Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Joe McElderry may be our only hope

No matter how puppy-dog the eyes of Joe McElderry I wasn't planning to buy the X Factor single, which I didn't even particularly like all those months ago when it was a Miley Cyrus single. However, I have bought it, simply in the hope that I can help keep bloody Rage Against the Machine off the Christmas no. 1 spot. I really really hate Rage Against the Machine; they're a symbol of all the worst tendencies of teenagerhood. Back when I was a youth I remember they had an album cover/t-shirt with a picture of a Tibetan monk setting himself on fire. This used to annoy me hugely; you really can't put someone killing themselves gruesomely in protest against genuine political persecution on a cheap t-shirt and use it to sell music to self-dramatising self-satisfied suburban indie boys as if this made them rebels too, or at least you shouldn't be allowed to, or at least the idiots who wear the thing ought to take a deep breath and get some sort of perspective. It's like when Kula Shaker started wearing swastikas. Idiots.

Not to mention that the Rage Against the Machine thing is all being driven by Facebook, which I also hate. Although it is quite interesting to follow, from the point of view of one who doesn't need to worry about it, the attempts of Facebook to monetise by selling information, and the protests of the Facebookees, and the reactions of Facebook as it withdraws part of what it has just done or puts some small opt-out tick-box somewhere buried in the site's settings. (There are links to info about it from this page: "Is this Facebook's 'Microsoft Moment?'".)

If you too hate 80s rock and Facebook then you could join my 'campaign' and download the Joe McElderry single. It's less than a quid and it's not like you have to listen to it -- I'm certainly not going to. In the meantime here is some different music:

Monday, 14 December 2009

Manuscripts and identity

I've been rather saddened recently to see that a little Psalter in Edinburgh which may once have belonged to St Margaret of Scotland is being touted as the Scottish Book of Kells. Now I've never actually managed to see it, but I have got a copy of the facsimile and some high-grade images, and I included it in my Margaret book. It's a cute little thing, only about 130 mm by 85 mm in size and with lots of bright little initials, but calling it the Scottish Book of Kells is a bit like calling Birmingham England's Venice. Birmingham's OK, but Venice is startling, and comparing the two sounds like a joke at England's expense. We, especially the English with our colonial history, ought to take Scotland's early medieval heritage more seriously than that: Scotland's Book of Kells is either irrevocably lost, or it's the Book of Kells -- it's actually quite likely that that manuscript originated on the island of Iona.

On the other hand, although it's a shame if one has to make these sorts of comparisons in order to get people interested, I suppose I shouldn't grouch about it; of course I think this stuff deserves more serious treatment, I've spent years studying it, and I shouldn't turn up my noses at those who haven't. Take something I know a bit about but not much, say the Rosetta stone, and then tell me that some object is the Rosetta Stone for pre-Columban Mayan hieroglyphs or something like that, and my attention will be grabbed even as the experts are finding themselves annoyed at all the ways that it's not like the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone has become cultural short-hand for a key that unlocks past written cultures, and the Book of Kells has become short-hand for a beautiful book with alien decoration, for "don't underestimate these people just because they lived a long time ago".

The little Psalter in question actually seems to me to have a very interesting significance which has, understandably perhaps, been glossed over by the promotion for the exhibition it's in. The main body of the Psalter is in a beautiful script of the sort written in Ireland and Scotland, a development of the early Insular scripts found in the Book of Kells among others (only it's a minuscule, e.g. lower-case, script, not a majuscule or upper-case one). It has decorated initials for the start of every psalm, made of interlace and beast bodies, and it has lots of little coloured initials at the start of verses. Psalters, especially ones from the Irish world, tended to split the 150 psalms into three sets of 50, and had decorated pages to start the 1st, 51st, and 101st psalms. The first and third of these decorated pages are missing (this is really common in medieval manuscripts) but the second shows a fascinating development. All you can still see of the original is a rectangular frame with interlace corner pieces; the rest has been completely erased and replaced with some English decoration in a Carolingian style, roughly datable to the eleventh century, probably late. And this is why the manuscript is associated with St Margaret; because she is the person who, with the best of motives, was at work in late eleventh-century Scotland making it more English/Continental. St Margaret was married to King Malcolm, or Máel Coluim, i.e. Malcolm Canmore from the end of Macbeth. Malcolm's first wife was a Scandinavian woman called Ingebjorg, and their sons were called Domnall and Donnchad (respectively pronounced Dovnall or Donall and later to become the name Donald, and pronounced Donnakha and later to become Duncan). Malcolm and Margaret's children were called Edward, Edmund, Athelred, Edgar, David, Alexander, Edith and Mary; not one seems to have been given a Gaelic name. The girls were educated in England. When Malcolm, Margaret and Edward all died suddenly within three days of each other, the younger children had to flee from the subsequent anti-English backlash. Consequently David, who later became one of Scotland's greatest kings, grew up at the English court, where his sister Edith/Matilda was queen, and became a vassal of the English king for huge estates in East Anglia before eventually succeeding to the Scottish throne. After that the heir to the Scottish throne was always a vassal of the English king. If you're a die-hard fan of things Gaelic Margaret is not the most positive of figures. This diminishing of Gaelic culture can't be seen as anything other than a terrible shame, even if you find Margaret an endearing figure as I do, and that picture in the little Psalter in Edinburgh provides a very literal symbol of the erasure of almost the whole of something Gaelic to replace it with something blandly English.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Televisual entertainment.

1. I continue to enjoy BBC2's School of Saatchi (subtitle: This is what's wrong with Modern Art). The subtle digs at Saatchi are getting slightly less subtle, which is appealing. In the last episode they had to put some art in a stately home. Saad, who is an egocentric monster but has occasional good ideas, made an installation of 2000 chapattis as a gift to Lady somebody, the chatelaine. He sent one through the post in advance, which by the time she received it had turned into a circle of green and brown mould. I don't know if he was referencing the famous precursor of the Indian mutiny, where Indians used the sending of chapattis as a means of freaking out the British ruling classes, but unfortunately I rather suspect not. Still, the whole thing had very sinister undertones. Also I'm totally expecting that Eugenie, who is very pretty and who has all the judges wondering whether she's a talented artist or a talented chancer, will turn out to be a plant from the Daily Mail. Good stuff.

2. Misfits is entertaining too, in a trashy sort of way.

3. The only other thing I'm watching at the moment is the X Factor, which is one of those things which you don't actually enjoy but find yourself watching anyway. It's only bearable if you follow the various live tweets and the comments on the Guardian's X Factor Live Blog. Of course I want Joe to win, but now that John and Edward are out it's very dull even if the actual quality has improved, and now that Danyl has gone there's no hate figure.

4. All these programs have only one episode to go, which may be for the best.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Things that are good

I was sitting in the Wren library yesterday looking at one of the most beautiful books in the world, Trinity College MS B.10.4 (214). It has these amazing attenuated gold Rustic Capitals which actually wring my heart. I can't quite work out why; mostly I think of beautiful things being slightly painful because of their transience, like the little sticky leaves in spring, or mist on the fields in the morning. But the Trinity Gospels have survived for a thousand years so far, and will look exactly the same when I'm archaeology. Odd.

Anyway, another sort of good: here are some fantastic Japanese robots. You don't actually need to be that muscly to play ping pong.

Plus this is Alejandro by Lady Gaga, produced by RedOne. I love music where the bass sounds like it's on the other side of a door.