boles, and the lyricism of Alinka Kozári’s Babette, singing an arietta while she stuffs a goose, made me think of Ellen Orford.

    Voseček’s music is lush, with a rich array of tuned percussion, and most memorable in its eerie achievement of approaching siren effects in the final scene. The libretto, wisely, is taken pretty much wholesale from Frisch, with the best jokes preserved. I had hoped for the inclusion of ‘Lili Marlene’, which Frisch has Schmitz whistle during one scene, but it was omitted; in its place, ingeniously, a twisted quotation from Don Giovanni, as Schmitz briefly becomes the Commendatore. The lengthy afterpiece, set in hell, is sensibly left out: Voseček’s ending, with the fuse approaching the detonator, is most satisfying.

    David Pountney’s translation is a success. The final scene involves Schmitz repeatedly making a crude pun on the German word for gun (Schießgewehr becoming Scheißgewehr), which rarely translates well into English. Pountney’s solution seems the most satisfactory, an emphasis on the first syllable of the word ‘arsonist’. (I’m afraid I can’t remember what Alistair Beaton does in his translation of the play, which I saw at the Royal Court in 2007.)

    It’s a shame there are only three performances of this opera scheduled, and tickets for the remaining ones so thin on the ground, particularly given how well sung and performed it is throughout. The opera deserves to be seen and heard widely. I hope at any rate that people will be inspired to seek out Frisch’s play, as provocative now as when it was first staged in 1958.

    Reine des mouettes

    November 9, 2015

    Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
    Je t’ai vue rose, je m’en souviens,
    Sous les brumes mousselines
    De ton deuil ancien.

    Rose d’aimer le baiser qui chagrine
    Tu te laissais accorder à mes mains
    Sous les brumes mousselines
    Voiles de nos liens.

    Rougis, rougis, mon baiser te devine
    Mouette prise aux nœuds des grands chemins.

    Reine des mouettes, mon orpheline,
    Tu étais rose accordée à mes mains
    Rose sous les mousselines
    Et je m’en souviens.

    ‘Sir, I don’t always understand poetry,’ pleads Timms in The History Boys, which I like to quote here ad nauseam. Well, there’s not understanding and there’s not understanding. If I don’t understand Ezra Pound, that may simply indicate that I’m a normal human being; if I don’t understand the poem above, an unpublished verse by Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969), it’s partly because, vaguely competent though my French is, I will never have the comprehension of a native speaker, and so I fail to observe whatever idioms and intralineal meanings it may contain; in English I understand it even less. The last verse, in my rough translation:

    Queen of the seagulls, my orphan girl,
    You were pink given to my hands
    Pink beneath the muslin
    And I remember it.

    Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean I don’t love it, as I love ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ or Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. The Beethoven defies analysis, up to a point (not that I’ve ever tried); this poem, slight, for all I know written in a stray quarter of an hour, probably doesn’t. But as I read it, thinking perhaps, What does this mean, I also think, How beautiful this is. I see the seagulls and the pink and the muslin and the mists.

    When, ten or twelve years ago, I was in a voracious poetry-reading phase, I frequently read French poetry I didn’t comprehend, just for the feeling of the words. Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Mallarmé. The magic wouldn’t have worked with a language I didn’t speak at all – Hungarian, for example – but with French I knew at least how it sounded, if not always what it meant.

    When, foolishly, I went to see Calixto Bieito’s production of Carmen at ENO a few years ago, the banality of hearing it sung in English killed the opera stone dead. The mystery was shattered, Bizet’s clothes were well and truly off. For all I know the libretto is dreary in French too. Stephen Fry, writing years ago in the Literary Review:

    Call me old-fashioned, purblind, hidebound, reactionary and out of touch if you will, but I believe that one of the great advantages of being born English is that one can hear the world’s greatest opera in a language other than that in which one asks strangers the way to the lavatory and orders deliveries of coal. However literate or musical the translation, opera in English always sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan. Most libretti are horribly commonplace and I feel very sorry for Italians and Germans who listen to Da Ponte and Wagner and cannot hear the pretty rhythms and alliterations of their two beautiful languages for the banal meaning they convey.

    I’ve had assorted phrases from ‘Reine des mouettes’ swimming around my head for a week or so, and that’s because Francis Poulenc’s setting of the poem has insinuated itself into my brain. To quote Jeremy Lion, ‘It is a medically proven fact that if you set things to music you remember them much better, like the alphabet – and wars.’ Here is an educational song teaching facts about various countries of the world.

    Poulenc was the closest thing to Haydn the last century could come up with. Four-square phrases, catchy tunes, humour, plus extra insouciance. He mingles joie de vivre and poignancy with speed and grace. I love Sylvia McNair’s performance here, accompanied by Roger Vignoles. Her vowels are a bit off, but together they have the measure of a song that is very difficult to perform.

    Poulenc doesn’t hang about, does he? One semiquaver and you’re in. Hear the rhythmic variety of his melodic setting too, the first two lines syncopated, the third and fourth in regular quavers. The poem doesn’t have a regular metre (how does poetic metre work in French anyway? I get confused), but even if it did you sense he’d shake it up a bit to reflect speech rhythms. When the words recur towards the end of the song he introduces further rhythmic variation through triplet figuration.

    The setting of the final stanza is especially delicious, the urgent, questing harmonies of the piano and the ‘quasi parlando’ vocal pressing for some kind of resolution, then the blissful release of the final two lines, prolonging the ecstasy of the eventual cadence. But the music doesn’t resolve with that last vocal phrase, ‘Et je m’en souviens’, but is carried by the piano to the subdominant, major and minor sevenths alternating gloriously before the longed-for release. Hard to describe Poulenc without using the imagery of orgasm. He’s just that kind of composer.

    Any amount of analysis doesn’t explain why I feel the way I do about the music. You can break it down into chords and patterns, but exactly why this note here or that note there should make me shiver is a mystery, not least because I may be the only person it affects in this way. What has given me the context to ascribe this particular emotion to this particular part of this particular song is all the music I have ever listened to. I’ve devised an inexpressible grammar of music in my mind. I don’t know how to approach that, or whether it matters.


    Image by Dschwen from Wikimedia Commons.

    Nasty forward minxes

    November 8, 2015

    I don’t normally write here about what I’m reading, but I do read, incessantly, and I recently came across a book that is worthy of wider attention, A Newnham Anthology, edited by Ann Phillips.

    To most people Cambridge means King’s College Chapel. In fact, that’s merely the public face of an institution with many private ones. This book was commissioned to mark the centenary of Newnham College in 1971, and was eventually published in 1979. My library copy had a dedication inside by Lady Archer, and a further pencil annotation in a rougher hand, ‘Wife of Jeffrey’. I’d have liked the second writer to elaborate further.

    Newnham was the second college to admit women, after Girton. Its alumnae include the likes of Joan Bakewell, Mary Beard, Iris Murdoch, Rosalind Franklin, Jane Goodall, Emma Thompson, A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble. This book amounts to a documentary history of Newnham told by its members in the form of recollections, diary entries, letters home, poetry, and official documents and statutes.

    It’s possible to view the University of Cambridge as a microcosm of British society, albeit a skewed one. Over the course of the century covered by the book, women slowly gain emancipation, initially allowed to attend lectures under sufferance, granted permission in 1881 to sit exams but not to receive degrees for passing them, and admitted as full members of the University only in 1948. Times have changed, I think, but it’s embarrassing to reflect on how recently the barriers came down. My own was one of the first all-male colleges to admit women, but that wasn’t until 1972. Today there are three women-only colleges, including Newnham; all the rest are co-educational.

    ‘Nasty forward minxes’ was Professor Adam Sedgwick’s epithet for female students seeking admission to Cambridge. It is true that women were met with much resistance, only permitted to attend lectures (to attend anything, it seems) if chaperoned, segregated from male students by having to sit at the front of the lecture hall. More than one graduate remarks on Arthur Quiller-Couch’s spiteful habit of beginning his lectures pointedly with, ‘Gentlemen!’

    Individuals, though, gained small victories:

    I always considered at the time that Newnham and Girton had been accepted as official colleges of the University. I put it to the test one day. Trinity was giving a concert in the chapel by invitation to members of the University. I and another student made up our minds to go. We streamed through the quad with all the swells, and at the door the verger, or someone in authority, said, ‘What college?’ ‘Newnham,’ I said firmly, and we passed in. Perhaps I was right, perhaps, however, the verger wasn’t sure, and thought it best to let things go.

    K.M. Rathbone (Dixon, matriculated 1880)

    There is a sense that in the early years of Newnham students were compelled to strive particularly hard for excellence to justify their existence, being very much second-class citizens within the University. That may also account partly for the heavy-handedness of Newnham’s own authorities:

    No cinemas – but there was the New Theatre in Regent Street, viewed with stern disapproval, though students of English were allowed to go to Shakespearian plays. I remember one occasion when a friend and I had taken tickets for The Merchant of Venice and at the last moment the programme was altered and a non-Shakespearian play substituted. The College authorities heard of the change and a don was sent forthwith to the theatre and we were ignominiously extracted from our seats just before the curtain went up.

    M.A. Quiggin (Hingston, 1899)

    Alongside the struggles to assert themselves, the early stories of friendship and ritual are charmingly old-fashioned. The practice of proposing, or ‘propping’, was widespread for some years, that is, proposing the use of first names to another student. ‘I have proposed to Miss Mutch,’ one student writes. Until the acceptance of your proposal, everyone was a Miss. The origin of the cocoa party amused me:

    When the College was still young a benefactor left a sum of money to provide a lady’s maid for every five young ladies, but most of the young ladies had no idea what to do with such a creature, and the benefaction was changed into half a pint of milk to be drunk at night by each young lady on finishing her studies: hence the custom of giving cocoa-parties, the guests bringing their own milk and the hostess supplying food, often of a very indigestible nature. I can remember eating extravagantly buttered muffins and cream buns between ten and eleven at night.

    E. Terry (1902)

    The variety of stories and voices in the book means there is little chance of the reader getting restless, other than in the sections written by boating bores that presumably must appeal to someone but not to me. On reading one piece I empathised immediately, thinking, this is a real writer and I recognise these experiences as mine as well as hers, and was delighted to turn the page and find the author was Catherine Storr, whose books I have always loved. She was convinced she was a fraud because of having had the good fortune to be asked about Edward Thomas at interview, whose poetry she had read recently. With me, it was a mention of Thomas Adès that I thought got me in; I later found out my Bach chorale harmonisation had also been good, which made me feel less of an impostor.

    Newnham clearly is a place held in great affection by many of its alumnae, and that may be why the most memorable pieces are by students who had a miserable time there. K.A. Rees (1929) was a streetwise girl from a London state school. Joining the University Labour Club was a sobering experience:

    I remember once listening to an impassioned talk by some good soul, who was horrified because there were households in Britain where the only hot water was obtained by boiling kettles. I’d been filling my weekly bath that way all my life.

    Work might have made it all worth while but, alas, there too I’d seen it all before. I was reading English, and I’d already at school achieved London University Intermediate B.A. standard. Now I was back to an elementary course in English Literature, designed for the products of the public schools who, as far as I could see, had read absolutely nothing.

    Well, that was my Newnham. I was lonely, bored, frustrated, humiliated, insecure, frightened, resentful. And I didn’t stage a sit-in, nor a demo; never so much as threw a tomato; just sulked my way through three long years.

    The likes of Rees were trailblazers, and provide an important corrective to the image (still true to some extent) of Cambridge as a place of privilege, scarves and toast. As she observes, she was then a minority of one but would now be in the majority. The state school students are taking over. (Well, in my dreams.)

    I’ll end with a longer excerpt, from N.S. Rinsler (Lee, 1946), that provides a delightful portrait of Miss Edith Chrystal, one of the many formidable women among the Newnham Fellowship, and of the changing attitudes to men within Newnham. The days of chaperoning were long gone by this time.

    During the second term of that first year, I was laid low, one cold, wet afternoon, by fever and a miserable cough. I retired to bed, hoping that the certain young man would assume that my failure to arrive for tea could only be due to an emergency, such as the sky falling on Newnham. At about half past six he arrived in my room, examined me with the eye of an experienced medical student, and pronounced me unfit for Hall; he would return shortly, he said, and make me some supper. He returned in due course with his one egg (they were still rationed in 1947), and proceeded to make up my decidedly ineffective coal fire – the room was big, the grate small, and our coal ration dreadfully inadequate for the damp Cambridge winter. It was at this moment that Miss Chrystal, having learned from one of my friends that I did not seem well at lunch-time, came up to see how I was. Her appearance was awe-inspiring. Visitors were not allowed in College from tea-time until eight o’clock, when they were admitted only if their names had been signed in the book. My visitor was out of hours, unrecorded and male; I was tucked up in bed. Miss Chrystal’s intelligent eye surveyed the cosy domestic scene, and she invited my nurse to step downstairs to her room.

    My mind, admittedly feverish, ranged wildly among visions of expulsion, public disgrace, and official letters to the young man’s Tutor, while my imagination conceived only too easily what Miss Chrystal might be saying downstairs. In ten minutes the young man returned. ‘She’s wonderful,’ he told me. ‘She gave me another egg so that we could both have one, and she lent me her egg-poacher; and she says I’m to put these logs on the fire because the room isn’t nearly warm enough for an invalid. Oh yes, and she signed me in the book.’ Humanity most skilfully combined with discipline – that was exactly Miss Chrystal. My nurse returned the poacher on his way out that evening. When I next saw Miss Chrystal, some two days later, she merely remarked in answer to my thanks: ‘The poacher was washed up very well. I should marry that one if I were you, he’s been brought up properly.’ As a matter of fact, I had already decided to do so; but I was oddly glad of Miss Chrystal’s approval; and we are both still grateful for her kindness.


    Cambridge Newnham” by Azeira at English Wikipedia – Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.


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