Monday, 8 October 2018

Alan Garner at Jodrell Bank

A post from the archives: Alan Garner's lecture, "Powsells and Thrums", February 2015

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!’

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Night She Dreamed of Being a Dental Assistant

I won't even go into what else has been happening in the past week, but two notable things occurred in the world of science. Firstly a Cern physicist, Alessandro Strumia – who really looks young enough to know better – was suspended for making the deliberately provocative claim that "physics was invented and built by men”, that "men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people" and that there is "a difference even in children before any social influence" can take place. The lofty heights of physics, he implies, are not for women.  

Secondly, in one of those serendipitous coincidences, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a woman for the first time in 55 years. Canadian physicist Donna Strickland is only the third woman winner of the award, along with Marie Curie, who won in 1903 and of whom presumably even Professor Strumia may have heard – and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a theoretical physicist who was awarded the prize in 1963 for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.

Let me show you something.

I’ve been saving this horror up for some time. It’s an educational ‘Wonder Book’ for children, published in the USA in 1959 with the laudable intention of reducing the childhood terror of going to the dentist. It’s full of cosy, colourful pictures and there is a total lack of any drama. As a nine-year old kid who once leaped out of a car to avoid a visit to the dentist, hid from my parents in bushes in a park and subsequently caught the bus home on my own, I can appreciate this aim… but let us follow Kathy and Clifford on their adventure.

On page one, Clifford – who looks about six – loses a front tooth. ‘Everyone, including Clifford, laughed.’ This is only a baby tooth, but it prompts Daddy to tell Clifford he should put the tooth under his pillow, ‘and maybe there will be a present there in the morning’. (There will be a shiny new dime, though no mention of anything frivolous like tooth fairies). And Mommy remembers, ‘It’s time we saw Dr Moyers to have Clifford’s teeth checked. It would be a good idea to have Kathy’s teeth checked too.’ Notice how Kathy is an afterthought and everyone is looking at Clifford. Everyone looks at Clifford on the cover illustration too. And below, Kathy looks on as Clifford discovers his dime...

A week later, the children and Mommy arrive at the dentist’s. “Who is this pretty little girl?’ asks dental assistant Miss Turner. “This is my daughter Kathy,” says Mommy. “She is three years old and Dr Moyers is going to examine her teeth too.” Even though Kathy is for once the subject, in the picture Clifford is still the focus of attention. His hand is out, and since he is speaking to Miss Turner, it appears very much as though she is looking at him while Kathy stares up, dumb.

Miss Turner wears no glasses to greet the children, but she has to put them on for work, no matter whether close-up or distant – because wearing glasses makes a woman look serious. Here she is in one of only three pictures in the book in which Kathy is the focus. Even then it's not entirely clear whether she's looking at Kathy, or her notes. 

Clifford is the first to go in. He sees ‘a bright sparkling room with all kinds of wonderful machines.’ American hero Dr Moyers smiles and shakes hands with Clifford in a man-to-man fashion. ‘Sit down in the chair,’ he says, ‘and I’ll give you a ride.’ Clifford climbs into the chair with a giggle, ‘pretending that he was about to blast off in a space ship.’ 

In the next few pages, Dr Moyers carefully explains to Clifford everything he is doing. He finds a small cavity.  Then he asks Miss Turner to take an X-ray or six, finds a second cavity and decides to remove two more baby teeth to allow Clifford’s adult teeth to grow straight. He gives Clifford advice on dental hygiene. Miss Turner mixes the dental cement. In the left-hand picture, below, the 'space' references are clear. The X-ray pictures look like an antenna while Clifford is the astronaut in his chair.

Pretty soon Clifford has two more teeth in his chubby little hand. He looks thrilled. Two more shiny dimes!

Now it’s Kathy’s turn. Although she’s only three, Dr Moyers still takes X-rays of her teeth, but they are perfect (at three years old you’d hope so), so all he needs to do is polish them. 

Kathy doesn’t fantasise about space ships or notice shiny machinery, but she does wish she had a ‘toothbrush with a motor’ at home. Dr Moyers provides more good advice on daily dental hygiene (‘Brush your teeth in the morning, then right after meals and before you go to sleep’) and the children trot off, happy to have been given new toothbrushes and medals ‘for being good patients.’ Notice how the artist makes Clifford look straight at the reader with a cheerful gappy grin. Kathy admires her good conduct badge with sweet expression and lowered eyes.

Though this book does a good job of carefully explaining dental procedures to children, it is very much of its time. The thing that really gets me, though - and the reason I feel this book is pernicious - comes on the last page where we see the children snuggled up in bed after their adventurous day,  Clifford in the foreground, of course. “That night,” the story continues:

That night, Kathy dreamed she was a dental assistant. She helped with the X-rays and developed the pictures. She mixed cement and silver for the fillings. She got the instruments ready for the Doctor.

"She got the instruments ready for the Doctor." This is a book in which the little boy is older, the little girl younger. The boy sees exciting shiny machinery and imagines himself a spaceman. The little girl imagines herself a dental assistant. The boy has to be brave, have teeth drilled and extracted, is rewarded with dimes. The little girl follows in her brother’s footsteps and nothing particular interesting happens to her. The insidious, subliminal message would have sunk into the perceptions of children of both sexes, manipulating, and in the case of girls limiting, their expectations.

The book is nearly sixty years old. I feel sure the people who put it together felt fine about suggesting ‘dental assistant’ instead of ‘dentist’ as a possible career for a girl, even though women had been getting medical degrees in the States for 110 years already, ever since Elizabeth Blackwell's in 1849. They didn't see that. It wasn't relevant. Even on the cover, the male Doctor is in the foreground, his attractive female assistant remains in the background, smiling and supportive. This was the kind of myopic cultural fog in which most women over the age of fifty grew up and its effects are quite clearly still with us. The events of this week along with many another - just yesterday I heard a Conservative Party donor, Lord Ashcroft, speak unthinkingly of  'the voter and his family' - show how far we still have to travel. For it's certain that Lord Ashcroft is not alone in thinking of a voter as a man. A man and his vote, a man and his family.