Archive for August, 2012

In the earlier piece (On Nom de Plume, by John Stammers) I established fairly definitely that the structure of enquiry and overall layout of Non de Plume, was a close referral to a Michael Donaghy poem, Our Life Stories. The Stammers poem begins:

The bunch of flowers in the vase, what are they called?
I’ll call them Anstruthers for no other reason
than that…………

Well, here is another possible connection.

In 1999, Scottish poet Robert Crawford published an outstanding book, Spirit Machines, with Cape Poetry.

One early piece in the book is the poem Anstruther. It is written in typically Crawfordian witty, laconic and rumbustious manner; it begins:

Here the great Presbyterian minister
with his lifebelt and memorial lighthouse

sails with the captain of many clippers
towards the Salutation Bar.

We take it, then, that the minister in question is Anstruther-notable Dr Thomas Chalmers. We take it he sails off to take up a post in the Isles, overseas, or is it inward where sobriety is left high and dry, and the choppy firth of conscience and belief tests his mettle once again. Is this to be his new parish? In life he was co-founder of the Free Kirk, a break-away group which later became a dominant assembly. Along with his break-aways went many Gaelic-speakers, and Highlanders (hence my reference to the Isles).

The stanzas I have in mind are 5 to 8:

…we stand and stare up at the stars

 near the electrician’s. They look so close
they could be catching lobsters and called
not the Plough but Breadwinner 111,
Shearwater of Cellardyke, North Carr Lightship

 Morning Ray, Fisher of Men.
………………………….

First, a note about Anstruther itself. It is a largish town on the coast of north Firth of Forth, near St Andrews. It has a number of notable features – one is a seeming cricket pavilion just outside town. This is in fact the surface portal of a large underground nuclear bunker. It is reputedly large enough to house top military people from USA and Britain.

Another feature of the town was the Beggars’ Benison, a type of hell-fire club for the top people of the area. Its activities were… quite hilarious.

One notable personage from the town is Radio One dj Edith Bowman. Then we have our man, Dr Thomas Chalmers, as mentioned co-founder of the Scottish Free Kirk and renowned Presbyterian minister. Anstruther forms part of the constituency of MP Menzies Campbell. Small world. I wonder if he would have been up for the shenanigans of the Beggar’s Benison? The mind boggles at the prospect!

Further information on the Beggar’s Benison can be found in Robert Crawford’s book Robert Burns and Cutural Authority (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Oh, and Anstruther is pronounced Ainster in the Scots.

In Crawford’s poem names are identity: we have here, in the early days of partial devolution of the late nineties the continuing assertion of Scottishness, of the necessity of naming in order to establish legitimacy, independent identity and history, and self-sufficient nation-hood.

What connections can we establish with the Stammers poem? We know from interviews that Stammers has gained a wide and extensive knowledge of contemporary poetry from among other ways, browsing the Poetry Society bookshelves. Also we have the Don Paterson connection, as mentioned earlier. Don Paterson, W N Herbert and Robert Crawford are all part of a Scottish grouping strong on technical matters.

Internal evidence of the Stammers’ poem offers neither the Scots’ pronunciation of Anstruther, nor knowledge of the town or place. We only connect on the querulous naming strategy.

Crawford’s suggested naming of the stars and constellations in terms of local landmarks, economic practice, and religious heritage, differs in nature from the suggested fallibility of the Stammers’ approach.

With Crawford we cross time like a lobster boat on the Firth; we also take with us our contemporary knowledge and approaches when we do this. This is basic historicity, but potent nonetheless.

With Stammers the misnaming is, as said, a gesture of fallibility, that is, a recognition of fellowship; it also carries the contrary recognition of the cultural ambience of a select educational level in its referencing of Derridean techniques. And further, of course, the now select few who read modern poetry, and will note the Donaghy reference. Such ambivalence is evident in the Crawford piece, but has a different strategy, and explores a different intent. With Crawford there is always the up-to-date referencing of cultural and technological achievements, but not at the expense of the claims of history. Hence, throughout the poem is the ever-present use of the present tense. In Crawford there is always the co-existence of time scales. This is part of his legitimising of Scottish political and cultural identity.

Both poems are buzzing with the quotidian details that constitute the substrata of cultural lives.

And the electrician’s in the excerpt above, from Crawford’s poem? Is this a local-colour, authenticising detail too? Or is it a pawky contemporary reference to the energizer of life, the great Himself?

I am reminded here of an earlier Gaelic poem (Derick Thomson?) set in the Isles, where the locals (the Wee Frees who broke away with Chalmers, but refused the Episcopalian majority) believed the air was so clear they could see God at his dinner.

The point I am circling here is how both writers approach what in an earlier piece (Urban Writer) I summed up as, in quote, the ‘sociolects of power’. Both writers, consciously in Crawford, and subconsciously (the assumed centrality of the London cultural identity) in Stammers, portray in their writing the claims of nationhood.

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Communication has always been as much about the means as the message. Think of the Gutenberg Bible, that particular font used. It is not only that heavy black font emphasising the gravitas of the content, but also the binding, the end boards, and further the size, thickness, weight, that is, the sheer heft of the artefact: all are part and parcel of the message.

Think of illuminated manuscripts, of how image and text embody one another in those capitals. In the margins we have all the possibilities of reading the cultural history of their period, as well as the presumed eternal un-period that the text was thought to encompass. This window into a period, and how all successive periods have continued to value the text both for the message and as an artefact in itself, tell us much about humanity.

And so if we were presented with artefacts relating to female versions of Christ, we instantly read here: belief as artefact; artefact as gendered; text as image of belief; image as dependent on, and independent of belief, text, and message.

The work consists a packet of two envelopes, each labelled in elaborate, heavy black script Texts, and Illuminations.

The Texts envelope consists of nine cards of text, of between six to eight lines each. All are in engineered text, that is, text that has undergone electronic reproduction. This, in turn, gives a sense of the impersonal, of a distanced text, that has presentation and deliberate structuring techniques written into it.

The texts combine many genres of material, call upon varied fields of knowledge; the fields are blended, juxtaposed, ‘sewn’. There are therefore cryptic, gnomic structures. And yet there is a through-line as well. The reader dips in and out of acquiescence with the through-line as he/she reads. We therefore sew together, as we interact, another take on the whole; we produce, in effect, an extra-dimensioned artefact.

The Illuminations envelope consists of eight acetates. Each contains collided images in beautifully rendered colours. These collided images consist in turn of contemporary footage of, say, architectural structures, and anatomical images; some of these are treated, others not. We have images from a wide variety of sources. There are many ways these collisions are structured, from seemingly straightforward juxtaposing of disparate images, through to overlaying. Each acetate is highly suggestive of interpretive reading, and yet at the same time resistant to such.

When we combine the more deliberative textual elements with the acetates we can arrange and rearrange as we will. Readings multiply, over-ride, undermine; they fire-up the creative aspect.

So what are the female versions of Christ? Why Christ? Why female? Why?

Our gendered concepts of Christ are first-world, Western, European, with origins in Middle-eastern  tribal mores, and archaic institutionalised religions. In effect to focus on the figure of Christ is to zero-in on the very centre of Western mental attitudes, their horrible blunders, blindnesses, as well as the acme of human striving.

It could be said, therefore, that what this work is doing is suggesting ways of casting the fired-up creative aspect, in place of a corrupted ideal.

Harald Hardrada – they don’t make them like that any more.

Born 1015, died 1066.

His real name was Harold Sigurdsson, son of a king of Norway. He ascended the throne himself in 1047.

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In 1030 he fought in the major Norwegian battle of Stiklestad. It didn’t go well for him, and the contending forces of Norway’s unsettled minor kingdoms drove him into exile. He didn’t take to  this easily, and later in life made darned sure he got back at them, claiming kingship even of Denmark, as well as Norway.

It must have been this period he earned that epithet Hardrada, that is, hard ruler.

Before this though, is when he really had the time of his life.

Exile meant travelling through Sweden, Finland, to Russia. Russia in those days consisted of principalities ruled over by separate princes, kings. The heart of old Russia was Kiev. And that’s where he headed.

He was a king’s son, he was used to privilege and the companionship of princes and the relatively affluent. Travelling as an exile was not exactly comfortable, nor was his company always what he was used to. So, he headed for the princes and kings. And they welcomed him!

If he followed the Viking paths down the rivers, most importantly from Novgorod south, or over and down the Volga, or the Don, then he was sure to make it the place. Why do I say this? Well, Yaroslav’s wife Ingegerd was a distant relative of his. She was a Swedish princess married off to a Kiev King.

In Kiev he spent some time as captain of the warriors of Yaroslav the Wise. He rode many campaigns with them. Most probably against the Polovetsians, a nomadic people from Siberia, who had settled in what we now know as the Ukraine.
See the Song of Igor’s Campaign, classic Russian geste for more on these battles.

By 1034 he was in Byzantium, once again pestering the kings and princes. He became a Commander of the Varangian Guard, until 1042. His campaigns were reputedly wide ranging, taking him into the Middle-East, even as far as Iraq in some chronicles.
It was said he had developed a habit of dipping his hand into the treasury; at one point he was imprisoned. He had to leave Byzantium under cover of night: he had requested permission to leave, but was refused.
He ended up back in Kiev.
It was here he married Elisabeth, Yaroslav’s daughter. His poem to Elisabeth has been suggested as the origin of The Lament of Yaroslavna, in the Song of Igor’s Campaign.

They returned to Norway, where he promptly set about claiming the throne for himself. There followed a period of fierce settlements amongst old enemies and detractors.

By 1066 we find him leading a force against Harold of England. They engaged forces at Stamford Bridge.
From what we know of this battle, he was killed – an arrow in the throat? And then English Harold had to tramp down with his forces to Hastings, way down in Kent, and King William.
And the rest,  they say, is history.

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It is interesting to note the dates here; I know, dates are the bane of history.

It’s just somewhere to hang the structure to see it better. When you’re talking about life it’s just not chronological – we have lapses, go back a step or two, sometimes (if we’re lucky) race ahead, or more often than not have long periods of fallow: all over the place; any idea of chronology is crazy.

It’s just a device for ordering stuff in retrospect.

In this case they reveal to us a bit more of the man, and of the expectations, and mindset of the time he lived in.

Born 1015, ok. In Norway – don’t know where as such – but he was a part of the Norwegian ruling elite. His father Sigurd Syr was second husband to Asta Gundbrandsdattar. Why is this important? The form of his mother’s name became synonymous with Icelandic formations after the Settlement. Her first marriage resulted in the birth of Olaf, later St Olaf, king from 1025 to 1028.

It was after this the Norwegian throne was claimed by the Danish king, Cnut the Great. Yes, that’s right, that King Cnut, the one who also claimed the English throne.

The next date is 1030, the battle of Stiklestad, one of the most famous battles in Norway. It happened around Trondheim. Harald sided with his half brother Olaf against local claimants for the throne.

Oh, by the way – he was 15 at the time. Accounts say he acquitted himself well. Even if they lost the battle, and it was decided best for him ‘to live in exile’. His exile also entailed his taking his retinue, as a regal claimant.

1031 he had made it to Kiev: aged 16.

His reputation as a fighter travelled with him; so much so that he was taken on by Yaroslav the Wise. His wife, as mentioned, was a relation of Harald’s from Sweden.

He was involved in many campaigns there – against Poland, Estonians… there were many factional squabbles. He learned his trade, improved his craft.

1034 and he appeared in Byzantium, where he was eventually appointed commander of the Varangian Guard. They were an elite force, and bodyguards to the Emperor. There were and remained a predominantly Scandinavian group amongst the Byzantine Guard. The Guard began as a group of mercenaries paid to protect Byzantine interests. Empress Anna Komnene spoke of them highly for their valour, but found their manners and general bahaviour very weird. The Scandinavian warriors held highly the qualities of coolness under fire – and most other times; anyone who showed themselves to be unmoved by anything was highly esteemed.

It is possible his campaigns took him as far as the Euphrates (Iraq), and even Jerusalem.

A Greek book of 1070s, Kekaumenos’ Strategikon, recorded him winning favours from the Emperor. It was some time after this he was imprisoned by the new Emperor, and his powerful wife Zoe. There is some suggestion he dipped into the treasury coffers. William of Malmesbury, as well as Saxo Grammaticus all have their pennyworth to add – but it was all hearsay. New Emperors always distance themselves from the favoured ones of the Emperors they replace.

The new Emperor was not popular, and insurrections broke out – whether Harald was released to lead the fight back, is not clear. What is clear is that, when in 1042 he requested permission to leave Byzantium he was refused. And so he had to sneak away, with his loyal companions. And so, back to Kiev.

By 1047 he was married, back in Norway, and ascended the throne. Payback time for Denmark. Only, it didn’t quite end up like that. It did end up in a lifelong truce. So, if he could not claim Cnut’s Denmark, he looked to England, Cnut’s other legacy realm.

But before that, let’s take the instance of the great town of Hedeby near Schleswig, one of the few great towns of the region. Quite a lot has been unearthed about the town, but one significant period stands out. The period of the 1050s. Why? One source has it: ‘A thick layer of ash and charcoal in the central area represents the final destruction of the town just before 1050. Whether this fire was accidental or… by… Harald Hard-ruler… is unclear. This was the end of Hedeby…’

Submit, or be smashed.

Tostig Godwinson, who was the brother of Harold Godwinson, king of England, persuaded our Harald that he had a decent claim to the English throne. Brothers, eh! Can’t live with them, can’t trust them out of your sight!

September 1066, and the Harolds (well, HarAld, and HarOld) met outside York for a bit of the old heave-ho.  The first battle at Fulford went well for HarAld, but it seems it made him complaisant. The later one at Stamford Bridge finished him. And HarAld was killed.

He was 51.

According to Snorri Sturlson he was buried at Mary Church, Trondheim. A huge stone now commemorates his burial place.

Even the age of 51 is a little old and grizzled for some. Still, that was one life lived to the full.

A little like the Chinese curse: May you live in interesting time – it’s usually a disaster for the people trying to get by; always some sod trying to make them part of his big scheme for power. And he was one of those. Submit, or be smashed.