Outside of my ‘circle of competence’

Tablet 5

Here is another tablet from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s extensive collection. Dating from the 20th-19thC BC, the tablet is of a type used by the Assyrian merchants to track the income and expenses generated by caravan shipments, which traded in a range of goods transported by donkeys which were themselves valuable goods which formed a key element of the trade.

So: led by donkeys. You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Many years ago, in a secondary school art class, we were asked to do a painting on the theme of transport. My favourite band at the time were ‘Yes’ and I plagiarised a painting of three cone-shaped planetoids hanging in space from the inner-sleeve of the ‘Yessongs’ triple-gatefold, on the spurious grounds that it represented space travel. As I was putting the finishing touches to my masterpiece, Mr Cawood disappeared into the storeroom and reappeared with a poster-sized catalogue of Roger Dean’s artwork that featured the very picture I had just copied. I was mortified, but instead of just admitting the obvious, I blustered the excuse that yes, I was a fan of Yes and had been inspired by Roger Dean, but didn’t have that particular album and the resemblance was just coincidence. It clearly wasn’t, but a mix of misplaced pride and deserved shame kept me from admitting what was obvious to me, to my teacher and to my classmates, and I even elaborated unnecessarily on the story with some nonsense about the rock-like structures actually being futuristic spaceships or something. It wasn’t for an exam or coursework or anything, and artists are continually drawing inspiration from the work of others and even doing direct reproductions of the subject matter and composition of others’ work, and I had adapted Dean’s work to make it fit the transport/spaceship theme. We hadn’t been specifically told we couldn’t copy someone else’s work or ideas, so I wasn’t breaking any rules. I even believed my own story, and felt angry and indignant, as well as humiliated, that Mr Cawood had confronted me in front of my classmates, and that they were taking the Mickey out of me for being ‘rumbled’ by him. This turn of events stung all the more because only the week before I’d been praised for my ingenuity and sensitivity when we’d been asked to interpret the transport theme in clay, and while others made crude models of sports cars and other mechanical conveyances that aren’t readily suited to the ceramicist’s art, I’d fashioned a rather lovely pair of feet.

I was reminded of this when reflecting on Dominic Cummings’s No.10 rose-garden performance, his stuttering, pause filled responses, and the look on his face under questioning. At the time, like many I’m sure, I was literally putting my hands on my head and screaming ‘What? You did what?’ when he told us he’d driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. I am predisposed to despise Cummings for a variety of reasons, and over the past few days I have composed, in my head, what could have been a monumental essay on the dangers he and his ilk pose to our society. At times I have fantasised that I could whittle my thoughts into one of those social media posts that goes viral, and I have thought of all the approbation that would bring: the admiration of my friends, the congratulations of strangers sympathetic to ‘the cause’. But then I have thought of the vituperation of the trolls, the angry threats by direct message, and the silent contempt of those of my family and friends of a more conservative persuasion. And I am paralysed. Cummings needs to go; those who are directly or indirectly victimised by his ideas and those of the Tory ideologues need to have their voice heard and amplified. But who am I, I comfortably off, middle-aged, middle-class, Oxford educated white guy to weigh in with my hypocrisy? When people share posts showing ‘the media’ – that frenzied mob attacking poor Dom outside his house – crowding together without thought of social distancing to get their picture or quote, when all he did was, in his mind, seek to ensure the safety of his child (and I can actually believe he believed that’s what he was doing), then although it seems obvious to me that it’s not a fair comparison because they are not people with power helping to drive policy and decision-making, I can’t, in good faith say no more than ‘that’s different’ in response to their whataboutism. But any response that might make a difference takes effort, time, and perhaps above all empathy, and when I feel angry and hurt and indignant, that’s difficult to find.

There is a problem with Cummings, and it isn’t primarily that he drove 260 miles to Durham when most of us were staying at home regardless of circumstances. It isn’t even that he told a stupid and implausible fib about ‘testing his eyesight’. In his circumstances – as I did in that art room – I may well have done the same. The real problem with Cummings is easy to overlook in the hot air of the media fire-storm, but fortunately (though you might not know it from looking at Facebook) the media is still more than face-mask comedy and clickbait memes. There are plenty of places you can see evidence of this but if you’re genuinely interested in Dominic Cummings, this might be a good place to start: https://members.tortoisemedia.com/2019/09/18/190918-cummings-and-i/content.html?sig=V3ep8Di90VEsADMEg8fZ7UUHeKwBE-FtKNLriRS7hGY

Or you could go directly to the words of the man himself. Since long before anyone had heard of coronavirus, I’ve been reading Cummings’s blog. I was talking about it with my son, now himself a Civil Servant as it happens, at Christmas. You might have heard about it yourself now, as his editing of a post about the risk of pandemics to include a reference to coronavirus that wasn’t previously there, has made the news. The blog is fizzing with really interesting ideas, many of which I think deserve to be at the heart of government thinking and decision making, such as the importance of evidence-based decision making and the contribution that things like AI and machine-learning could make to more effective governance. I find much of what Cummings writes convincing, and much of what I have, after further thought and reading come to find unconvincing, I nevertheless find seductive. I can really see the appeal of Cummings to the class of people that constitute the current Government, perhaps because I am a cigarette paper’s width from being like them. But go and read, carefully, the most recent post on Cummings’s blog, written shortly after the Conservative government was returned to power (https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos/) and if you don’t begin to see serious dangers in having such a person at the heart of government, with the influence he clearly has, then come back to me and we can talk substance. Spoiler: it’s not the ‘weirdos and misfits’ thing I have a problem with.

Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady

I was perhaps a little too young when punk came along for it to work its full effect (as some of my later choices will attest), but its energy and iconoclasm did manage to reach beyond its urban heartlands and into my pre-teen consciousness. Aged I suppose nine or ten, I began to tag along to a Christian youth fellowship my sister Jill was involved with (weirdly, in retrospect, it was called ‘Snuff’, which really does sound punk, but actually stood for ‘Sunday Night United Friendly Fellowship’). There I developed one of those brief infatuations with someone older that is entirely platonic, but nevertheless life-changing. At the same time that I was being lured onto the shoals of God-bothering by newly written ‘choruses’ by the likes of Graham Kendrick that have since become staples of bland mainstream worship, I was being tossed in the turbulent waters of a pre-pubescent identity crisis to the soundtrack of The Members, The Membranes, The Stranglers, The Sex Pistols and — most importantly both at the time and for my eventual preferences — The Buzzcocks. My mentor was a guy called Andy Brennan. He was a lot older, and already working, I think. I copied as many of his affectations as I could: wearing no socks, and having my housekey and wallet strung on a shoelace tied to my belt loop. I couldn’t procure any velcro fastening trousers (“Much easier for taking a leak,” he told me in the public toilets of a Lake District car-park on a Snuff hiking trip), but (on the photo that is currently my Facebook profile pic) I did wear a tartan shirt emblazoned with a Buzzcocks button-badge and a nappy pin.

At first I was oblivious to the significance of the cultural rupture that punk (supposedly?) represented, but I started to get the hang of it when I proudly showed Andy the blue vinyl 12” of Mike Oldfield’s disco-influenced ‘Guilty’ that I’d bought, and he laughed right in my face. Soon I was buying punk singles from the racks in Slater’s, alongside the kettles and radios and vacuum cleaner spares, attracting reprimands from my sister for having the Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ (‘she ain’t no human being’) cover on display (“What will mum and dad say? That’s just disrespectful”) and tittering with schoolmates over lewd and crude Stranglers’ lyrics — “Shiiiit, there goes the charabanc. Looks like we’re gonna be here all summer, well what a bummer” — though at the time I’d no idea what a ‘clit-OR-is’ was. At a Kelbrook Village Hall disco, I even won a punk dancing contest: while everyone else merely pogoed, I added ‘dead ratting’ to the repertoire, (as taught, of course, by Andy) falling to the floorboards and thrashing epilectically. I won a mug with a smiley face on it, which wasn’t really very punk, but then nor was I, and I’m sure the award was more of a joke than a tribute.

It is The Buzzcocks that find their place in this list, not only because they were my favourites at the time, but because their mix of playful irony and serious anger, brash racket and perfectly crafted pop polish are strands I’m still attracted to. Howard Devoto, who sang on their debut ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP would go on to form ‘Magazine’ – an important band in my later return to post-punk and Indie, and the ‘Cocks influenced many of the artists I would come to adore later, in one case coming full circle when Mike Joyce of ‘The Smiths’ played drums when I got to see The Buzzcocks for the one and only time after one of their many reformations. I also got to see Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto share a stage at the weirdest gig I’ve ever been to, along with other (anti)heroes, Mark E Smith and John Cooper Clarke, at a chaotic ‘celebration’ of punk at Manchester’s Bridegwater Hall in 2004.

Most of my punk and new wave records were 7” singles. It would have been quite a collection but I sold most of them when I had a regression to prog in my mid-teens. I have a particular memory of buying ‘Everybody’s Happy Nowadays’ b/w ‘Why Can’t I Touch It?’ on a trip to Scarborough, when I also annoyed dad by buying a job lot of empty 7” picture sleeves that I covered a wall of my bedroom with, along with a huge poster of Debbie Harry. When we got home I spent an evening playing the two songs repeatedly, back to back. The Buzzcocks were very much a singles band, so the record that represents the initiation of the punk strand of my musical taste has to be their 1979 compilation, ‘Singles: Going Steady.’

The Complete Mr Fox

Ok, I give in (sort of). After being nominated for the ‘album cover challenge’ several times and usually ignoring the request, while enjoying looking at the contributors’ choices, I’ve decided that now my big brother John has tagged me, that I’d better do as I’m told (sort of).

The usual format of this (as if you can possibly have missed it) is to post the cover of a record that has been influential on your music taste, one a day, for ten days, with no further comment, and the latter condition is one of the reasons (sort of) why I’ve never done it before. I can’t just post the covers and say nothing about them (as you are about to find out, in spades)! Imagine ‘Desert Island Discs’ without the chatter about why they’ve been chosen. And usually people end up discussing the music and its significance in the comments section anyway, so I reckon I might as well just save you the bother by telling you why they’re there up front. Also, I haven’t planned this out in advance so I might decide I’m done before 10, keep going beyond 10, get bored part way through and give up, have a hiatus of a few days while I think about my next choice, or do a Christopher Kenworthy and post a load all at once out of impatience.

Then there’s the whole nomination thing. Whenever I fail to respond to one of these ‘challenges’, I always feel really terrible that it will be taken as a snub. Then I feel really terrible that I’m narcissistic enough to think that anyone will give a hoot whether I respond or not. Then I feel terrible that I have such low self-esteem as to think no-one will care. Then I feel terrible that I don’t really feel terrible at all, as I’m not that bothered about anyone else’s feelings. Then I feel terrible that I don’t care enough about other people’s feelings, but am nevertheless hypersensitive about what they think of me. So every possible nomination I might make feels like I’m treading a minefield. “Why’s he nominated her and not me?” I imagine someone thinking indignantly. Or “Oh, he’s trying to smarm his way back into my good books after that arsey put down on that meme I shared.” Or, “Ant who??” Maybe it’s unusual to overthink things this way, but I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only one. Can I? Regardless, it all means that I still haven’t decided whether I’ll not bother nominating at all, or maybe set up some arbitrary criterion that minimises the sense of me choosing people by ‘preference’. (People I’ve never met in real life like Julie Matthews? People who I’ve got no real idea of their music taste already like Michael Hackfort?) ’.

Now I’ve reached this point, to be honest, the music choice is starting to look as irrelevant as my choice of Sumero-Akkadian clay tablet, but I will push on regardless. I’ve decided that I should only include albums that I can clearly feel have a direct link to my music taste now. So that cuts out some early favourites from when I was a child. I remember first getting really ‘into’ music with Pete Addison when we were in primary school. We were both the youngest of our families and influenced by older brothers. Queen, Elton John and Rush are things I recall listening to with him that I wouldn’t be that bothered about now. We even went through a bit of a spell of writing songs together, though neither of us played instruments so all ‘performances‘ were a cappella and emphatically without an audience. I can even remember the entire lyrics and tune to a song we wrote about then Radio 1 breakfast show DJ, Dave Lee Travis. I think we might even have sent him a tape of it, though I don’t think he played it.

It was my brother John’s music collection that I really started getting interested in (having already divined that my other brother’s taste wasn’t up to much – sorry Iain, but Supertramp? Really?!). Perhaps I got a little too interested in his records for John‘s liking, after I actually cut-out all the badges and moustaches and epaulettes and stuff from his Sgt. Pepper LP. On reflection I’m lucky I didn’t get an actual battering for that. I was a bit unsure where to start this musical journey, though. I nearly plumped for Bo Hansson’s ‘Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings’ (I nicked the portrait of J R R Tolkien that came with that, too), which tied in with my brief obsession with all things Middle Earth, and whose moody Hammond organ and synth-driven instrumental is not that far removed from a lot of the post-rock/ambient-ish stuff I listen to now, and which influenced the more dramatic Nordic soundscapes of the likes of Anna von Hausswolff, whom I saw live a few years ago supporting Efterklang in Halifax Minster. Other choices I considered were from the folk-rock genre, such as Fairport Convention (which John chose for one of his own ten albums), and Steeleye Span.

However, the record I’ve gone for is one that admittedly I haven’t actually listened to that much over the years but which can still both take me right back to playing it while still in primary school back in the 70’s, but doesn’t feel to me to belong specifically to that time in the way the more mainstream choices might have done. It is music that I can imagine, if I hadn’t heard it before, discovering on Stuart Maconie’s ‘Freak Zone’ on BBC 6 Music, or ‘Late Junction’ on Radio 3, and thinking that it’s the sort of thing I’d like to check out further. It is definitely a folk-rock record, and while that isn’t a genre that is itself central to my taste, this has a sense of the uncanny, drawing on traditional music but giving it an intense and experimental twist that links to the more obviously ‘proggy’ stuff I would get deeply into in my mid-teens (before rejecting for a time – more of that to come), and the self-consciously subversive yet affectionate mining of a specifically English tradition that is associated with the ‘hauntological’ movement that my great friend and musical mentor Donald would turn me on to in the noughties. I’m pretty sure that the album pictured is the one that John had and which I therefore played. It is a compilation of the two full length albums released by a band led by husband and wife duo, Bob and Carole Pegg. Guys, gals, and non-binary pals, I give you: The Complete Mr Fox:

That joke isn’t funny anymore

“I have been nominated to post 180 Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform tablets that profoundly influenced me, at any point in my life. One each day, for 180 days. I was instructed to post each tablet without explanation”

Day 1

I know it’s supposed to be ‘without comment’ but I’m sure you’re itching to know more about me, especially my thousands of new followers. This neo-Babylonian list of expenditures, probably from Sippar, Mesopotamia (modern Tell Abu Habba) takes me right back to spending several sleepless nights researching coffee machines. I eventually settled on a Gaggia Classic (pre 2015 model with the solenoid valve). Of course I modded it with an after-market Rancilio steam wand. Happy days.

Day 2

This tablet from Warka in Iraq (from the collection of the NY Meteopolitan Museum of Art) is an administrative account concerned with the distribution of barley and emmer. I have to confess I didn’t know what emmer is, embarrassingly enough. I’m sure the rest of you are aware that it’s an ancient grain, and with the explosion in baking during the lockdown (we’ve even bought a Kitchenaid mixer!) I’m sure there are plenty of people enjoying emmer loaves with their breakfast this very morning, now that esoteric flours have been made readily available by the likes of Dove’s Farm (though I see they’re out of stock of their whole meal emmer flour at the moment). Anyway, I digress, because what this tablet really brings to mind is my childhood breakfast ritual. I had to use the shallow white rimmed bowl which was a perfect fit for three Weetabix to lie flat, side by side. The spoon had to be the rounded one with the dimpled decoration on the handle-end and the silver plating largely rubbed off the inside of the spoon-bowl, showing the warm (brass?) metal underneath. It was used first to sprinkle a decent layer of sugar across the three biscuits, then it was essential to have an unopened bottle of milk so that I could pour the creamy top of the milk over the middle Weetabix before moving first to the one on its left, then the one to its right, before eating in the reverse direction to the milk pour.

Day 3

This tablet from the collection of the British Museum (not currently on display) was found by the remarkable polymath, Sir Austen Henry Layard, at Kuyunjik, near Mosul. Layard is also credited with discovering the site of the biblical Ninevah, and believed that the Syriac Christian communities were descended from the ancient Assyrians who would have produced this tablet (which is particularly distinguished by being bilingual in Sumerian and Akkadian). One wonders what he made of its content, which the museum catalogue describes as: “incantations against the evil ‘asakku’ demon, which together with many other malevolent forces has attacked the sufferer in the head. The first spell describes its evil effects, and the second is recited over a kid, as a substitute to which the evil is transferred so that it can be effectively banished.” As a keen comparative religionist he must surely have been struck by the parallels with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I’m not sure that I have ever been attacked in the head by a demon, though, conversely, I was once ‘slain in the Spirit’ at a Mission England crusade in Barnoldswick in 1984. At least that was what I believed to be happening at the time. When I hit the deck (assisted by a couple of volunteers enjoined to catch slayees as we fell) I recall wondering how long was a seemly time to remain prostrate in order to avoid scandalising the faithful by appearing less than suitably zapped, given that any supernatural effects appeared to have worn off somewhere between the vertical and the horizontal. I had expected to be seeing visions of glory or something, but the cracked paint on the ceiling of the former Majestic cinema failed to resolve into the form of the face of my Lord, or any other edifying manifestation.In due course, I would come to conclude that Catholics had the right idea by employing experts in the power of the ocular such as Michaelangelo to ensure that ceilings, where appropriate, should convey a more reliable sense of the numinous, regardless of the emotional state of the viewer.

Day 4

I’ve skipped a (Welsh) couple of days, I think. And I’m vanishingly unlikely to make it to the full 180 tablets. Yet I haven’t thrown the towel into a laundry bin of self loathing. Yet. Must be all the mindfulness self-care stuff that Spotify has been throwing at me.

So, here we are with this delightful tablet from the John Rylands Library collection in Manchester, which includes a very rare example of a building-plan on clay. The assumption is that it’s the plan of a temple, and it includes captions giving the lengths and thicknesses of the walls. The outer walls are three cubits thick, and the inner, two cubits, which strikes me as quite hefty (though I haven’t delved too deeply into mural architecture). I suppose they didn’t want their gods to escape. Given that surviving reliefs from Sumerian and Akkadian temples show them doing stuff like chasing dragons around with thunderbolts, I suppose that shows a degree of prudence that is also spoken to by the very survival of so many cuneiform tablets, most of which detail contracts for the transfer of oxen and the like that it’s frankly difficult to get too excited about (though I am now working on it).

When it comes to religious buildings it is probably elevations that hold more interest for me than plans, and in any case if you get high enough you can see the horizontal shape spread out below, as well as how the building relates to its wider environment. In 1988 towards the end of my first trip abroad, Inter-railing with Angela, I scaled the 533 steps to the top of the world’s third highest church, Cologne Cathedral, and looked out over the Europe we were leaving behind. I have climbed 7/8 of the way to the top of Durham cathedral tower with Katie, only for her to bottle out and refuse to go any further; Ed & I took turns to wait with her in a little niche off the spiral stairs so we could at least have a quick look out from the top, and see the Wear loop its way 270 degrees around the city like a gated moat.

But the most memorable time atop an ecclesiastical structure, at least with the benefit of the hindsight that is memory, was on the unassuming roof of Pusey House in Oxford. I was up there with Nick Penfold during a break in preparations for our college production of Murder in the Cathedral that was to be performed in the chapel. I was co-directing, and Nick set-building. We had been loaned keys that got us to places not normally accessible, including the roof, so up we went and got a view of our college that not many would have had, over the top of Vinson Block into the quad. Nick was a good friend. A really good friend. Not long before, I’d spent much of the Easter vacation at his home in Hale Barns. A few short years later, he got his first proper post-graduation job as a writer of technical manuals (the important bit was ‘writer’), bought a motorbike, and rode it up the M6 towards a wedding in Scotland where he never arrived. Nick’s death was when I discovered what grief was. Is there a height from which he looks down and sees the plan I can’t? We’d both had similar Christian conversion experiences and involvement in evangelical groups in our teens. We’d both lain on our backs on a summer night in Wellington Square drinking cider and concluding we could no longer be sure.

But I’m with Thomas Hardy, and his oxen: hoping it might be so.