Friday 27 March 2015

Alan Garner at Jodrell Bank

The Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank

The lecture ‘Powsells and Thrums’, delivered by Alan Garner at Jodrell Bank on Wednesday night, was the first of a series designed to consider the nature of creativity and its importance to what Garner maintains is an arts/science spectrum – not two cultures, as CP Snow suggested, but a continuity. Powsells and thrums, he explained, are old words for the oddments of thread and scraps of cloth left over from weaving and kept for personal use: metaphors for the scraps of story and oddments of meaning which can be woven and pieced together to create something new.  Which is exactly what he did in his lecture.

I’m not going to try and deliver a comprehensive report of the evening.  Alan Garner spoke with wit, humour and quiet eloquence for a full hour, and I hope and trust the lecture will eventually appear in print. With many omissions, these are merely some of my impressions and memories of it – powsells and thrums, snippets and fragments which you can turn about and reshape for yourselves.

He began with a story from the introduction to Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. Thomas tells the story of a shepherd who, asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: ‘I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t!’  Thomas adds, ‘These poems are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damned fool if they weren’t.’

Mow Cop

How does a story come into being?  In 1956, ‘rummaging in a dustbin’, Garner saved a fragment of newspaper containing the story of two lovers who quarrelled. The boy threw a tape at the girl and stormed off. A week later he killed himself. Then she listened to the tape: it was an apology but also a threat: if she hadn't cared enough to listen to it within a week, he would conclude she didn’t love him… Nine years later, Garner heard a local story – dislocated from history – of Spanish slaves being marched north to build ‘a wall’, who ran away and found refuge on Mow Cop. Could this be a folk memory of the vanished Spanish Legion, the Ninth Hispana? Then there was the chilling history of the Civil War massacre at Barthomley Church, and finally in 1966 some graffiti at Alderley Edge station: two lovers' names and beneath them, written in silver lipstick: ‘Not really now, not any more.'  Powsells and thrums: ‘Why should those words bring together all the other items? They come looking for us, or that’s the feeling.’  And so: ‘Red Shift’.

It’s not mysterious, Garner insisted. Creativity, he said, requires intelligence, which is linear and deals with the here and now – but also intuition, which is not under conscious control. Creativity is not polite: ‘It comes barging in and leaves the intellect to clean up the mess.’ Creativity, he said, is risk, and ‘without risk we can only stay as we are.’ What he proposed to give us would therefore be a collection of oddments, powsells and thrums: ‘stories rather than lecture, but woven to an end.’

‘Art interprets the inexplicable.’ The age of the universe is thirteen and a half thousand million years. How do we understand such numbers?  The intellect cannot help. We must turn to stories, such as this:  Far, far away there is a diamond mountain, two miles high, two miles wide and two miles deep. Every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the top of it, with two little strokes: whet, whet! and flies away.  When by this process the entire mountain has been worn away to the size of a grain of sand – then, the first second of eternity will be at an end.

In 1957 Alan sat in his ancient farmhouse, Toad Hall, looking across the fields at Jodrell Bank’s recently completed Lovell Telescope and turning a ‘black pebble’ in his hand – a 500,000 year-old stone axe. ‘The telescope was moving – alert. It was watching a quasar… I needed to know the telescope.’  He went to see Bernard Lovell, taking with him another axe, three and a half thousand years old, beautifully polished and shaped with a hole bored through it for the haft. (Where did he find these axes? I should love to know.) With the words ‘I have something to show you,’ he dropped the axe on Lovell’s desk. ‘This is the telescope.’

Sir Bernard gave him a pass, understanding what he meant.  

The axe is the forerunner of the telescope.

On their own, science and art hold piecemeal truths. The Garner lectures are designed to ‘repudiate the schism’ between CP Snow’s two cultures. They are part, said Garner, of what he and his wife have called ‘Operation Melting Snow.’ And, he said, ‘Sir Bernard was ahead of me. Risk taker, cosmologist, churchgoer, parish organist,’ Lovell was so distressed when the telescope was used for military purposes that he considered becoming a priest – but was dissuaded by a bishop who told him he’d be more use where he was because ‘creativity is prayer.’  And prayer, Garner said, is ‘a dialogue with the numinous. And we must give it form.’  

It is impossible to look at the Lovell telescope as it in its turn looks into the deep past, and not feel a shudder of the numinous.

Science and art, the warp and the weft: both are needed to weave the fabric of human understanding.

Garner suggested we all instinctively know what is meant by a good place: a place of refuge from which we can look out in safety. His home, Toad Hall, is a ‘good place’, which is perhaps why the spot has been continuously occupied for 10,000 years. Lucky are those who have roots in such places. But also there are ‘bad places’: the valley of Glen Coe for instance, a certain church, a house in Cambridge which he enters only with reluctance.  ‘And I defy you to be at ease in a multi-storey carpark.’

‘A businessman from an ancient culture said of California, “Even the light is a Hockney painting.” The land is our life force. Artists magnify the land.’ Wordsworth and Hardy interpreted and magnified the landscapes of the Lake District and Wessex with their intensity of vision. ‘Art makes people feel.’

Human beings need both refuge and prospect. We may have become human on the Pleistocene savannahs, standing up on two legs to find food and to spot danger. We recreate our places of refuge and prospect even in suburban homes and lawns. From our places of refuge we interpret the world with stories: from them we look outward, questioning, questing, looking towards ‘a different sort of pebble, waiting to be chipped.’ 

Art complements science, and science, art. ‘Zealots of all kinds block progress.’ 

Vishnu sat on a mountain top weeping. Hanuman came by. ‘What are you crying for, and what are those little ants of people down there, rushing about?’ ‘I have dropped the jewel of wisdom, and it has shattered. Everyone down there has grabbed a splinter, and each of them thinks they have the whole.’

And so at last the evening comes to an end. ‘I sit in the house in the wood, and watch the telescope and tell the stories...’ Alan Garner takes a breath. ‘I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t!’

Thursday 5 March 2015

The Devil at the Centre of the World

The Flammarion engraving, 1888, artist unknown
“Medieval people thought the world was flat.” Well, no they didn’t, not educated people at least (and after all there’s still the Flat Earth Society today, whose members appear to believe that the moonshots were a hoax, though it’s hard to tell how many of them are simply having a bit of straight-faced fun.)  And there were plenty of educated medieval people.

Mind you, the early medieval Norse did – theoretically – believe in a sort-of flat earth. They imagined middle earth surrounded by an encircling ocean, with Yggdrasil, the World Tree, growing up from its centre. Even then, the delving roots and high branches of Yggdrasil evoke layer upon layer of other dimensions. But this poetic, mythic explanation of the universe was unlikely to have been applied in any serious way to the voyages the Vikings made, which were guided by careful observation of landmarks and ocean currents, of drifting seaweed and circling gulls, of the migration of whales and the position of stationary clouds over land.

The Ash Yggdrasi by Friedrich Wilhem Heine

I suspect pragmatic Norse sailors performed that simple human trick of being able to believe two incompatible things at once: religio-mythic descriptions of the universe were one thing: the sea route to Greenland was quite another. In my book ‘West of the Moon’, the storm-driven Norse sailors of the knarr ‘Watersnake’, sailing across the North Atlantic, argue about their position.

“What if we miss Vinland altogether and sail over the edge of the world?” Floki piped up, conjuring in every mind a vision of the endless waterfall plunging over the rim of the earth.
“Showing your ignorance, Floki,” said Magnus.  “The world is shaped like a dish, and that keeps the water in.  Ye can’t sail over the edge.”
“That’s not right,” Arne argued.  “The world’s like a dish, but it’s an upside down dish.  You can see that by the way it curves.”
Magnus burst out laughing.  “Then why wouldn’t the sea just run off?  You can’t pour water into an upside-down dish.”
“It’s like a dish with a rim,” said Gunnar in a tone that brooked no arguments.  “There’s land all round the ocean, just like there’s land all round any lake.  Stands to reason. And that means so long as we keep sailing west, we’ll strike the coastline.” 

West of the Moon, HarperCollins 2009
Gunnar is wrong, of course, but in a practical sense he’s also right.  Sail far enough west from anywhere in Europe, and you’ll strike the American continent somewhere.  And Arne’s right too in his observation of the curvature of the world’s surface - obvious to any sailor who sees the land rising out of the sea as he sails towards it. In  Canto II of Dante’s early 14th century ‘Purgatorio’, the boat bringing the souls of the saved to the island of Purgatory rises above the horizon as it approaches: Dante spies the tips of its guiding angel’s wings before the boat itself is visible: Mars reddens through the heavy vapours, low in the west over the waves at the coming of dawn, so a light appeared… coming over the sea so quickly that no flight equals its movement, and when I had taken my eyes from it for a moment to question my guide, I saw it once more, grown bigger and brighter.  Then something white appeared on each side of it, and little by little, another whiteness emerged from underneath it. 

My Master did not speak a word, until the first whitenesses were seen to be wings… and it came towards the shore, in a vessel so quick and light that it skimmed the waves.

(trans. A.S. Kline © 2000)

The Greeks of the 4th century had discovered that the world is a sphere, a fact which was commonsense observation and no news to most medieval people, including churchmen.  However, commonsense observation can also deceive.  With their own eyes, medieval people could see the sun, moon and stars turning around the earth.  But as C. S. Lewis points out in his indispensable book on the medieval cosmos, ‘The Discarded Image’, this geocentric view of the universe didn’t necessarily mean they thought the central Earth was the most important thing in it.  To get a genuinely Euro-medieval view, you have to turn your ideas about the cosmos inside out.  The eternal, unchangeable, holy realms were all out there, beyond the circuit of the changing Moon.  The sun and moon and stars and planets all turned around the earth, set in crystal spheres, making heavenly harmony as they went.  This is why Lorenzo exclaims to Jessica in ‘The Merchant of Venice’,

Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angels sings....

From The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
My 12th century Welsh heroine Nest, in ‘Dark Angels’, expresses it with the aid of a mural painted by her dead mother:

“See this picture, how beautiful it is?  A map of the whole of Creation! Mam painted it herself.  I used to sit on a stool eating nuts and watching her.”
She pointed.  “Look, here’s the Earth in the middle, like a little ball.  All around it is the air.  Above that, the Moon.”  She traced a line up the wall.  “Next, Mercury and Venus.”  Her finger landed on a fiery little sun with a human face, crackling with life.  “Here’s the Sun.  Then Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, spinning around and around the Earth, all of them set in crystal spheres, each one bigger than the last!  Then, this dark blue circle with the stars painted in it – that’s the Fixed Stars, all turning around together. And then the sphere that makes them all move, and beyond that” – her finger burst through the last ring, like a chicken pecking through an eggshell – “Heaven.”
She drew a deep breath.  “That’s where my mam is!  Outside the universe.  Safe with God.”

Dark Angels, HarperCollins 2007

There’s a grandness of imagination to the medieval design of the universe, which for centuries worked well as a mathematical model – it takes into account huge distances, but on a human scale.  Humans are small, living on a world that is tiny compared to the vastness of the Primum Mobile, the sphere of the First Mover - but not scarily insignificant.

Chaucer’s Troilus, in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ (written mid 1380’s), ascends to the seventh sphere after his death and looks down:

…And down from thennes fast he gan avise
The litel spot of erthe, that with the sea
Embraced is...

Hell was of course located underground, at the centre of the earth – where Dante and his guide Virgil find gigantic Satan buried up to the waist at the very bottom of the funnel that is Hell – and have to turn around as they climb down his hairy body, to find themselves ascending as they pass the midpoint of the world.  Dante narrates:

[Virgil] took fast hold upon the shaggy flanks
and then descended, down from tuft to tuft
between the tangled hair and icy crusts.
When we had reached the point at which the thigh
Revolves, just at the swelling of the hip,
My guide, with heavy strain and rugged work
Reversed his head to where his legs had been
And grappled on the hair, as one who climbs.
I thought that we were going back to Hell.

But Virgil explains:

...When I turned, that's when you passed the point
to which, from every part, all weight bears down.

(trans: Allen Mandelbaum)

Satan, by Gustave Doré

I’m struck dumb with admiration at Dante’s utterly fantastic feat of imagination here. He died in 1321, and it would be over 350 years before Isaac Newton worked out his theory of gravitation: people observe things, and can deploy them for practical purposes, long before they can adequately explain them.

Of course, the medieval universe also included another underground world besides Hell. Tinged with a whiff of the same infernal smoke - with a suspicion that the back door might lead much deeper down - in shallow caves and holes and hollow hills was the kingdom of Elfland…

But that is another story.