Uncanny Allusions: Pratchett and Shakespeare. 
Wednesday, February 13, 2008, 03:45 PM
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In Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies the wizard Ponder Stibbons has been exploring the magnetic effects of a mysterious stone circle:

“Rocks! Why am I messing around with lumps of stone? When did they ever tell anyone anything?’ said Ponder. ‘You know, sir, sometimes I think there’s a great ocean of truth out there and I’m just sitting on the beach playing with … with stones.”

Ponder, who is by temperament more of a scientist than a wizard, is inadvertently quoting Isaac Newton.

"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

But perhaps there is a still more interesting allusive dynamic at work here. This novel centres around the performance of a play which is clearly the Discworld equivalent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ponder’s (overt) allusion to Newton might in fact be a (more buried and covert) allusion to a very famous speech from Shakespeare’s play, itself yet another allusion.

What are the characteristics of Ponder’s words? They express a yearning for something beyond his own world couched in words which are (ironically and reflexively) a kind of message from beyond his own world – from our own – although admittedly they have been somewhat garbled in their journey to Discworld.

A similar expression of yearning and wonder in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also expressed in words which are, like Ponder’s, an allusion to a text the character shouldn’t be able to access, not because it exists in a parallel universe but because it hasn’t yet been written.

“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was”. (4.1.209-12)

These are Bottom’s words as he tries to articulate the wonder of his ‘dream’ encounter with Titania. They are also a confused version of Paul’s Letter to Corinthians in which he describes the power of the Holy Spirit.

The speech’s effectiveness as an allusion is not limited to the fact that both Paul and Bottom, in very different ways, are describing something beyond normal human experience. It is not simply the content of the allusion but the fact and nature of that allusion which is significant. Bottom shouldn’t be quoting from the New Testament as A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set long before the birth of Christ. Like Ponder’s quote from Newton, the Bible’s presence in ancient Athens is almost uncanny.

Both allusions, Ponder’s to Newton and Bottom’s to Paul, express an appropriately reflexive longing for hidden knowledge, other worlds. Both Bottom and Ponder are approaching the barrier which separates them from us.

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Murder at Anglia Ruskin: John Harvey's Gone to Ground 
Saturday, January 19, 2008, 01:19 PM
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Slightly irked by a recent article in Spiked (see previous post). After criticising a ban on Google and Wikpedia by a Professor of Media Studies at Brighton University Patrick West commented that this was ‘a mickey mouse position if there ever was one’.

This kind of prejudice – and West cheerfully asserts later in the article that ‘personally I’m in favour of elitism’ – reminded me of the recent publicity given to an A Level blacklist of supposedly ‘soft’ subjects which universities such as Cambridge look on less favourably than traditional subjects such as Maths and English. (It’s fine to take one of these blacklisted subjects, but no more.)

I can’t completely distance myself from (some of) the implicit prejudices at work in this list – I’d be instinctively more impressed by English, Maths, Latin than by English, Sports studies, Art. And at least Cambridge and co were being honest.

But I do think such prejudices help maintain private school/middle class domination in Russell Group Universities because pupils from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to be encouraged to take mostly traditional subjects.

And the values attached to subjects are surely shifting and relative. 100 years ago English would have been seen as a very soft option whereas now it is respected. Today Media Studies is perceived in a similar way when it seems (so far as I can judge) quite as demanding as English.

Given the prejudices against both newer subjects and the newer universities they are associated with, it was good to read John Harvey’s thriller Gone to Ground recently. There are lots of Oxbridge murder mysteries but in Gone to Ground the murder victim was a lecturer in film at my own Department at Anglia Ruskin University.

The only other books I’ve read set at Anglia are Tom Sharp’s Wilt novels (when the University was still CCAT). These depicted the lecturers as frustrated low achievers. But John Harvey’s murder victim represented a pleasing advance on this negative stereotype of the poly lecturer – instead he was a self absorbed, pretentious, intellectual workaholic - a stereotypical old university style academic in fact.

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Marxism Today? Civilization IV and Spiked 
Monday, January 7, 2008, 08:14 AM
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I haven’t had a particularly cultured Christmas. When not eating and drinking I’ve mostly been surfing mindlessly on the internet or playing computer games. By far my favourite computer game is Sid Meier’s excellent Civilization IV, an addiction which dates right back to 1991 when the original Civ I appeared.

This empire building strategy game requires the player to take charge of an emergent nation and nurture it from the Stone Age to the Space Age, trying to make sure it dominates the AI players in the game through its culture, technology or (most fun option) military might.

Essentially ruling your civ is meant to mimic life. Thus theatres make your people happy, war makes them grumpy (unless you win quickly) and overcrowding makes them ill. You also have to choose how you govern - there is a complex array of ‘civics’ from which to choose. Some are more expensive than others and some make your people unhappy.

Because all civics have concrete effects the game necessarily has an implicit ideology. Interestingly in the original Civ you weren’t allowed to go to war on a whim if you were a democracy. That rule has been changed, presumably to keep up with reality.

I’ve always been intrigued by one element of this (American) game. Throughout its manifestations Communism has always been an excellent civic to choose. You might expect Communism either to be economically unproductive or make people miserable but it does neither. Environmentalism, by contrast, is a lousy civic in my experience.

Perhaps the game designers have been reading Spiked, a supposedly Marxist publication with a contempt for environmentalism. I think I found my way onto this online publication via reading Frank Furedi whose pieces (in the THES) I always find congenial. Spiked, edited by Brendan O’Neil, l is a curious publication. Although it is an offshoot of the defunct Living Marxism, Spiked often reads like the (conservative) Spectator and many of its favourite targets - nanny statism, censorship and ecofascism – are positions associated with the left.

I’m in two minds about Spiked. I like its maverick approach and lively style. But although, taken individually, its articles are refreshingly independent, taken collectively Spiked soon becomes predictable. Everyone who writes for it seems to have exactly the same extremely clearly defined views on topics as complex and diverse as the environment, abortion, euthanasia, censorship and humanitarian intervention.

But it’s worth a look ...

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The Anglia Stratford Trip 
Saturday, December 22, 2007, 07:48 AM
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It's been a busy month. Alex had hardly come back from his week in Japan before I was off to St Andrews for two days (to examine a PhD). After a one night stopover back home in Cambridge it was off to Stratford for the annual Anglia Ruskin theatre trip.

I get anxious when I'm away from home. Will Alex give Susannah (7) liqueur chocolates for her school packed lunch again? Judging by the condoms he thoughtfully placed in my wallet (calculated to fall out at most embarrassing juncture) Alex gets anxious too.

The trip was a great success. David Slinger was a memorably grotesque Richard II in a production which brought out the play's wit and black humour more than its pathos. I particularly enjoyed seeing Henry IV (both parts) - Geoffrey Streatfeild's fetching Hal was a great hit with our (mostly female) party.

Watching the fake death of Falstaff made me wonder whether there were any links between these plays and Walt Disney's Jungle Book. The fat bear Baloo is a Falstaffian figure who encourages Mowgli into a life of irresponsibility, hedonism and excess. Like Falstaff he distracts Mowgli from his true heritage, encouraging him to enjoy a carefree jungle life rather than embrace his destiny in the man village. The most striking point of contact comes when Baloo (again like Falstaff) pretends to be dead following a pivotal battle near the end of the film.

Back to the play - I'm normally rather sceptical about Hal but Streatfeild convincingly projected a character motivated by moral integrity rather than Machiavellian cunning. For the first time I actually looked forward to his rejection of Falstaff - the justice of it pleased.

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Mr Solmes from Clarissa/ Soames Forsyte 
Sunday, December 9, 2007, 08:14 AM
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As most of the characters in The Forsyte Saga share the same surname everyone has to be identified by his or her Christian name. However Galsworthy’s most unappealing character doesn’t seem suited to this intimacy which is perhaps why his given name sounds more like a second surname, Soames.

I wonder whether Galsworthy had Richardson’s Clarissa in mind when he fixed on this particular name. Clarissa is driven to seek Lovelace’s protection when her family puts intolerable pressure on her to marry the repulsive Mr Solmes. Irene is actually married to her Soames but is intent on escape from a similar atmosphere of claustrophobic repression

Soames and Solmes are united by their ability to inspire repulsion in each novel’s refined heroine. Both are grasping men, obsessed by material wealth. Both are rejected in favour of more dashing, creative (and socially transgressive) men. However Soames’ marital rape of Irene of course associates him with the other man in Clarissa’s life, Lovelace.

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