Wednesday 28 December 2011

Festive Horror

So that was Christmas and we now face the long haul through to the spring. It is sobering to contemplate that it will not really be warm enough to plant out a marrow seedling until June - nearly six months away, for heaven's sake. However, I draw comfort from the fact that, even though the worst of the winter weather is likely yet to come, you can already see the days lengthening!

My picture above shows the gloomy reality of these shortest of days taken at 3.40pm while I was exiled from the house as the recording of Downton Abbey was played back. Because that festive horror was so long I had time to penetrate far into the woods and take this snap earlier on the walk... doesn't look like much but actually there are about forty deer in the picture as you can just see from this blurry close-up...

Having avoided Downton I decide to give its writer Julian Fellowes another chance by watching his 2009 film "The Young Victoria" which is on the box. The actors do their best but can't make anything worthwhile out of the wooden script which patronises the audience by oversimplifying the subtle development of the young queen.

Her real passion for young Albert, which was truly a great romance, becomes voyeuristic and banal in this film. But the final straw comes when Albert is gunned down by a would-be regicide so that young Vic can nurse him back to health. This of course just didn't happen as the attacker missed completely and the royal couple were unhurt. The writer evidently felt he needed to spice up his plodding plot but in fact the story could have been much more exciting if based on the true story - but it would have to have been well-written.

There is a valuable story about mental illness here too. The assailant with the gun was Edward Oxford who was apprehended immediately and you might have expected him to be harshly treated for his offence. But the 1840 court looked at the case carefully and concluded that he was not guilty because he was mentally ill. He was locked up in hospital but treated well. He was released from Broadmoor some years later and went abroad to make a decent life for himself. There is little doubt that he would have been treated worse today (I mean in judicial terms), between the predictable hysteria about the monarchy and the merciless refusal of the modern justice system to accept that mental illness can be a clear and full defence (see this post).

Sunday 25 December 2011

Dave the Slave

Happy Christmas! That's for everybody but a special mention for Hafal Members and others with experience of serious mental illness and for Hafal staff and volunteers working today.

A year ago I mentioned the publication at the same moment as the first Christmas 2010 years ago of Ovid's Ars Amatoria. It occurs to me that it would be appropriate to note how the seasonal festivities were being celebrated across the Roman Empire at that same time.

No, I haven't had a chronological brainstorm. It was customary 2011 years ago for citizens to attend a carol service with readings, go home and exchange presents, and then overindulge in food and drink in an age-old celebration of the birth of the state religion embracing rich and poor alike. I refer to the annual Saturnalia which culminated in late December and dated back some further hundreds of years. The carol service was at the temple of Saturn but otherwise the whole festival would have been recognisable to us today.

One distinctive feature was a role reversal where masters waited on servants or slaves (a custom which persists in some aristocratic contexts today). There are a few reports of this curious activity from antiquity and, if you listen very carefully, you can even hear the slave's point of view from all those years ago...

The poet Horace's slave Davus (let's call him Dave) got his say one Saturnalia two thousand years ago, getting permission from the famous Augustan poet ("Use the licence granted by our ancestors each December to say what you want") to retaliate after years of listening to his master boasting, whinging and pontificating to his friends at dinner parties. Among many well-judged accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy Dave offers these (my loose translation from Satires 2.7):-

• You constantly complain that everything was better in the good old days "when men were men" but if you actually had to live then you wouldn't have been able to survive.

• When you are in town you go on and on about how much better the country is...and vice-versa.

• If you haven't had any invitations to parties you bang on defensively about how you prefer your own company and the simple life at home but, if you actually get an invite from a rich friend, you charge around hysterically shouting at us to get your clothes ready to go out.

• You scoff at my simple love life with a lady of the night from down the road but what about your furtive affair with a married woman? And who is the slave here when you have to run around meeting her every unreasonable whim?

• In summary, how sure are you that you are worth more than the 500 Drachmas you paid for me?

At this point Horace shut him up forcibly, threatening violence and regretting ever letting Dave speak his mind. Specifically Horace threatened Dave with transfer to work in the fields of his farm in the country - away from his girlfriend and no doubt a lot harder than serving as a butler in the poet's town house. But... fact Horace was a decent chap, the product of the surprising social mobility of those days - his father was a freed slave - and he enjoyed a relaxed and friendly relationship with his servants both in Rome and at his little Sabine farm (pictured in winter above).


What's a Greek urn? About two Drachmas a week. More to the point how much is 500 Drachmas? Dave was evidently a Greek as he refers to Drachmas but a Drachma was essentially the same as four Roman Sesterces. 2,000 Sesterces wasn't a lot for a slave (a healthy girl might fetch 8,000) but was still twice the annual salary of a soldier (who would be a Roman Citizen). But that wasn't a great deal - they signed on for the adventure and to escape grinding poverty. Maybe the best point of reference would be the price of the local wine which Horace - and undoubtedly Dave - would have been drinking at the time of their little exchange. It cost about one Sesterce a litre so Dave was worth about £10,000 in today's money.

Monday 19 December 2011

Running Dogs of Capitalism

Not all the actions of the brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il who died today were absurd. In particular I note that he put the Welsh King of England Henry VII's portrait on one of his postage stamps - something not yet done in the UK in spite of the wily old usurper's canny construction of the modern state, ending the chaotic Mediaeval era decisively by imposing systematic taxation and central control of the legal system.

The first Tudor is overshadowed by his son Henry VIII but deserves much more attention. His claim to the English throne was tenuous in the extreme, partly relying on his grandfather's's marriage to the widow of Henry V but more especially on his mum (Lady Margaret Beaufort, a dour evangelical who founded my College among other good works) who descended from an illegitimate son of John of Gaunt - so, you are right to be puzzled, he had no serious legal claim.

In fact he probably had a better dynastic case, based on relationships with several Welsh princely houses, for being the last plausible "Mab Darogan", the mystical "Son of Destiny" awaited by optimistic Welsh people with a mission to expel the Anglo-Saxons from these islands, following in the footsteps of King Arthur and Owain Glynd┼Ár.

Indeed he made much of this when he landed in Milford Haven, raised the banner of legendary 7C Welsh King Cadwaladr, and went on to thrash Richard III at Bosworth with many Welsh soldiers in his army including Carmarthenshire hard-case Rhys ap Thomas who struck the infanticidal last of the Yorkists dead with his pole-axe as he was looking for a horse. Henry even called his first son Arthur in the spirit of redeeming Welsh honour but of course the lad died young leaving his widow Catherine of Aragon second-hand (and so contrary to the Book of Leviticus) to his younger brother...the rest is (more familiar) history.

By coincidence I am presently reading the first substantial biography of Henry for many years The Winter King which my Mum has given me for Christmas (I couldn't resist opening it before the big day). It's looking good, offering a balanced view of the old chancer whom I can't help liking.

The Korean stamp (above) uses the best portrait of the monarch in the National Portrait Gallery which is unusually life-like for its time (and seemingly accurate - it compares very closely with his death mask). He looks like what he was: cunning, pragmatic, anti-war but prepared to fight for his own, and intelligent, a contrast to his son's pompous and megalomaniacal portraits and those of many of his dim royal successors. He also looks like a particular type of Welshman with his thin face and narrow, inquisitive nose - a bit like the late, great comedian and crooner from up the road in Ammanford Ryan Davies (see below).

If you are wondering why the North Koreans put Harri Tudur on their stamp then I'm afraid I have no idea. Maybe Kim thought that Henry's successful thwarting of rebellions led by those running dogs of capitalism Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck would send a message to anybody thinking about questioning his position? On the other hand it is difficult to imagine Kim treating a rebel as Henry did Simnel: the generous king pardoned him and put him on a rehabilitative work scheme - turning the spit in the royal kitchen.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Meretricious Tosh

Can mental illness inspire great art? This was not a matter I meant to address when I went to Cardiff yesterday but, while Mrs Blog completed the Christmas shopping, I popped into the National Museum to look at a temporary exhibition of David Jones (1895 - 1974) and the question got an answer of sorts.

Welsh visual arts in modern times have mostly comprised soulless, homoerotic or Soviet-style schlock portraits of the "heroic working man", equally soulless and alienating landscapes often including barbed wire, and some third-rate conceptual projects. Boring!

Jones is an exception. His watercolours and occasional oils show intimacy with the Welsh landscape, inviting your engagement and exploration. He has a unique and instantly recognisable style which merges drawing and painting in a striking way. And he uses colour freely to convey mood, delightfully unconcerned with realism.

And yet...

Jones is not a great painter. He got bogged down with spiritual and mythic stuff which lost him valuable focus on simple themes. His work does not develop over his career. In short his pictures all look like the early work of a very great artist. Jones' poetry similarly showed great promise but that promise was never fulfilled.

Why is that? The answer seems to lie in Jones' service with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in particular at Mametz Wood, where an entire division of Welsh volunteers with no experience and worse equipment and leadership fought for five grim days during the Battle of the Somme (1916).

It is said that many who served in the First World War lost their youthful innocence in the carnage and came home older than their years. But horrible suffering doesn't help young people grow up. It was a common experience in the forward positions on the Western Front to hear wounded and dying comrades crying out to their mothers to come and help them. Many never grew old because they died there but many others were unable to move their lives forward into maturity because they were traumatised by their experience.

Jones came out severely damaged. He clung to his parents who helped as best they could; he sought out father figures like the sculptor and typographer Eric Gill; he had several break-downs and spent long periods unable to work at all; he could not relate successfully to women, causing him life-long unhappiness (he several times illustrates sexuality as a woman lifting her skirt coyly - surely the product of an Edwardian school-boy's imagination not that of an adult?); like others trying to come to terms with their war-time experience he turned to a half-baked spirituality; and photographs of him in old age show a mixture of anguish and boyish innocence.

Great art requires groundedness and accurate and truthful observation, things which mental illness obstructs. This doesn't mean that people who experience mental illness can't be great artists: Vincent van Gogh proves that point but then he was clear that his illness was a hindrance not a help (see this post).


Following these sombre reflections and a satisfactory ingestion of raw fish at Yo Sushi we use the Orange Wednesday 2 for 1 deal to see the new flick "My Week With Marilyn" about the making of the feeble and lumbering comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957). This is based on Colin Clark's highly suspect "memoir" of working with Ms Munroe in which we are asked to believe that she relied heavily on his moral support and intimate friendship. She goes skinny-dipping with him and lets him sleep in her bed - chastely we are relieved to observe because otherwise this adolescent fantasy would have gone too far.

Young Colin's job was actually to fetch tea for Laurence Olivier and the other actors and I doubt he got more than a few polite "thank yous" from the then Mrs Arthur Miller. I suppose he was jealous of his older brother naughty Tory grandee Alan Clark about whom you just couldn't make it up (see
this post). The film is meretricious tosh but quite fun for all that.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Earthy and Graphic

I am on holiday and refusing to write about mental health...

My old employer Swansea Sound's weather lady got it right this morning as I heard while running in the gym: "I'm sorry but I can't sugar-coat it - the weather's going to be AWFUL". I found out how right she was when I went outside to swim. And they hadn't put the cover on the pool last night so it had virtually frozen. Is this neglect because ubiquitous smiling beardie and inexplicably popular hippy-capitalist Richard Branson recently took it over? The staff are too busy painting everything red.

The water was bitterly cold on the first length but it got worse as I swam back, this time right into the 50 mph wind which blinded me with a blast of hail. I recuperated in the Jacuzzi feeling I had earned a bacon sandwich at Forte's in Bracelet Bay where I head after mooching for a couple of hours in Swansea town centre.

The sea looks quite calm in Swansea Bay but as I turned the corner past the twin rocks of Mumbles head I could see the rolling high seas beyond. Very cosy eating my lunch with a hot cuppa while looking out on the storm through this old Italian caff's picture window.

Time to reflect that Mumbles is of course so named after the two above-mentioned, breast-like rocks - possibly from the French "mamelles" or Latin "mammillae" but I think from an older Celtic coinage - you won't find a more universal root than this onomatopoeic representation of breast-feeding. We can only hope that Thomas Bowdler, the infamous and much-ridiculed censor of Shakespeare who lived here for much of his life, was unaware of this etymology and so went about his business unembarrassed in the village.

My favourite bowdlerising is in Iago's report in Othello (Act I, Scene I) transforming "I am one, sir, that comes to tell you, your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (Shakespeare) to "...your daughter and the Moor are now together" (Bowdler's "The Family Shakespeare"). Nothing could better illustrate the contrast between the earthy and graphic Elizabethans and the (somehow grubbier?) 19C prudery - so much is conveyed in that coy evasion "together".

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Sarky Celebs

I'm off on holiday at the end of this week until the new year - catching up with holidays not taken because of my time-(mis)management during the year. I had thought of jetting off to warmer climes but finally agreed with Mrs Blog that we'd rather stay at home and chew the fat. In the teeth of my grumpy and sociopathic tendencies Mrs B has organised or agreed to a series of social events through the festive season which is no doubt better for me than holing up with a book or three for the duration which would be my first instinct.

I give notice that I'm not going to post any worky blogs now until 2012 as I have found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that doing this when I'm off duty does tend to drag my attention back onto professional matters at the expense of the fun and games which should be the order of the day when you are on holiday. It's a "work-life balance" matter - though I hate that term as it implies that work is not a part of your life which is a rather sad way of looking at it, even if on a bad day it might feel that life doesn't begin until 5pm!

I think I might also have to stop watching the news in order to lower my blood pressure. It is not raised by the international financial crisis so much as by the cynical parade of sarky celebs attending the Leveson Inquiry in order to whinge about press intrusion. We are being softened up by these egotists and by the politicians (the most vocal of whom seem to have had their own embarrassments with the press over expenses and other matters they'd prefer us not to know about) for significant restrictions on freedom of speech.

In fact the excesses of the press such as phone-tapping, belligerent door-stepping, and buying information from the police are matters for which there are already legal remedies - they are crimes. If anything we need to take action to protect freedom of speech in the light of the outrageous use by the rich and powerful of super-injunctions and libel laws to shut people up (remember Bob Maxwell?).

Freedom of speech is vital to the protection of poor and vulnerable people - not least people with a mental illness - because the bullies and scoundrels who would like to exploit them are fearful of exposure. In return for this it is a small price to pay if the occasional wealthy film-star or sports supremo is put off his breakfast by some tittle tattle in the paper about his private peccadilloes.

Friday 2 December 2011


The Office for National Statistics has cheered everybody up today by publishing the first official study into how happy we are (see the story here). This works in two ways. People who take the study seriously take heart at the fact that three-quarters of us seem pretty happy thank you very much; the rest who think it's a pointless farce for the government to spend money in this way are enjoying satirically the fatuous commentary and daft conclusions being drawn by pundits from these meaningless statistics.

Individual citizens know much better than government what happiness really means to them and would prefer to be left to work things out for themselves. Least of all do citizens need mental health organisations (yes, including Hafal) to start telling them how to be happy; and government would do better to concentrate on its duty to assist those who really need help by reason of their mental illness.

We already have a potent means of telling politicians whether we are happy - through the ballot box. Meanwhile we should all take time to share with each other what makes us happy and to start the ball rolling I will mention squid tempura, fried foie gras slices with piquant cold pickle, and this. I'm not proud.