Thursday, 18 December 2014

It's Life, Jim...

Last night, belatedly, I caught up with the second of Jim Al-Khalili's two-part Secrets of Quantum Physics, and mind-boggling stuff it was, featuring the Quantum Robin, whose navigational skills depend on quantum entanglement, the Quantum Nose that doesn't smell but listens, the Quantum Frog whose metamorphosis depends on quantum effects - to say nothing of Quantum Ghosts, Quantum Weirdness, proton jumps and quantum mutations. Al-Khalili was exploring the emerging field of quantum biology, which sees quantum effects not as strange things that happen at the subatomic level and don't affect the 'real' macroscopic world,  but as essential elements in all the processes of life. If this approach is right - and Al-Khalili certainly made a strong case - the possibilities are endless, and life (in the scientific sense) suddenly becomes vastly stranger and more interesting.
 Most science documentaries I find either boring or annoying, or both. Too many of them overdress their assertions and explications with dazzling graphics and camerawork; too many are dogmatic and/or bombastic and overreach themselves. With Secrets of Quantum Physics, however (a low-budget production), the content was so strange and fascinating that it needed no dressing up and could hardly be illustrated - so Al-Khalili, rather endearingly, made do with a range of balls of various sizes and colours, the larger ones reminiscent of The Prisoner. They worked rather well.

Over there...

on the Dabbler, I'm talking pidgin.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Tickell's Exploded Beings

Born on this day in 1685 was the amusingly named minor poet Thomas Tickell, also known as 'Whigissimus' on account of his political leanings. A protege and favourite of Joseph Addison, Tickell had a good deal of worldly success in his lifetime, and perhaps rather more literary fame than he deserved. His longest poem is a mock-heroic effort, Kensington Gardens, in which Prince Albion, in love with a fairy maid, takes on Oberon and his forces on the site of what is now Kensington Gardens (where, as regulars will know, I often take a lunchtime stroll, weather permitting).
Tickell sets the scene thus:

'Where Kensington, high o'er the neighb'ring lands
'Midst greens and sweets, a Regal fabrick, stands,
And sees each spring, luxuriant in her bowers,
A snow of blossoms, and a wilde of flowers,
The Dames of Britain oft in crowds repair
To gravel walks, and unpolluted air.
Here, while the Town in damps and darkness lies,
They breathe in sun-shine, and see azure skies;
Each walk, with robes of various dyes bespread,
Seems from afar a moving Tulip-bed,
Where rich Brocades and glossy Damasks glow,
And Chints, the rival of the show'ry Bow...'

And so on, and on, for several hundred lines.
In his Lives of the Poets, Johnson remarks of Kensington Gardens that 'the versification is smooth and elegant, but the fiction unskilfully compounded of Grecian Deities and Gothick Fairies. Neither species of those exploded beings could have done much; and when they are brought together they only make each other contemptible. To Tickell, however, cannot be refused a high place among the minor poets...' A major minor then - at least to Johnson.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Dog's Wool

Staring vacantly into the window of an up-market Kensington bookshop - modern firsts, glossy leather, decorative bindings - my eye was caught by a framed poster. It was an appeal from the British Dog's Wool Association to the dog-owners of Kensington to comb out their dogs' coats and donate the combings to the war effort, 'for Supply of Comforts to the Sick and Wounded' of the Great War. Full particulars from a Miss du Cros of Holland Park Road.
 This led me to the Dog Wool Spinners of the Royal Academy, whose commendable zeal and industry you can read about here.
 Now I think of it, I have a feeling my mother used to have a dog's wool scarf - not of Great War vintage though. The world is probably full of dog's wool spinners - hats off to them.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Some Trees

Workwhelmed again - time for a poem. This is John Ashbery's Some Trees, the title poem of his first collection. It won him the Yale Younger Poets Prize, though W.H. Auden, who judged it, later claimed he hadn't understood a word of the winning manuscript. This seems unlikely. Some Trees is hardly obscure or experimental - it's even rhymed, more or less. Explicable meaning, as ever with Ashbery, tends to swim in and out of focus, and there are private meanings in here (to do with Ashbery's love for Fank O'Hara; 'these accents' in the last line might even be a reference to their shared non-Harvard accents). But it works on its own terms, without inside knowledge, and at the least makes a beautiful music...

Some Trees

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Not Silence

Well, that's my Christmas sorted. Last night I caught an ad on the telly for a CD compilation called Silence Is Golden. A tricky theme for any collection of, well, music, but The Sound of Silence is present and correct (Simon & Garfunkel, not, thank G--, The Bachelors), also the title track (the Tremeloes, alas, not the Four Seasons original). The rest is not silence, and the subtitle '60 Hits from the Original Chilled Generation' better expresses what it is - lots of mellow and, for those of the right age who misspent enough of their youth, powerfully evocative music.
 Most of what you'd expect is here, from Whiter Shade of Pale and Nights in White Satin to God Only Knows and Albatross, from Green Tambourine to Blue Bayou, Everybody's Talkin' to Mellow Yellow. Plenty of West Coast sounds - Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful, even a couple of Tims (Rose and Hardin, not Buckley), Scott McKenzie but, oddly, no Mamas & Papas (copyright problems?). Otis Redding fans are already complaining that, once again, it's the inferior stereo mix of Dock of the Bay, rather than the original mono - but, more to the point, there are some odd selections: Subterreanean Homesick Blues (chilled?!), It Ain't Me Babe sung by Johnny Cash, not to mention those imperishable classics Can't Let Maggie Go (Honeybus) and Let's Go to San Francisco (Flowerpot Men). On the other hand, there are things you wouldn't expect to find on this kind of compilation: the Velvets' Sunday Morning (lovely song but no one noticed at the time), Nick Drake's Time Has Told Me (ditto), and tracks by Love, Pentangle, John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. Dammit, I might even buy the thing.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Thought for the Day

Here's the kind of 'question' you're unlikely to find anywhere but on the BBC News website - Can yoga solve climate change? The answer, by the way, is No - but the UN's highly meaningful declaration of an International Yoga Day (June 21st - one for the diary) has undoubtedly given yoga 'a leg up', as is hilariously illustrated on the video.
 I like to think that, in a very real sense, blogging too is doing its bit to solve climate change. After all, you simply cannot do it while driving a gas-guzzling SVU (take it from me) - and very few blog posts emit significant levels of greenhouse gases (as distinct from hot air). We are all, are we not, doing our bit...