Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Life immitating art...poorly

That video is of 'Possente, possente ftha' from the first act of Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. It takes place at the temple of Vulcan where the high priestess performs a ritual dance in order to prepare Radames, recently chosen by the god Isis to lead the Egyptian army, for battle against the Ethiopian invaders. It is one of my favourite bits of the opera and for an opera that is so markedly in the Italian style, this seems the most Egyptian. In all probability the Ancient Egypt of Aida is not remotely close to reality as it fulfils our more Western fantasies of military conquest and sexual exploit. That's all rather uninterestingly obvious but what is more interesting is how it makes us to relate to Egypt today.

Gustave Flaubert died about ten years after Aida was first performed, the same year that the Suez Canal was opened which seems more than a mere coincidence considering who it was that commissioned the piece (the Khedive) but any link is denied. When he visited Egypt he commented that it 'seemed like an immense stage set made expressly for us'. I may be guilty of over-interpretation but I take that to mean he found Egypt to have the characteristics of a set, a caricature, over the top and just unreal. On the other hand the American music critic Gustav Kobbe saw Aida as the real deal saying that it was 'as distinctively Egyptian as if he [Verdi]...had unearthed examples of ancient Egyptian temple music'.

There is a wonderful book by the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans called 'Au Rebours' which roughly translates to 'Against Nature'. It centres on the life of this reclusive aesthete called Des Esseintes. In one of the most notable and amusing of the novel's episodes the protagonist decides to visit London so he studies the maps, and readies himself for the journey. When he reaches Calais he stops and has lunch in an English cafe along a quayside, he is served by English waitresses, drinks warm beer and eats pies. After this experience rather than go ahead with the journey he returns home, he feels he has experienced the best that England can offer and by actually going to London he would condemn himself to a bad time, it could only be a failure.

I don't want to go to Egpyt, I know that makes me sound as mad an aesthete as Des Esseintes but I prefer the Egypt of Verdi, the reality could only be a disappointment.

Thursday, 22 November 2007


I get a number of Americans visiting this website who have usually stumbled across the website while searching for something I've mentioned in passing or for something quite specific which google has taken keywords from a number of different articles and assumed that what I have to say is somehow pertinent for what has been searched for. Anywho I certainly don't have anything pertinent to say about thanksgiving as I simply know nothing about it except that it seems like Christmas part one but without the gifts.

Here is a parting thought for the season:

Friday, 2 November 2007

Train travel

This evening I took the train from London up to the romantic Yorkshire town of Doncaster, and if you're not from England then please take the word romantic in it's most sarcastic sense. For years I've associated Doncaster with one thing, Thorpe Marsh power station. As you drive South down the A1 motorway you know you've reached Doncaster as you see the hideous row of six cooling towers visible for many miles around. The reason I was travelling is that I am spending the weekend with my father, a necessary chore due to the proximity of his birthday -- that is my story.

On the train I don't really like to be disturbed as it's a great chance for reflection. Reflection of a country you don't know, of the things that plague your thoughts and of your fellow passengers. At other times life goes on around you and you are so caught up in your own affairs that you give them no thought but on a train, or even better, on a plane you're all heading the same direction, for one moment in time you are a bit part in the plot of a story you don't know. I like to dwell on the possible stories of the people in my carriage; the eldely couple in the seat adjacent to my own could be on their way to spend a weekend with their grandchildren or perhaps escaping away to celebrate an anniversary; the young professional looking woman in front with the horrendously vibrant pink I-pod and the black attache case be off on a business trip to sell the idea of her new line in fluffy hippo shaped chamois monitor cleaners to the buyers of a Northern department store. Most likely, at 7pm on a Friday evening on a train leaving London they are commuters heading home after a hard day at work but then that's not my story so why make it theirs?

I got off at Doncaster as I mentioned before, but that was not the first stop, the previous one was Grantham. Marcel Proust liked to read train timetables, especially late at night if he could not sleep and thanks to his severe problems with asthma there were many nights when he could not sleep. He was even said to have enjoyed a train timetable more than a good book and to a certain extent I can see his point as when you have little more to go by than a name and a time you can't help but fill in the blanks yourself and there is little which has a greater aesthetic effect on you than that which you have helped create as nothing engages you more. Cumbria is a good place to start in England if you want romantic sounding names, try Aspatria, Whitehaven , Bassenthwaite, Appleby-in-Westmorland. I don't live in Cumbria, alas, and the only thing to fire my imagination is Grantham which sounds hard, industrial and bleak. I don't know anything about the place but I know I don't want to go there.