Saturday, 4 August 2012

Grey Matter

Why was he gazing upwards from the steps of the porch, hearing their shrill twofold cry, watching their flight? For an augury of good or evil? A phrase of Cornelius Agrippa flew through his mind and then there flew hither and thither shapeless thoughts from Swedenborg on the correspondence of birds to things of the intellect and of how the creatures of the air have their knowledge and know their times and seasons because they, unlike man, are in the order of their life and have not perverted that order by reason.

And for ages men had gazed upward as he was gazing at birds in flight. The colonnade above him made him think vaguely of an ancient temple and the ashplant on which he leaned wearily of the curved stick of an augur. A sense of fear of the unknown moved in the heart of his weariness, a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings, of Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon. 

He smiled as he thought of the god's image for it made him think of a bottlenosed judge in a wig, putting commas into a document which he held at arm's length, and he knew that he would not have remembered the god's name but that it was like an Irish oath. It was folly. 

Thus speaks Stephen Dedalus, protagonist of Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.  It reflects and encapsulates my train of thought, my broken stream of consciousness most evenings after a long day.  It's the weekend and although my mind is buzzing and active, it still feels somehow somnambulant after thoughts, events, etc which have filled it over the five days previous.  I feel the same in the evenings, after a seven to eight hours (excluding travel time) stint in the office.  I confess to feeling terribly frustrated at myself, for I am able to research and write whilst stuck behind my government regulation type desk and uncomfortable chair, and I feel more alive as I am interacting with people once again (a welcome release from my habitual hermit like existence), yet I am unable to put electronic pen to paper and write for my other blog on a historical, artistic or otherwise subject on something factual that inspires and fascinates me.

Equally so, over the last few months, my focus has taken me to reading (mostly) fiction during my early morning and mid afternoon journeys to and from work, over and above reading fact/history and expanding my knowledge.  Instead I have been reading light-hearted fare in the shape of works such as Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and worse still, smut for middle aged housewives in the shape of Fifty Shades of Grey.   

I am an avid book reader.  Once in my modest (viz. small) home, there is no escaping from the rampant bibliomania that is at play.  For those who are bibliophobes or environmentalists who prefer to see books recycled or to be read off screens, be they the glorious iPad, the fiddly Kindle, or otherwise be warned.  For inscribed above my door should be the words "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" for those of you of that ilk.  Yes, books are omnipresent and prevalent, here and there, everywhere.  The one time considerable library of DVDs I possess has been packed away as I simply was not watching them and, for the most part, have not retained my interest.  The same is true for the (dwindling and diminishing) collection of movie posters (not the books on the subject however).  This chapter of my life seems to be closed but certainly not locked, as I am still willingly verbose and happy to discuss the subject, if indeed I know or can remember.  However, it is the passion for books that has remained since my youth, and long may it last! 

Generally, wherever possible, my books find themselves arranged into some sort of order (a work in progress).  That's not to say that they are arranged in some sort of improv Dewey system, nor in alphabetical order by author (admittedly one part of the fiction is), or by publisher or dimensions of the books, there is a structure to how I arrange my books, which admittedly causes considerable consternation (admittedly mingled with pleasure) whenever there is or are new additions to be made to it.  The subject matter of the non fiction books tends to follow a number of fairly consistent themes and reflect my differing interests over the course of my life thus far, and although my enthusiasms may have changed over time, I still find myself dipping back into those interests of yesterday no matter how long ago and remote they might seem.  In brief, the factual books tend to be centered around art (mostly Renaissance, both Northern and Italian); architecture (From Romanesque to Art Deco and Modern); archaeology (predominantly Ancient Egypt); history (mostly mediaeval European); psychology (Jung, Freud, et alia); religion (mostly Gnosticism, Buddhism, heresy and Early Christianity); esoterica and magic. 

The English language fiction tends to be arranged alphabetically by author and the French language by author and, to an extent, by theme.  The French language fiction used to be more prolific than the English, partly owing to a desire on my part to improve my French, partly due to finances (French paperbacks were infinitely cheaper than their English language counterparts) and partly due to various writers I sort to read generally being unavailable in English at the time.  Although I find myself reading more factually centric books, I do read fiction.  Despite my interests and passions being somewhat outré by some people's standards, I do enjoy reading popular fiction as well to keep abreast of modern 'cultcher' has to offer and not to entirely dwell in my own existence.  The same is true of my music, I do not solely immerse myself in choral music and chant, contrary to popular belief; I will equally be found listening to contemporary popular music as much as to throwbacks from the 50's, 60's, onwards - from Ella Fitzgerald to Adele, from Tori Amos to Annie Lennox, etc, etc.  Another wonderful medium which my world could not do without - music! 

This passion for reading has clearly been inherited from my parents.  Both of whom are avid readers.  However, we differ in how we treat our books and, albeit jokingly, come to frequent loggerheads as to how a book should be treated.  Yes, carrying a book will invariably incur some knocks and bumps, and the spine will incur some slight damage from the handling.  However my father seems to put the spines of the books he reads under such duress you can almost hear their cry for help.  To their credit, my parents have books like they are well read and some might say, well loved.  For me, I love my books, but that love is manifested in my looking after them to the best of my ability.  So most of my books look mostly unread, whereas they have been.  I just have looked after them. 

It seems that I have inherited certain aspects of my appreciation of my book reading from my mother.  Although she will deny it, and she has accused me of such (again, in a jokey way), we both have slight Asbergers when it comes to books.  Doubtless this will be denied, but I recall upon her discovery of Philippa Gregory a number of years back, she ordered about five copies of her books in one fell swoop.  Also, in further testimony, there are numerous copies of various books by the likes of Jeffrey Deaver, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, and Jo Nesbo on my parent's shelves.  Attempts have been made to indoctrinate me in the joys of these modern crime thrillers readily devoured by both my parents, but after having read a couple of Dennis Lehane novels and a few by Michael Connolly, and although well written, I find that I couldn't read these authors to the same propensity in which they do. 

In a recent conversation on the 'phone, my mother and I had one of our random conversations about all sorts of everything and not very much.  Family news, the countless number of bumble bees in the swimming pool, whether I was watching a cricket/rugby/football match (despite her awareness of my rampant sfairesphobia), and general tittle tattle.  Also, every now and then we get to talking about books and what we have been reading.  (As a quick side note, much though I am set in my ways, I do enjoy reading books and authors that people I love, respect, value suggest to me).  My mother asked if I had heard about the Fifty Shades series of books.  Other than seeing them in branches of Waterstone's, and their distinctive covers, I had no knowledge of them. Also all three of them were and are (at time of writing) at the top of the bestseller list in the UK.  My mother hasn't actually read any of these books, despite their having been recently dubbed "Mummy porn" by the press, yet she seems to know all about them.  It seems odd that these books are all best sellers, yet you never see comparatively few people reading them. However, they seem as prolific in terms of sales as the dire Harry Potter and Twilight series of books.  Anyway, with my curiosity piqued, my mother suggested I should read one of them, if not all, and to advise forthwith whether or not they were any good.

When starting Fifty Shades of Grey, I approached it with an open mind.  Much though I still find it rather unusual to say the least to see grown adults reading books clearly aimed at children, such as the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (I read the first and was unimpressed) and the Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer (no desire to read these), I express no aversion to reading books for which it might seem that the intended audience is meant to be women.  I have read some of what has been dubbed "chick lit", mainly a handful of the historical novels by the aforementioned Philippa Gregory.  I read and thoroughly enjoyed Caitlin Moran's entertaining How to be a Woman which one often finds in the "Gender Studies" or LGBT areas of bookstores.  Admittedly the latter I tend to avoid as it tends to be teaming with older gentleman giving a furtive glance in the direction of anyone under the age of forty who enters that domain, whilst thumbing through the display copies of the various Bel Ami albums on the shelves. 

I know I am not the only man to have read How to Be a Woman; if memory serves, I espied another man reading it under the rain in a bus shelter.  The shelter amusingly was juxtaposition-ed next to a stall set up by the local mosque handing out copies of The Qur'an for those seeking to be converted.  Furthermore, I have read the various books and compilations of articles by "feminist anti-feminist" Camille Paglia (another author who is of the "love her or loath her" ilk), so I like to think that I am sufficiently open minded in my reading.  Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is not going to be on the same par as reading Margery Kempe after all, is it?  In short, no.  The work reads like a slightly kinky Mills and Boon novel at best, and we aren't talking the fevered abstract eroticism of Pauline Réage's seminal yet disturbing masterpiece of SM pornography Histoire d'O.  Réage's anonymous heroine was strong despite her submission, and the reader was invited to use their imagination when conjuring up the epnoymous heroine.  Imagination is not required nor engaged when reading Fifty Shades of Grey.  The writing ability mirrors that of another best selling author, Dan Brown, in that it is simplistic, appealing to a mass audience and well, simply, not very good.

Enough of shlocky women's writing!

So, despite feeling rather weary and brow beaten in the evenings of late, I have been delving into (as opposed to reading) my books on Hermetic thought, various works by Jung and some Freud.  This might not seem out of the usual for me, but I am doing it to escape from the Olympic Games and the ensuing pandemonium that has descended upon the metropolis.  However, despite the predicted adversity and being situated in Whitehall for most of my working week, it has actually been none too bad. The threat of the crowds descending upon the beach volley ball games being played a mere stone’s throw away in Horseguard’s Parade has in fact been rather anti-climactic in nature.  The nightmare has mostly been the seemingly Herculean task of getting down Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square and getting into either the National Gallery (a favourite haunt to escape, especially the mediaeval and Renaissance galleries) or to venture into the nearby Waterstone's, after having picked up some sandwiches and fruit juice/salad in the adjacent Prêt à Manger during my lunch break.

On a quotidian basis the pavements mirror, allegorically speaking, the Augean stables.  I feel cast in the role of the Alpheus or the Peneus, determined, sloshing (yet frequently hindered along the way) through the crowd in vain, fraught attempt to get through and reach my eventual destination.  More often than not, push does truly come to shove, and a journey that would normally take five minutes ends up taking fifteen, and that is with my somewhat abrupt, somewhat uncouth attempts at times, to wade back through a crowd that always seems to be determined to be against me. Perhaps an apt metaphor on life at present!

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