Captivating Economy

26 November 2010

The airline allowed only a single piece of hand luggage on the plane.

“Let me help you with that” said the flight attendant.

It had been a long day at the airport and now an hour’s delay was announced. The cabin was full and I was penned in at the window. My personal items, I realized, were all in that one piece of hand luggage: helpless captives locked up, tantalizingly, over my head.

A long time later I was still trying to make myself comfortable when I noticed the netted pouch in the seat-backs were missing. The airline was right to remove them. I would have been tearing at mine with my teeth by now, I am convinced of it.

They had dismantled sources of comfort in anticipation of just such ungrateful lunacy. Reaching in to my coat pocket, I found a pencil stub and small notebook but was promptly advised that, although we were delayed from take-off, I was not allowed to use my tray-table as a desk to scribble about my increasing anxiety. I humphed indignantly,  mumbling that these were conditions of prisoners-of-old! As the attendant turned, I glanced sideways at the window, wishing to scratch out the slow, passing minutes. Instead, somewhat sullenly, I used my knees as a table: words staggered across the tiny page. Occasionally an unlucky few fell off the far edge.

Then, out of the blue, a little theatre. Round eyes of bored attendants who trussed themselves up and tugged at their (orange) props. A ghostly mime of the damned: the safety demonstration played out like a surrealist’s Hallowe’en play.

To distract me from my noticeable agitation, my father handed me his book to read while continuing to attended to a crossword. For the last half hour, he had been throwing out random nouns in expectation that obedient synonyms would come flying back to nest in their small white boxes. He hadn’t looked up at all. The book’s title was Last Chance To See.  It was all about highly endangered animals with suggestions for particular moments at which each creature might have lost the plot.

Finally the plane began to move. Backwards.

“I hope he’s better at reversing than you are,” I remarked.

All my accidents happen when I reverse” sighed my father, without shifting his eyes in case any letter should escape its pen.

Forwards now and we taxied for so long that I began to consider whether, like the kakapo parrot I was reading about, this plane had in fact forgotten how to fly.

kakapo parrot

What wings? (a kakapo parrot speaks)


The Paper Trails no.1

25 August 2010

The word “get” ruffles my feathers. “Get” is coarse, ill-mannered and greedy. I hope to come across it one day, in a line by Chaucer, bristling with power and birdsong. Until then I struggle.

So for me WYSIWYG (an acronym for What You See Is What You Get) has never been a positive concept. I am not charmed by seeing my writing presented to me as a drag queen in a tangle and feel obliged to be grateful.

WYSIWYG claims to perform a little magic and show the future in your looking-glass monitor: your content styled and turned out as if it were published; as if there were no processing to be done. But the lie does not stick. Processing is the (invisible) wizard. Where we thought we had control, we have none, where we expected to produce an elegant italic leg, we have stubbornly small caps instead.

The faux paper bears no yellowing tint, its corners do not bend with continued use. There is no doodling in corners because those areas cannot be reached without constructing a table and clambering across it.

Trapped in this world where expression is free but font style is not, where the page itself is a restricted area, we can but gaze on the unfettered note-taking and creativity of old, where font and slant and smudge are still vibrant imprints of their inspired authors.

manuscript page of Samuel Beckett's novel "Watt"

A page of manuscript from "Watt" by Samuel Beckett

“Go, ogle!” urged the wonderful Professor Christopher Ricks, last night at a Royal Society of Literature lecture.

His audience sniggered. These were people who read real books. Although they were probably all internet research sinners, the party line is that Google throws up all that is transient, that is “currently trending.” Google is the app of the modern soul.

But the search engine does a great line in silver service for the people. It’s the kind you used to get in the old British Library when the BL dozed like a tabby cat at the hearth in the British Museum. You ordered a book and about two hours later some kindly, vegetarian librarian would approach your desk, pushing a creaking wooden trolley on which your book lay like an ailing figure on its way to surgery. British Library librarians were rumoured to  bring you, occasionally, something you might also be interested in – incarnations of the gracious “See Also..” in indexing.

At the Google interface we do not have a domed ceiling to hold our most abstract musings. We have an expelled-schoolboy genius for a librarian. He hurls sources to us, some intact, others hopelessly fragmented from their context. The delight he takes in his job is similar to the librarian: there are direct responses to our search but also tangential ones. And his white-teeth delight is not really in the content, not even in the demotic, democratic listing of the illegal with the state-approved. No, it is in knowing how much of our life he has saved us from searching ourselves for all these miracles of human endeavour and howling fakes alike.

He parades them before us, the thoughts of kings besides ravings of the dispossessed, equally noble in their standard issue Google list suit.

c. 1680—England: A wash drawing attributed to Marcellus Laroon depicts a group of 17th century town waits—3 shawms and a trombone

An unexpected procession found in a google image search

Mother & Filed

6 July 2010

Unique moments of parent-child exchange of looks must include: birth of the child (when the latter has calmed down sufficiently to return the gaze), witholding of car keys (from either side), King Lear disowning Cordelia, society families called to discuss their purse strings in court.

For society hostess, Lady Astor’s son, Anthony D. Marshall it was too late for any media types to try to describe any exchanging looks. Lady Astor died aged 105 in squalor and filth at the hands of her son, whom she had once described as “boring”. In 2009 he was accused of stealing millions of dollars from her through theft, forgery and trickery. His own son (the whistle-blower in this intriguing episode) did not attend court to receive any expression his father might bestow upon him. Alienated from both his mother and son, 85 year old Marshall read C19th French literature and sulked in the corridors of the Manhattan courthouse while he awaited the jury’s verdict (guilty).

And now it is the turn of Madame Bettencourt, octogenarian heiress to the L’Oreal fortune (currently she is worth 22-23 billion dollars) to swap looks with her daughter, who has brought her private life and her finances in to court and the newspapers. Francois Bettencourt-Meyers wants to stop the madness of her mother giving huge sums of money and assets to her ‘close friend’, Francois-Marie Banier. Mother wants her “cold child” to mind her own business and leave her alone to do as she will with her society-loving charmer.

While the legal wheels gather their own speed: Sarkozy twitches; lawyers stroke their wallets; the butler holds his spying breath. And Francoise tells her mother through the national press that she never stopped loving her.

Perhaps rich people do not really look into each other’s eyes. If only Madame & Mademoiselle had exchanged glances more often than they did, before the gregarious Banier stepped in to block their view.

Francois-Marie Banier & his friend Salvador Dali

A young Francois-Marie Banier with another of his friends, Salvador Dali

Scuttling from St Martin’s Lane towards Charing Cross, I caught a glimpse of Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle,” the latest artwork on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square. Handsome, indeed, even from that distance.

Looking into the making of Impossible Bottles, I have been tickled by the opinion that “This handcraft is suitable to people with a lot of patience and to people who are inside prison cells.”  What would a jailbird choose to imprison in their own glass jar? The mind boggles.

But that ol’ mind boggling is itself just a wandering clipper held captive in its own narrow-necked, bone jar..

Yinka Shonibare's "Ship in a Bottle"

Yinka Shonibare's "Ship in a Bottle" (BBC photograph)

I turned the corner and traffic sounds were banished by birdsong. Sadly, I can’t identify the lofty soloists of those trilling, purring and staccato interruptions – random, then ensemble, now disputing. It just needed the sunset to make me believe I was passing in front of a stage where jazzmen blew their assorted notes.

Back at my desk, I found this man jamming with birds.

And here’s Olivier Messiaen transcribing, describing and ultimately translating birdsong into piano.

I wonder who the birds listen to.

Birds of Jazz Standards by Melissa Garden

When “Dracula” author, Bram Stoker writes the words “I have not seen my [library] ticket for at least twenty years” I imagine a deathly pale piece of paper trembling in an old trunk,  one of its corners roughly torn… and if I were the principal librarian of the British Library in the year 1905, I too would have issued the man a replacement without delay.

See Bram Stoker’s request for a replacement library ticket and Arthur Conan Doyle’s request to join the British Library.

Bram Stoker's letter to the British Library

Bram Stoker's letter to the British Library 1905 (from BL website)