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Running man

Saturday, 20 August, 2016 0 Comments

Rio today: The men’s 1,500 metres Olympics final. It’s one of the classics of the track and field repertory and the greats over this distance include Hicham El Guerrouj, Bernard Lagat, Silas Kiplagat, Fermín Cacho, Steve Ovett, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram.

“At any rate, that’s how I started running. Thirty three — that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.” — Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Running man shoes


The triumph of Usain Bolt foreseen

Friday, 19 August, 2016 0 Comments

American artist Jacob Lawrence was one of a number of illustrators invited to design posters for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He created this image to celebrate the involvement of black athletes in the Olympics, as track and field is an area in which they have excelled. This had a particular historical significance for Lawrence because Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, where Hitler had planned to demonstrate the superiority of German “Aryan” athletes.

Munich Olympics poster


The last time

Thursday, 18 August, 2016 0 Comments

You don’t think this will be the last time. It’s just the latest goodbye in a long list of leave-takings. Yes, there are indications, but you choose to ignore those. People survive and the will to live burns brightly.

There’s a car waiting outside, so you mumble and fumble farewell with a mixture of awkward gestures and formulas. Then, it’s out the door and away for a day of travel using a half dozen transport and communication technologies that ingenious humanity has created to link families and nations. The constant checking of timetables, the endless rechecking of documents, the eating, the boarding, the boredom fill the day and dull the ominous feeling that this might have been the last time. Twelve hours later, the trip has ended and there’s enough energy left over for a tired phone call to reassure everyone that all is as it was, here and there. Exhausted sleep follows and the routine is rejoined the next day. There’s little time for the thoughts of the previous day.

But it was the last time.

The last time


Donald’s Rainy Day

Thursday, 18 August, 2016 0 Comments

“Like a lot of anxious people, I’ve been obsessively watching all the forecasts, predictions, and computer models, hoping for a break in this feverish political season,” Barry Blitt says. Blitt’s cover for the new issue of The New Yorker is the fifth featuring Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy. Given that this blog is inspired by the the idiom of putting (something) aside for a rainy day, it deserves inclusion here.

New Yorker

“Here comes that rainy day feeling again
And soon my tears they will be falling like rain
It always seems to be a Monday
Left all the memories of Sunday
Always standin’ here before the clouds appear
And took away my sunshine
Here comes that rainy day feeling again.”

Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway


Speech II: Tom Wolfe vs. Noam Chomsky

Wednesday, 17 August, 2016 1 Comment

Tom Wolfe’s new book, The Kingdom of Speech, looks at the work of four major figures in the history of evolution and language: Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett. A 15-page excerpt appeared in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “The Origins of Speech: In the beginning was Chomsky” and it focused on rise of Chomsky and Everett’s challenge to Chomskyism within the world of linguistics. The story begins in 1957, when Chomsky was 28. He wrote a book “with the opaque title” Syntactic Structures that turned the world of linguistics “upside down,” writes Wolfe. Snippet:

Language was not something you learned. You were born with a built-in “language organ.” It is functioning the moment you come into the world, just the way your heart and your kidneys are already pumping and filtering and excreting away.

To Chomsky, it didn’t matter what a child’s first language was. Whatever it was, every child’s language organ could use the “deep structure, ” “universal grammar, ” and “language acquisition device” he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese. That was why — as Chomsky said repeatedly — children started speaking so early in life… and so correctly in terms of grammar. They were born with the language organ in place and the power ON. By the age of two, usually, they could speak in whole sentences and generate completely original ones. The “organ”… the “deep structure”… the “universal grammar’… the “device” — as Chomsky explained it, the system was physical, empirical, organic, biological. The power of the language organ sent the universal grammar coursing through the deep structure’s lingual ducts to provide nutrition for the LAD, which everybody in the field now knew referred to the “language acquisition device” Chomsky had discovered.

Harpers Along with Chomsky’s linguistics, Tom Wolfe devotes a great deal of space to Chomsky’s politics, which have grown increasingly bizarre over the years, to the point where he ascribes almost all evils in the world to the USA. Despite, or possibly because of, such derangement, he remains a darling of the left-liberal media and nothing he says, no matter how absurd, is taken seriously by his credulous disciples.

Then, OOOF!

Typically Wolfe, the capital letters are introduced to make a big point and the biggest one concerns a 13,000-word article that appeared the August–October 2005 issue of Current Anthropology entitled “Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã” by Daniel Everett. Pirahã is a language spoken by several hundred members of a hunter-gatherer tribe in the vast Amazon basin and it does not contain any recursion, which is central to Chomsky’s theories, and “it was the Pirahã’s own distinctive culture, their unique ways of living, that shaped the language — not any ‘language organ,’ not any ‘universal grammar’ or ‘deep structure’ or ‘language acquisition device’ that Chomsky said all languages had in common,” declares Wolfe.

Piraha

The Pirahã sentence ‘There is a paca there’ uses just two words: káixihíxao-xaagá, meaning, paca exist there

Tom Wolfe is very enjoyable on the academic skulduggery used by the Chomskyians to denigrate Everett’s work and destroy his career, and one is left with the impression that the professorial class is filled with characters similar to the consigliere and caporegime of the Mafia. Filled with loathing for Chomskyism, Wolfe concludes thus:

“In three decades nobody had turned up any hard evidence to support Chomsky’s conviction that every person is born with an innate, gene-driven power of speech with the motor running. But so what? Chomsky had made the most ambitious attempt since Aristotle’s in 350 B.C. to explain what exactly language is. And no one else in human history had come even close. It was dazzling in its own flailing way — this age old, unending, utter, ultimate, universal display of ignorance concerning man’s most important single gift.”

OOOF!


Speech I: Oliver Kamm vs. Tom Wolfe

Tuesday, 16 August, 2016 0 Comments

The Kingdom of Speech is published by Jonathan Cape but might as well have been issued by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose tracts at least have the merit of being funnier.” So writes Oliver Kamm in a devastating put-down of the latest book by Tom Wolfe. Along with being the author of Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for The Times and it was in that newspaper on Saturday that he took Wolfe to the reviewing woodshed.

The Kingdom of Speech Tom Wolfe argues that speech, not evolution, sets humans apart from animals and is responsible for all of our great achievements. He targets Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky in The Kingdom of Speech when arguing that there is no evolutionary explanation for language, particularly abstract language. Kamm differs, however: “Wolfe’s theory that words are a memory aid — a mnemonic system — likewise falls apart on a moment’s reflection. Words like cat and dog and run and jump might help us to remember things in the world, but what about words like not and very and whether and however?”

Readers who purchase The Kingdom of Speech in the hope of acquiring an invigorating clarification of the big ideas at the heart of the debate about morphology, syntax, phonetics and semantics will be misled, claims Kamm, who shows no mercy in his critique:

“It’s a celebration of ignorance: a vain, sneering and calumnious piece of fluff in which Wolfe misunderstands his subject and misrepresents leading thinkers, notably Darwin and the linguist Noam Chomsky. It’s not even stylishly written. What I learnt from it is that a crotchety celebrity of vaulting hubris and small mind doesn’t feel constrained by canons of evidence and accuracy.”

Tomorrow, here, Wolfe attacks Chomsky.


The Pattern Day

Monday, 15 August, 2016 0 Comments

In 1810, the Irish antiquary Thomas Crofton-Croker recorded that up to 15,000 people had attended the “pattern” of St. Declan in Ardmore in Waterford. The event is held annually on the 24th of July and central to the occasion is a visit to St. Declan’s Well. In her thesis submitted in 1988 to the Free University of Amsterdam for a master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology, Siobhán Lincoln noted that, “Various cures have been attributed to it, and the Saint is reputed to have quenched his thirst there en route to Cashel.”

Ireland has thousands of “holy” or “blessed” wells. These ancient water sources were attributed mystical powers in pagan times and the related customs were incorporated by Christianity when it arrived on the island 1,600 years ago. Christianity then assigned a “patron saint” to each well and thus began the custom of the “pattern day” (from the pronunciation of pátrún or patron). The “pattern day”, in other words, is the feast day of a parish’s patron saint and entails a pilgrimage to the well and the saying of specific prayers in a certain sequence. The wells are too small for bathing in and, anyway, the water is cold so bottles are filled with the “miraculous” liquid, which is often applied to wounds or sprinkled on children, travellers and animals for their well-being.

Ethnologists describe patterns as “community generated festivals” or as “the dramatisation and sacralisation of rural Ireland’s own social structure”. This tradition of religious practice and the carnivalesque will be continued in Ballylanders today, the Feast of the Assumption. Our thoughts are with all those doing the “rounds of the Well.”

The rounds of the Well


On this day last year…

Sunday, 14 August, 2016 1 Comment

… we went to the graveyard and we stood at the graves and did not weep. Today, it’s time dwell upon the “love of unforgotten times” as Robert Louis Stevenson put it.

Do not stand at my grave and weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave bereft
I am not there. I have not left.

Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905 – 2004)

Mammy


The Swimmer swims

Saturday, 13 August, 2016 0 Comments

It’s early to be contemplating life after Rio, but there’s just a week to go and our thoughts will soon turn to Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics, and the only Asian city to host the games twice. The first time was 1964 and highlights of the Games of the XVIII Olympiad included Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser winning the 100 metres freestyle for the third time in a row, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila winning his second Olympic marathon, New Zealand’s Peter Snell winning gold in the 800 metres and 1500 metres, and the US men’s swimming team winning all but three gold medals in the pool.

“The Swimmer” is a famous short story by John Cheever, which was published in The New Yorker in the summer of 1964. It begins with Neddy Merrill sitting by a friend’s pool on a sunny day. Suddenly, he decides to go home by swimming across all the pools in the neighbourhood, which he names “The Lucinda River” in honour of his wife. He starts off energetically, but his journey takes on a dark and surreal tone. Snippet:

“He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb — he never used the ladder — and started across the lawn.

When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home. The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes. The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.”

You can download a PDF (89.3KB) of “The Swimmer” here.

The pool


The human heart and face

Friday, 12 August, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1827, William Blake died. The English poet, painter, printmaker and visionary was largely unrecognised during his lifetime, but is now considered a pivotal figure in the arts of the Romantic Age. When he was 14, his family decided that he would be apprenticed to an engraver, so his father took him to William Ryland, a highly respected master of the trade. The boy, however, resisted the arrangement telling his father, “I do not like the man’s face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged!” The grim prophecy came true 12 years later.

William Blake’s uncanny ability to expose the face that lies behind the mask resulted in some revealing and enduring paintings and poetry.

A Divine Image

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress

The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal’d
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

William Blake (1757 – 1827)

William Blake - Nebuchadnezzar

William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar is a print portraying the Old Testament Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. The story of Nebuchadnezzar tells of a ruler who through hubris lost his mind and was reduced to madness and eating “grass as oxen.”


James Joyce and Italo Svevo, Trieste and Zurich

Thursday, 11 August, 2016 0 Comments

In The Spectator, Philip Hensher offers a poignant review of Stanley Price’s James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship. Trieste played a key role in this happy episode of literary history and, recalling his time in the Italian seaport, Joyce said, “I met more kindness in Trieste than I ever met anywhere else.”

Joyce and his family had to leave Trieste shortly after the outbreak of World War I and they settled in Zurich, where most of Ulysses was written. The story goes that he went for a walk one evening by the shore of Lake Zurich and bumped into the English painter and Ministry of Information employee, Frank Budgen. After exchanging pleasantries, Budgen inquired as to how the novel was progressing and Joyce said that he had managed to produce two sentences during the day.

“You have been seeking the right words?” asked Budgen.
“No,” replied Joyce, “I have the right words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have.”

When the anti-hero of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, is walking along Sandymount Strand, he observes a dog belonging to a pair of cockle pickers discovering the body of another dog washed up by the sea. Here’s how Joyce used his vocabulary and syntax to convey the animal’s reactions:

“Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolfstongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies dogsbody’s body.”

The perfect order of words.