Friday, October 30, 2009


After working so late that I didn't get to the pub last night, I got home, poured a beer and put the TV on. Unsurprisingly, I found little of worth being broadcast, until I stumbled onto a programme on STV. Broadcast in Gaelic, it was documentary on traditional Gaelic singing, and featured two women - one young and in training, the other older and acting as tutor. The younger girl sang, unaccompanied, the most haunting song I may have ever heard - sparse, yet rich, rhythmically interesting, yet it flowed with such naturalness that every sound seemed utterly inevitable. Her voice was light, clear, but with a deep strength that was hard to define - tied to the land, to the sea, and a reflection of femininty in its purest form. That the song was in Gaelic, and I knew nothing of the literal meaning of the words, only emphasised the its content, and magnified its mysterious fairness. I sat transfixed, experiencing a beauty I've not encountered for some time. It recalled to me the words of Felix Mendelssohn that were recently brought to my attention. When he was asked "Do you write music to represent ideas that are too vague for words?" he replied "On the contrary - I use music to express ideas that are too precise for words."

Alas, this programme shortly ended, and was replaced by the monstrosity that is a live night-time phone-in roulette game. I went to bed.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ballad of Billy Kershaw

While on the subject of love and agape, here's The Ballad of Billy Kershaw, from the late Jake Thackray. As Yorkshireman and lifelong catholic, many of his songs (thought of typically as "comic") exhibit strong elements of humanism, and a reverence for the immanence of God within human behaviour.

He was small and baggy-trousered, he was nondescript and shy,

But in his breast there burned a sacred flame.
For women melted and surrendered when they looked into his eyes;
Little Billy Kershaw was the name, by the way,
He worked as a country ploughman, so they say.

Oh Lothario, and Casanova, and mighty Don Juan -
Those legendary goads of days of yore!
Billy was better with his eyes closed, on one leg and with no hands -
A trick that he could actually perform, by the way.
Spectacular, but dodgy, so they say.

He never did it for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the silvery laughter that it caused.

There was a difference in that Billy Kershaw never picked the best,
The beautiful, the golden ones that most men would,
But just the ugly ones, the poorest, the despised, the disposessed -
Where else would a hunchback get a cuddle, by the way?
Harelips can kiss, or so they say.

And so the shop-girl with the whiskers, or the limping shepherdess,
The squinting barmaid - her with the pocky skin.
Even the horse-like countess with the teeth and meagre breasts
That in fact had often harboured Billy's chin, by the way,
Haughty, but snug, so they say.

He never did it for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the common comfort that it caused.

Many a poor distracted Catholic, rating Billy over Lourdes
Came smiling down his staircase, all her frenzy gone.
And the husband, far from angry, would be chuffed that she was cured,
And buy him a pint in the local later on, by the way,
Horses for courses, so they say.

He responded to the Colonel's widow's desperate appeal
In the Colonel's house upon the Colonel's tiger skin.
In the potter's shop, the potter's wife upon the potter's wheel,
Which was steadily continuing to spin, by the way,
A right tour de force! Or so they say.

But never ever for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the passing happiness it caused.

But soon the news of Billy Kershaw and his life-enhancing powers
Became across the county widely known,
And by his cottage gate, the coach loads waited patiently for hours;
The drivers made a bundle going home, by the way.
Their caps were full of silver, so they say.

And the village did a roaring trade in teas and souvenirs,
In ash trays and the local watercress.
Until Billy, disillusioned, simply ups and disappears,
Leaving no forwarding address, by the way,
Could be anywhere at all, or so they say.

But it was not for the profit of it, not for the applause -
Only the consolation that it caused.

If there should be a sad, neglected, wretched woman in your life,
It could well be that Billy's near at hand;
Perhaps your auntie or your daughter, or your mother, or your wife.
And when did you last see your grandma, by the way?
No genuine case is ever turned away.

He's no rascal, he's no charlatan, no mountebank, no snob;
Whoever you are, he'll treat you just the same.
He is small and baggy-trousered, and he does a tidy job.
Little Billy Kershaw is the name, by the way;
He worked as a country ploughman, so they say.

But never ever for the profit of it, never the applause -
Only the common comfort that it caused.

If you find that Billy's ballad is extravagant, or trite,
Offensive, irrelevant, or untrue -
That may well be, but here's a moral which will make us feel all right,
A moral which may well apply to you, by the way:
Takes one to know one, as they say.

If you're ugly, if you're weak, or meek, or queer - form a queue,
And the rest of us will travel from afar.
And systematically we'll do to you what Billy used to do -
But more regular, and always twice as hard, by the way.
Mea culpa! Mea culpa! - as they used to say.

Thoughts on love

[This is a response to some thoughts posted by Miss Atomic Bomb following her completion of a book on romantic love. Thanks for these - the thoughts are interesting and insightful, and have spawned much thought of my own. As my ramblings on the subject are too lengthy to post as a comment, I post them here instead. I premise this by stating I've not read the book, but am interested to do so, and will post more on this subject once I've read it. Thus, these comments may turn out to be irrelevant or a misinterpretation on my part.]

It seems to me that "love," as defined by this book, is not really "love" at all. I guess I'm not clear one exactly what "romantic love" is in this context.

People often disambiguate lust from love, but this is insufficient - especially as lust has come to represent mostly physical (sexual) attraction. There is an equivalent attraction - one which is selfish (as in it is based around the desire of the lover, rather than care for the beloved) - but is not based around the physical. Instead, it is an attraction to be with them, to be in their company - perhaps to laugh and flirt with them - a lust of personality. It is something that has, at times, been differentiated by the concepts "to love someone" and "to be in love with someone." There is all the difference in the world to say "I love you" or to say "I'm in love with you." For the sake of clarity (by avoiding the duplication of the word "love") I call the latter phenomenon infatuation. It is not to be confused with what the author (I think) describes as adoration - which is remote, distant, and absorbed in the thing itself (to "love being in love", one might say). I don't think it is fair to describe love as an emotion. It is not something you feel. One may feel "in love," but one actively "loves." Whilst these things (lust and infatuation) are components of, and paths toward, genuine romantic love - they are in no way synonymous with love itself. Perhaps, in that sense, this book is really about infatuation, rather than love. But, if that is the case, then I'd argue the difference ought to be clearly stated, to avoid confusion over such statements as "I love you," and to avoid the devaluation of the greater and constructive force that is genuine love.

All those initial feelings that are usually described as "love" ought not, in my opinion, be so labeled. Love is something very specific. Sometimes I say "I love you." Sometimes "I adore you." Sometimes "I worship you." Sometimes "you look beautiful," sometimes "I fancy you" or sometimes "you look hot." All have different meanings. "I love you" is the most powerful of these, however - for it is focused on the beloved, and expresses a thing which is not "emotional," not fluctuating, not dependent on the lover and his/her surroundings. There can be situations where I cease to adore, cease to find beauty, have diminished sexual drive - but I do not cease to love. Take an external situation - say being within a burning building with your beloved. Feelings of adoration, attraction and desire all necessarily fade, but the feeling of love intensifies. In such a scenario, one would chose a course of action that reflects that love - to put the beloved before oneself, without thought or hesitation.

I think there need not be such a strong separation between romantic love and agape - they are both selfless, and focused on the good of the beloved (or recipient), rather than the fulfilling of some need in the lover. Genuine love delights in the beloved - in their very existence. The delights of fulfilling desire for that person is quite secondary to that dancing in the soul that is induced simply by experiencing the revelation that they exist. To thus equate romantic love with lust and infatuation is to devalue it. Romantic love is exceptional, as it contains two very powerful quantities: it has the potential to be all encompassing (by that, I mean that all aspects of attraction, desire, friendship, companionship, comradeship and intellectual stimulation are possible within the relationship) and it is equal (there is no hierarchy or imbalance of dependency). It is this uniqueness that makes it valuable, and that also induces fear and reluctance to love completely.

As for the nature of duplicate loves - I think duplicate infatuation is inherently possible (and it is perfectly clear that duplicate lust is possible). But love, by definition, puts the beloved first. If there is more than one beloved, one necessarily and inevitably has to rank them in some way, or at least make choices between them, thus compromising the love. Two concurrent loves divides the capacity to love, rather than duplicates it (again, infatuation and lust can both be duplicated). One can, of course, draw parallels between this and the love for children - where one parent may love several children equally. But this is a parallel that can be only taken so far: love for children is an imbalanced love, in some way like the love of a pet - there's an imbalance of dependency, and of responsibility. Again, romantic love is one of equals.

I recall an old film (probably pre 1950) that I saw when I was probably around 12 years old. In particular, there was a scene on board a large, grand ship (perhaps a Cunard ship crossing the Altantic). There were two girls on the ship - a blond and a brunette (of course!). Two guys were talking, admiring the girls from the deck above, and one of them asked the other "If the ship went down, which one would you save?" Being produced in height of the Motion Picture Production Code years, this was probably written in place of the direct question "which one would you sleep with?" that would be screened without thought in the modern era. Of course, the answer to this could easily be "both." But, as is so often the case when speech is restricted, the act of engaging in the dance with the censors spawned art of greater subtlety. Instead of making this question one of desire (simply answered) it brushed on something deeper. Of course, you'd probably desire to save both, out of pure humanity if nothing else. But, given the situation, you'd have to choose whom to aid first. Love requires choice. [I know all this is rather dated and sexist - assuming the girls can't swim or something - but I hope you can look past this to see the deeper truth being illuminated.]

I also think the heavy weighting and repeated common reference to the honeymoon period is ill-founded (or, at least, ill-applied). I can only understand this from a superficial view of desire. Of course, there is strong desire (both sexually and in desire for personality) in the initial stages of a relationship which, in principle, can decay over time. However, it need not - for interest is spawned from variety, and variety need not diminish with a single lover. Passion need not fade. We need not be "let down." Instead, lovers may grow together, becoming increasingly attuned to each others' personality and sexuality, becoming increasingly adventurous and experimental. Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy, a story of youthful desire and infatuation. Their youthfulness and death was a reflection on juvenile desire - it was never a monument to genuine romantic love.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

They say it changes when the sun goes down

This week has been dark, and this weekend a strange mix of introspection and relief. Having spent the weekend in York, going to pubs serving delicious Belgian brews, cafes selling delicious crepes and waffles, and being around normal people wearing normal clothes, enjoying living - I contemplate Paisley, its run-down streets, the population of neds, and my mind keeps returning to these lyircs (from the Arctic Monkeys):

Though they might wear classic Reeboks,
Or knackered Converse, or trackie-bottoms tucked in socks,
But all of that's what the point is not -
The point's that there i'n't no romance around there

And there's the truth that they can't see;
They'd probably like to throw a punch at me.
And if you could only see 'em then you would agree,
Agree that there i'n't no romance around there,

Don't you know? It's a funny thing, you know
We'll tell 'em if you like - we'll tell 'em all tonight -
They'll never listen, because their minds are made up.
Of course it's all OK to carry on that way.

Over there, there's broken bones
There's only music so that there's new ring tones
And it don't take no Sherlock Holmes
To see it's a little different around here.

Much of Paisley, and the inhabitants within, is depressing - decaying, and as ugly as sin. But that's not all there is to this town - a town which predates Glasgow, in fact. Paisley sits in the shadow of some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever witnessed. And Paisley contains some hidden gems - bastions of what once was, and what might be again. There are still local butchers. There is a picture framer, I recently discovered just around the corner from where I live - a talented, friendly and professional establishment, framing and selling quality pieces. And there's Sandy - Her Majesty's Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland, based in the University - a champion of romanticism, and a friend of the Nuclear Group.

There is, in fact, hope.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Physics by the seat of the pants

I've long considered myself a 'seat of the pants' physicist, and have tried explaining the concept to a number of people. One way of putting it is to say I'm a 'first-order' sort of person. But that's not quite it. Another is to say that I have 'a feeling' for the physics, but that sounds like a pile of new-age bollocks. It's just that - sometimes - I know what the answer will be before I've worked it out. So, unless I have to, I don't bother working it out rigourously.

Today I came across these words of Feynman, who (of course) put it far more eloquently than my amateurish attempts:

"Mathematicians, or people who have very mathematical minds, are often led astray when 'studying' physics because they lose sight of the physics. They say "Look, these differential equations - the Maxwell Equations - are all there is to electrodynamics; it is admitted by the physicists that there is nothing which is not contained in the equations. The equations are complicated, but after all they are only mathematical equations and if I understand them mathematically inside out, I will understand physics inside out." Only it doesn't work that way.

What it means to really understand an equation - that is, in more than a strictly mathematical sense - was described by Dirac. He said "I understand what an equation means if I have a way of figuring out the characteristics of its solution without actually solving it." So if we have a way of knowing what should happen in given circumstances without actually solving the equations, we 'understand' the equations, as applied to these circumstances. A physical understanding is a completely unmathematical, imprecise and inexact thing, but absolutely necessary for a physicist."