Friday, 26 April 2019

La Romantica

Lago di Pietra di Pertusillo

In 2010 a remarkable film was released in Italy. It was called Basilicata, Coast to Coast. Obviously, the title makes ironic reference to the archetypal road trip across the United States. Basilicata, the forgotten region of the Italian South, does not have two oceans, but it does have two seas. The protagonists of the film are a musical group who live in Maratea on the Tyrrhenian Sea coast. They travel eastwards across the region to Policoro on the Ionian Sea coast, where they have been invited to play at one of those summer festivals that small towns in the South always have. True to form, they make the trip in a donkey cart, loaded with their instruments and a couple of tents. But this is the 21st century, so it is a solar-powered donkey cart with navigation by laptop.

The motto of the film is "La Basilicata esiste, è un po' come il concetto di Dio, ci credi o non ci credi." - "Basilicata exists: it's a bit like God: either you believe in it or you don't." At intervals they are stopped by patrols of Carabinieri police, who cannot get their heads around the fact that anyone in this day and age would be mad enough to do a trip of this kind. The journey (160 km - they opt for the long way around), takes several days, and occupies so much time that eventually they arrive at the music festival in the middle of the night about an hour after everyone has packed up and gone home. The band and their donkey are confronted with the stage, bare, windswept and abandoned.

The whole film is a sort of tough guy's version of John Lennon's Fool on the Hill. It is as lyrical as it is barmy. But at a certain point things go wrong. After 85 km, the intrepid band and their donkey arrive at the Lago di Pietra di Pertusillo, which translates literally as "the lake of the stone with the hole in it." This is a delightful spot greatly loved by the ancient Romans who, with much effort, patience and tenacity, conquered and subdued Basilicata. In their ignorance, our modern travellers take the southern route around this picturesque body of water. Indeed, they camp on the south side, totally missing what there is on the north shore.

Now I know Basilicata, something that few outsiders can boast. It took 15 years of hard work, tenacity, resilience, patience and persistence. This, of course, was nothing in comparison with the hard work, tenacity, resilience, patience and persistence of the people who actually live there (I tried to do that too, but the 1980 earthquake drove me out). It is a remarkable region. In the modern age it pretends to be very European, but in reality it is nothing of the sort, and neither is it Asian or African. Perhaps Basilicata is a figment of the Oscan imagination. The Oscans were a pre-Roman people. The Romans were not particularly welcome, and neither were the Saracens, Normans, Swabians, Anjouins and all the other invaders, up to and including tourists.

I know this: on the northern side of the lake there is a lush thicket of trees in which there is an abandoned building. It is modern, not ancient, and a faded sign proclaims it as 'Ristorante La Romantica'. Now La Romantica is a common enough name for a restaurant, but this one was quite different. Due to an incredible error, it was built back to front. The kitchen window had a magnificent view of the lake with its wooded shores and rippling sheet of water. In contrast, the dining room had a massive plate-glass picture window that looked upon the back yard where the restaurant staff stacked up crates of empty bottles before recycling them.

One summer there was a drought and the lake level slowly subsided. A curious spectacle emerged beneath the kitchen window. It was a heap of small bones. Alerted by a local resident, the NAS, police hygiene inspectors, raided La Romantica and promptly shut it down for six months. The staff so hated the customers (and animals) that they had been cooking and serving up cats and dogs. When the restaurant reopened, it did a lively trade made up of people who were curious about the whole story. I was one of them; but, of course, the popularity didn't last and closure came quickly. Paradoxically, the spot is more romantic as an abandoned building being slowly reclaimed by nature than it was as a back-to-front restaurant. And the people who made the film knew nothing of any of this.

The moral of this story hardly needs explaining. Look around you. We all think we know the answer. But perhaps what we fail to see is a back-to-front edifice that confounds our whole story. Cast your net wider, draw more inferences, look behind the screens of this life. You will be surprised at what lurks there.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Notre Dame Fire in Paris

As the cathedral is located in a congested space on an island in the River Seine, the 'convergence reaction' of emergency vehicles and equipment cannot have been easy to manage. On the other hand, evacuation and keeping the scene clear of unauthorised people would have been relatively easy. The fire underlines the need for metropolitan fire services to have long aerial ladders, something that was problematic in London's Grenfell Tower conflagration.

Donald Trump made a casual reference to aerial fire-fighting, sometimes colloquially known as 'water bombing' (although flame-retardant chemicals are used as well as water). France's Sécurité Civile organisation has 12 Bombardier CL-415 fire-fighting aircraft, each of which has a capacity of 6,140 litres of water or chemicals. They are based in the Midi, far from Paris, because that is where wildfires mainly occur. Fire-fighting aircraft with a capacity up to 12 times as large do exist, but they are not used in France. Apart from the time taken to load up with fluid and reach Paris, such is the air-speed and trajectory of a CL-415, that most of the fluid would not land on Notre Dame. These aircraft are built to tackle wide-area environmental fires, not urban conflagrations. Moreover, the weight of water when released could cause stonework to collapse - possibly onto fire fighters on the ground. The scoop-and-release helicopters used in forest-fire fighting would not carry enough water or provide sufficient continuity of flow to make much difference to a well-established fire that had generated large amounts of heat. For this, a constant jet of water is necessary, pumped over several hours or longer. Failure to cool down the embers can lead to a resumption of the fire.

Cathedral 'disasters' are not uncommon in European history. For instance, the nave of Utrecht cathedral was destroyed by a storm in 1675 and is now a piazza of open ground between the west tower and the surviving chancel. In 1349 the Black Death left Siena cathedral half-built. In the 13th century Wells cathedral was damaged by earthquake and was only saved from collapsing by an ingenious structural bracing system, the famous 'scissors arches'. We recall more easily the loss of part of the roof of York Minster when it was struck by lightning in 1984.

Thinking of the longer term, fire can be considered as part of the challenge of renewal.  French national pride, and the concern of wealthy people who want to support European civilisation, will ensure that the resources for rebuilding are made available. There is no shortage of artisans and experts in conservation and repair, especially in France. In fact, with modern methods, access to knowledge, science and training, restorers and artisans are probably better equipped now than at any time in the past. Digital finite-element modelling by engineers can accurately predict stresses and strains on a wrecked building. And, of course, everyone wants to help.

As the aftermath of the fire at York Minster reminds us, at Notre Dame stonework is at risk of collapse. Critically so are ancient painted glass windows, where they have survived. At York Minster, they waved backwards and forwards in the wind until scaffolding could be erected to stabilise them. Hence, a big challenge arises as soon as the ruins are cool enough to work in; a challenge of stabilising what is left. The bracing and buttressing of the mediaeval stone fabric of Notre Dame was arrived at by mason-architects intuitively, with a combination of over-design and under-design. It is now critically at risk of collapse until further bracing can be added. Bracing nowadays is both soft and hard: steel scaffolding and woven polymer bands are used. Much has been learned from post-earthquake consolidation work.

Painted and stained glass in Windsor Castle pays tribute to the fire fighters who fought to save the building during the conflagration of 1992. Similar images can be found in the windows of London's Guildhall, commemorating the work of London Fire Brigade during the Blitz of 1940-1, when the building was seriously damaged. Such cases remind one that major restoration projects are an opportunity, not only to recreate past work and make it safe to hand on to future generations, but also an opportunity to add something precious and creative.

Should there be any doubt about what can be achieved in reconstruction, the example to look at is the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which was built in 1726-43. The fire-bombing of the city in 1945 reduced this magnificent Baroque temple to a few unrecognisable pieces of wall. In 1993, after Germany had been reunified, reconstruction finally began. It was completed in the mid-2000s, using as many of the original materials as possible. This was a local, national and international project, meticulous in its planning and execution. That is how another Church of Our Lady was given back to the people. It can be done again in Paris.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Mon apprentissage - Il mio tirocinio - My apprenticeship - Meine Lehre


 We must all learn to write. Writing is our craft and our main means of communicating our ideas. Good writing can be judged by whether or not it is good communication. For many years I have advocated a particular technique to students. As they have never followed my advice, perhaps I am not communicating well enough. But let us not be deterred. If, gentle listener, you want to write well, consult the experts. Learn from them. This means that you must read widely and analytically.

In the inter-war period there were writers who understood their craft so well that they practised it with little or no pretension. When I write in Italian, I have to remind myself that a good literary model is as complex as it is elegant. Not merely balance, but poise must be achieved. The armoury includes present- and past-tense subjunctives, reflexives, engineering the position of clauses and sub-clauses vis-a-vis the stem, choosing longer, more abstruse words rather than shorter, simpler ones, always with the proviso that they convey elegance. By contrast, the simpler we make English, the better it is. There is an amusing reflection by J.B. Priestley that I was served up with at school many years ago. Its title is "My first article". He concludes, "I signed it pretentiously 'J. Boynton Priestley'" The essay recounts his mixture of pride and youthful ostentation at seeing his first, very modest effort published with all its vain attempts to appear cultured, literary and authoritative. How quickly he abandoned the smokescreen! In a later essay, "Making writing simple" he reflects: "Writing that was hard to understand was like a password to their secret society." 'They' in this case was a young group of writers who believed that readers should have to work hard, but without any valid reason why.

Consider this exchange between the authors of Lord of the Flies and For Whom the Bell Tolls. "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary." (William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway). Hemingway retorts, "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" Now who would you side with?

Another protagonist from that period was Eric Arthur Blair, nom de plume George Orwell. Besides the question of his name, he was not what he seemed in other matters as well. A visionary and a revolutionary in some ways, he lived a double life, Eton educated, as both an exponent and a critic of the British Establishment. Despite his identity crisis, he wrote some interesting tirades against the misuse of the English language, especially on how it had been hijacked by fascists (something that is happening again). To me, his prose always seems to mask a substratum of hysteria. Perhaps that is what we need nowadays in order to defend language, given that satire falls like water off a duck's back among the swelling masses of people who are unable to recognise irony, the shouting, cursing classes. To appreciate irony to the full you must have experienced the Baroque (as a culture, not an art form - see my book Confronting Catastrophe; I was much influenced by José Antonio Maravell, a Spanish historian of the Baroque).

On to other things. I learned the triple cadence from Montague Rhodes James, who was sometime Master of King's College Cambridge. James was a palaeographer and a great admirer of the work of Dickens. He never said he could improve on it, but linguistically he did, at least in my humble opinion. James's short stories are so good that I almost know them by heart. I read every one of them at least three times a year. In his non-fiction writing, by deploying the triple cadence, he could achieve balance, economy and precision (there you are, just like that!). The triple cadence is something that can convey extreme elegance or alternatively be a deadly weapon, depending on how one wants to use it. In language, it is power! I have used it to shoot down both published and aspiring authors.

Like Dickens, M.R. James could break the rules. Both of them were not scientists and so were liberated from many of the constraints of objectivity. Of course, we can all break the rules, but how many of us can do so legitimately? To break the rules and not be convicted for it, one has to understand them - fully and intimately (that, by the way, is the double cadence, a weapon of smaller calibre). One has to know which rules one is breaking and exactly how one is doing so. It becomes a game, but one played according to very strict rules (paradoxically).

Breaking the rules - legitimately - adds colour to prose. Arthur Conan Doyle, like Charles Dickens, did it all the time. Anthony Trollope, like John Galsworthy, never did it. M.R. James was the past-master of it, and nobody better demonstrated how it evokes an atmosphere or an emotion. But he was a palaeographer and understood language (English, French, Latin, Greek) down to the finest of its finer points. Claudio Vita Finzi was one of my mentors. He was Professor of Earth Sciences at UCL. His book The Mediterranean Valleys is worth reading for the spare elegance of the prose. He once confessed to me that he had developed an inadvertent fixation with the phrase "to throw light upon". He realised this when he found that he was stalking through his prose throwing light left, right and centre!

With all respect to Jane Austen and Regency fiction in general, the Victorian novel was the pinnacle of achievement. Whenever I pass down Via de' Tornabuoni in Florence, which is quite often, I cast my eyes up to the memorial plaque to George Eliot, whose real name was May Anne Evans. That is where she wrote her great fictional account, entitled Romola, of 1492 and the demise of Savonarola. Her masterpiece was Middlemarch. Consider this extract from a concluding chapter:-

    "It had taken long for her to come to that question, and there was light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining."

For me, this paragraph is the culmination of the book. It is masterly in its deployment of language, cadence, balance and idiom; speaking of which, I read that there has recently been an initiative to translate the classic authors from English into American. This involves substituting words with modern slang equivalents and selling the result as an e-book for 99 cents: the Walmart 'pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap' versions of Emily Bronte and Jane Austen. Bah!

Here is half a poem:-

First came cold wind, followed by lashing rain.
Scudding scraps of cloud disappeared into
Grey masses, which during the night went black:
Colours dense enough to strangle the eye,
To throttle hope.

Then up welled the water, trickling, gurgling.
Menacingly it lapped at the threshold
And it came in, kicked the door down, entered,
Slid along the corridor, pushed its way
Into the rooms.

No tap-water this; freezing and sullen,
Mud-laden, stinking of estuary,
It rose like a canker swelling with pus,
It sucked the life out of the house
And left it dead.

Dawn spread its pewter light over the scene,
Obscured it with a heavy cloak of mist.
Silently, the turgid pool of water
Intersected the street, foreshortened it,
Cut the houses in half.

Where was rescue, where was blessed relief?
Firemen in their oilskins wielding axes,
With Rule Britannia helmets, grim faces,
Dragging hoses, gamely struggling in mud,
Policemen in capes.

No boats, no hoses, no rescuers came.
The silent pond in the street lay waiting.
Blackly, a dead dog floated in the mire,
Time stood still, stunned by the onslaught, beaten
Into abeyance.

A monochrome story of post-War life
Was this, a grainy newsreel disaster.
Perhaps all floods are cast in black and white,
For the greens and blues of tranquil waters
Fade away in adversity.

What one struggles with in this is the transformation of imagery into words: how to convey insight by word-painting. It has to be done with strict economy of language. In fact this piece is written in a very ordinary five-beat Iambic pentameter (beloved of Dante and Chaucer), with a coda at the end of every quatrain. The coda, or tail, is designed to lessen the cantilena, to stop each verse from being tritely sing-song. The absence of rhyme does that as well. The whole puts the steel clamp of discipline upon thoughts in order to render their expression as imagery.

When the brother of Niels Bohr presented his thesis at the University of Copenhagen, an examiner said, "Sir, there is much in your thesis that is new, and much that is original. Unfortunately that which is new is not original, and that which is original is not new." Dr Samuel Johnson once demolished one of his critics with a similar epithet. It is a useful one to deploy with the typical run-of-the-mill science that one is forced to read today, but what about applying it as a test of one's own work?

Sometimes, reading prose is like going for a stroll in a field of barbed wire and concrete blocks. It is neither edifying nor satisfying. Perhaps the perpetrators should be locked up in a room for half an hour a day and forced to recite over and over again: "The cat sat on the mat". The - definite article; cat - subject and common noun; sat - verb; on - preposition; the - definite article; mat - object and common noun; no clauses or sub-clauses. All too often, unravelling syntax is like playing cat's cradle with a live snake. Remember: clarity of writing reflects clarity of thinking. Evidently, dear scholar, your mind is lost in a fog.

Language has a definite, formal structure. You cannot imitate it, you have to practise it. You cannot write what language "sort of sounds like". You must write according to the canons of proper practice. Language is communication. You need to stop miscommunicating. Precision, not blather, tells your story.

Too many in the academic world have no idea about how to improve their writing, or even why it is necessary to do so. To me it seems blindingly obvious. For a start, it is time to stop inflicting pain. The pain is not in the mistakes, which are numerous enough to be legion, it is in the breathtaking approximation. I find approximation insulting. It makes me feel worthless.

Read some Hemingway. He wrote in short sentences, full stop. This was good, full stop. It did no harm, full stop. His writing is respected and admired, full stop. It could be a model for yours, full stop. Hemingway, the mortal enemy of the clause (now tell me what rule I have just broken).

Learn the rules: for example, subject-verb accordance. Discover what a clause is and how to delimit it. Find out why you should not write sentences that are only clauses. Bad writing is a form of laziness. Never forget that.

If you want to read writing as it should be, try Colette's Paradis terrestre (particularly the part entitled Mes apprentissages). Even in translation (as Earthly Paradise), it sparkles with a rare clarity and beauty. The work is a fine illustration of the principle that clarity of thought is reflected in clarity of writing. It is the perfect marriage. (Sadly, Colette's unions were anything but.) Now there is someone who truly served her apprenticeship - and as a result became a national treasure. (Perhaps we should say the same of the translator). Reading Colette's intimate reflections on her own life shines a light on the way forward. It is not merely edification, it is a toolkit: a toolkit for you, gentle listener.

Appendix: a list of common errors in scientific writing in English
  • errors of common English usage 
  • failure to observe standard conventions 
  • wrong choice of words 
  • misuse of idiom 
  • absence of articles where they are required 
  • lack of prepositions where they are needed 
  • lack of synonyms, resulting in 'wooden' prose 
  • awkward, unbalanced and contorted syntax 
  • indiscriminate use of slang or excessively colloquial language 
  • clash or misuse of tenses 
  • failure to use the possessive case when it is needed, or misuse of it 
  • misuse of capitalisation (common and proper nouns) 
  • clash of singular and plural in the same sentence (subject-verb agreement) 
  • failure to  recognise collective nouns 
  • use of past progressive where the simple past tense is needed: 'was going' instead of 'went' 
  • lop-sided clauses without initial or final comma to delimit them 
  • missing hyphens in compound adjectives 
  • misuse of the present participle (e.g. 'going') 
  • wrong wording to introduce lists 
  • synthetic words with no real meaning 
  • starting sentences with figures 
  • misuse of contractions (an overly colloquial tone) 
  • starting a sentence with a conjunction 
  • a sentence without a verb 
  • missing function words (e.g. 'that') 
  • failure to recognise the plural form in Latin derivatives 
  • inadvertent legalese - ‘insurance policy’ prose 
  • writing a clause as if it were a sentence.