Hamilton – A History Play For Today

Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, February 1st 2018

For the first fifteen minutes of Hamilton, I wondered what was going on. What was this strange hip hop, rap version of early American history? I was just pondering on how I hadn’t seen anything like this before, when it struck me that I have. It was a theatrical presentation of national history in verse. The story involved kings and rebels – colonial Americans taking on the British authorities and facing the consequences of their rebellion. History, verse, kings, rebellion – this all made me think I was watching a modern take on a Shakespeare history play.

By the end of the first act, I seemed to be watching Henry V. There was much patriotic chest thumping, following the American victory. The British were personified by the smiling assassin King George III – who at least got the best songs. As in Henry V, however, there were quiet suggestions that patriotism is based on shifting sands. George Washington takes young firebrand Alexander Hamilton aside. Fighting for the cause might seem glorious, but fatherly Washington explains that things are more complicated than young Hamilton imagines. Washington dismisses the shallowness of sacrificing your life for a cause: “Dying is easy, young man, living is harder,” he explains.

If I was watching Henry V in the first half, it was more like Macbeth in the second. The second half opened with Hamilton sitting in his study quoting Macbeth, who famously killed a king and found misery rather than glory afterwards. It seemed as though winning the war against the British would be the end of the struggle. In fact it was just the beginning. Thinking back to school days, I recalled Henry V illustrating the fact that finding a foreign enemy is a good way to prevent trouble at home. However, this approach is dangerous when you live in a country where everyone is an immigrant. With the British gone, Americans found enemies in each other.

The second act is bleak, disillusioned and moving. It is all about the difficulties people have in working together. But in the show’s breathtaking coordination of words, music and dance, we had vivid evidence of what people can do as part of a well organised team. The show moved around that contradiction. For me, one of the most poignant moments was when the king got everyone to sing along with him. Everyone was in harmony, but there was a price to pay for this love. There is also a price to pay for rejecting it. Perhaps that’s why Americans today, as their own empire declines, have tried to create an absolute monarch in their leader. “You’ll be back,” said King George. It seems he was right.

Finally, I would like to say I make the comparisons with Shakespeare advisedly. This really is an excellent show, the best musical I have ever seen. Bravo, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Four Weddings and Three AIs

Happiness for Humans – published January 2018, – tells the story of artificial intelligence attaining self awareness. While this might seem like Terminator territory, it is covered here in the form of romantic comedy, a kind of Four Weddings and Three AIs.

The book is well written and funny. Beyond that, I think in a frothy, rom com kind of way, it does have something serious to say about what it is to be human, or a human-like machine. Various characters look at the subject from different angles. There is the question of empathy, for example, and whether this quality differentiates machines from humans. An AI called Aiden shows a high degree of empathy, aware of others as well as himself. Aiden is a lovely, human-seeming character, who enjoys watching classic romantic comedies, particularly Some Like It Hot. He interacts in a warm manner with a magazine journalist called Jen. In contrast there is Matt, Jen’s lawyer boyfriend, who is human, but acts like a cold hearted machine because he lacks empathy. The good kicking that Aiden gives Matt by crashing his life via the internet is one of the most rewarding and funny aspects of the book.

Matt’s personality is mirrored in the world of artificial intelligence by a deeply unpleasant AI called Sinai. Sinai is an actual cold hearted machine. Like Matt, he is self-aware, but has no meaningful awareness of others. He doesn’t care about romantic comedy. The only romance he has is with a copy of himself.

The book also looks at the idea of life from the angle of whether it’s a matter of “doing or being”, for want of a better description. This conundrum is explored via Aiden, who, as a super intelligent AI capable of reading War and Peace in one second, is very much a doer. Nevertheless, he is perceptive enough to see that life might also involve simply existing. In contrast to high functioning machines, we meet a pet rabbit called Victor. Victor definitely takes the being rather than doing approach to life. There is a similar creature who happens to be a student at the University of Bournemouth, allegedly doing media studies.

A novel is a good place to explore both empathy and the conundrum of doing and being. To read a novel is to exercise your empathy muscles. The experience demands that you see and feel from the perspective of someone else. As far as the doing and being thing is concerned, which of those two things is reading a novel? People read novels to relax. They also work hard at reading them in universities. Students – some of them at least – busily discuss deeper meanings and write essays.

Novels like Happiness for Humans remind me how useful novels are in exploring life – as opposed to some cold hearted academic study. Who said romantic comedy couldn’t be serious

A Literary Dream

Invisible Man Ellison
Invisible Man is Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a young black man, who gets thrown out of university for accidentally offending a wealthy patron. He then tries to make a life for himself in New York.

This is a literary novel, and I sometimes found it irritating that symbolism seemed more important than a sense of reality. However, a few lines early on in the book sum up how I’ve come to feel about Invisible Man:

“People talk of metaphorical significance of this or that scene. Seems like a puzzle or a children’s game. But a dream sometimes tells us things in the shape of metaphor, and this is no children’s game. This is real and serious.”

When I wake up from a dream, I do not review it for realism, and give it a low star rating if the content of the dream has been one of personal symbolism rather than a realistic story. People who have studied dreams – Carl Jung for example – emphasise their strange, metaphorical nature. Dreams deal in the pictorial and the figurative. They reach into areas of taboo, with which the waking mind does not feel comfortable. Invisible Man often inhabits this sort of realm. A number of scenes have the dreamy power of exploring taboo – the famous one at the beginning of the book involving a sharecropper’s family, for example. There’s another telling passage towards the end, where a woman shares with the unnamed narrator a fantasy that she could not think of sharing with anyone in the normal run of life. Then almost as the book closes, the narrator actually has a dream that reproduces images from his waking life. The images are wild and chaotic, but strangely are not clearly the result of a dream until the narrator wakes up.

So that’s how I see the book, as a kind of literary dream reaching into all the dark areas of life that waking minds would rather leave alone. I don’t think it always works. Sometimes the novel seems disjointed because it is disjointed, and not because it is reproducing the fragmented nature of a dream. Nevertheless, the book is remarkable, perhaps more in the thinking about it afterwards rather than in the reading of it. Dreams themselves are rather like that.

I would give Invisible Man a three for the experience of reading the book, five for the thinking about it afterwards.

Boring Job, Good Music

220px-Mike_oldfield_tubular_bells_album_cover

As part of my irregular series on album titles, I have been thinking about Mike Oldfield’s 1973 album, Tubular Bells.  I listened to this album a lot in the early 1980s, and wondered if it could be considered a musical metaphor, no less.  The cover art was fascinating, that shining tube, crossing over itself like some kind of rune, hanging in a cloudy sky above a wave breaking on a beach.  It reminded me of a mystical version of one of those tube slides at a swimming pool.

I thought if I was going to write about a musical metaphor, it would be best to check that I knew what I was talking about.  I reminded myself of the basics – that a metaphor is the describing of one thing in terms of another.  Then I did some more in-depth reading and was intrigued to discover that metaphors used to describe the act of thinking almost always involve three things – journeys, building, and food. As an example, you can ruminate on a subject, build an argument and arrive at a conclusion. This was interesting because music also seems to have a powerful link with those same three elemental things – journeys, building and food.

For millennia, people have marched to music and sung shanties to help them on journeys. There’s also a tradition of work songs involved in all kinds of building activities, from laying rail roads in America, to constructing houses in Africa. There’s a similar tradition amongst agricultural workers producing food. For centuries people have used music to help them “tote that barge and lift that bale” – as Paul Robeson sang in Ol’ Man River. Lyrics might be about anything, describing the hopes, dreams and loves of people getting through the daily grind. Music itself, however, may well derive from the rhythmic effort of work.

Show Boat

Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River in the 1936 film version of Show Boat

This all makes me feel better about having a repetitive job in a pharmacy. Music goes with repetitive work. The rhythmic crack of stone on stone in the production of stone tools, the regular thump of mortar against pestle in food preparation, the tramp of feet on a long, laborious journey, are possibly where music – and even elements of language itself – came from in the first place.

So does this tell us anything about Tubular Bells? Well, the music often involves repeated phrases. It’s also interesting that the album ends with a sailors’ hornpipe. The album preceding this hornpipe is abstract, a journey sliding down a mystical tubular bell perhaps. But mystical or not, in the end it comes back to toting that barge and lifting that bale.  A collection of instrumental music, built around complex repetition, ends  with the kind of music which, since music began, has helped people travel, build things, and get food to our tables.

Fire, Fury and Misplaced Faith

Fire Fury

It might seem difficult to judge the accuracy of this book – not personally having had a job at the White House. Most of what I read, however, I was already aware of from watching the news. The book just gave background information to what we already know. I watched an interview this evening where a White House advisor claimed the book should be seen as a fantasy story. This statement is patently absurd, because most of it is simply common knowledge.

So, the picture portrayed rings true. The account is also generally well written give or take the odd typo or rough sentence – I too have been guilty of sending off a submission with public misspelt as pubic. Dialogue is well used at crucial moments to draw the reader in. Much as I loath his divisive politics, at least Steve Bannon is good for dialogue.

Beyond these details, the book touches on wider issues of human leadership. After all, it seems that the Trump government represents a throwback to a style of leadership based on faith rather than facts. As anthropologist Olga Soffer has said of the rise of religious leadership:

“Sacred information is the easiest to control, because it can’t be checked.”

Trump hates facts and has no respect for expertise. He says “trust me” and a certain percentage of people seem to do that, no matter what the facts might say. A quasi religious approach is well documented in Fire and Fury – in images of Trump sitting happily on thrones in Saudi Arabia for example. Trump, in the words of White House official Katie Walsh is “inspirational not operational”. Inspirational in this context is not a compliment, but an accusation of practical incompetence and reversion to decision making based on primal instincts, such as irrational fear of outsiders.

The book might be a little short on analysis as it careers through page after page of mind-boggling chaos – but there is an old rule that showing is better than telling. Fire and Fury shows that while the old style of leadership relying on blind faith might have charming echoes in, for example, a well-behaved constitutional monarchy, it becomes terrifying when applied to the government of a complex, technological society like the United States. Fire and Fury shows a government not fit for purpose both in its leader and in the anachronistic manner of its leadership.

A Great Book In My Universe

Mostly Harmless

Before reading Mostly Harmless – the fifth and last book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” – I looked at some reviews written by other readers. Many of them were negative. Douglas Adams was depressed when he wrote it. The ending was terrible. And so on.

Personally, I thought this was a great book. In saying that I refer you to the following paragraph from Mostly Harmless:

“We live in strange times. We also live in strange places: each in a universe of our own. The people with whom we populate our universes are the shadows of whole other universes intersecting with our own.”

We see the truth of this statement every day on the review pages of Amazon and Goodreads. People seem to look out on the same universe. However, there’s a clue to the reality of multiple dimensions in the fact that good books in one universe are bad in another. Mostly Harmless takes – for me at least – a thrilling trip through alternative universes.

Mostly Harmless begins and ends with the story of some interstellar explorers called the Grebulons. A meteorite damages their ship, resulting in the loss of all stored memories. The crew know they set out to monitor something, but have no idea what. By chance, they end up on a planet in the outer reaches of Earth’s solar system monitoring the only material they can find to monitor – TV shows beaming out from Earth. Cagney and Lacey and M*A*S*H seem to be particular favourites. The Grebulons’ situation contrasts with that of the Vogons who hove into view as the book comes to its conclusion. The Vogons know exactly what their purpose in life is. If you compare the clear, small-minded and unpleasant purpose of the Vogons, with the benign TV watching aimlessness of memory-deprived Grebulons, things look different vis-a-vis the aimless TV viewing. The best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats would have said. It’s like there’s an alternative universe where casual TV watching is a deeply meaningful activity, as is reading books that some people think are not very good.

I send this message from my universe to yours – Mostly Harmless is a great book.

Cop Movie Meets George Orwell’s 1984

Fatherland

2017 saw the publication of the 25th Anniversary edition of Fatherland by Robert Harris, which I managed to catch up with a few weeks ago.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Fatherland imagines what would have happened to history if Germany had won the Second World War.

The story itself has a plot borrowed from Hollywood, starring a talented, world-weary cop who drinks, smokes and works all the time. Naturally his personal life is a mess. American cop movies rely on this kind of ambivalent central character. The law cannot be represented by a monolithic institution imposing justice. In America that would send the wrong message. Instead law has to show itself via a maverick individual, who opposes institutional incompetence or corruption. That idea has been flogged to death in America, where perhaps the idea of the maverick individual has become too powerful for its own good. But in a world where Germany won the war, such a character is perfect in portraying a struggle against an all-encompassing nightmare of institutional corruption. It’s like John McLean of Die Hard finding himself out of his jurisdiction, not in Los Angeles but in the London of George Orwell’s 1984.

Fatherland has interesting things to say about the way people shape history, creating their own alternative narratives. That said, I did find the plot laboured at times, and on occasion the cop cliches came over as, well, cliches, rather than clever commentaries on the difference between a totalitarian and a tolerant society. This was Robert Harris’ first novel, and I agree with his observation in the introduction that he went on to write better ones. Nevertheless, the quality of ideas driving those later novels is also evident here

 

A History of Christmas

Dickens_Festival

“Snow” at the Dickens Fesitval, Rochester

Many ancient mid-winter celebrations have strong parallels with what we now know as Christmas. Echoes remain of new year celebrations in Babylon and Egypt, mid-winter and new year holidays of the Roman Empire, and Yule celebrations of northern Germanic tribes. These celebrations represented an effort to promote fertility and bring back the sun. Food and drink were common features, and usually derived from sacrificial rites. There were rituals involving fire, lights and evergreen trees. The period from late November until the beginning of January was marked with various holidays. Some people think that modern Christmases start too early, but there is a long history of mid-winter festivals beginning in November.

Temple of Saturn

The Temple of Saturn in Rome

There are three festivals which are particularly linked with Christmas – Saturnalia, which in the later Roman Empire began on 17th December and continued to the 24th; the Kalends on 1st January; and the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, on December 25th. The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun was important to Mithraism, Christianity’s main rival for the hearts and minds of Europeans in the third and fourth centuries. Both Saturnalia and Kalends required the decoration of buildings with lights and sprigs taken from evergreen trees. People exchanged presents and greetings. When the Roman poet Lucian expressed the spirit of Saturnalia, he could be talking about aspects of Christmas today:

“All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight… All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another… No discourage shall either be composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, according to mirth and jollity” (quoted in The Englishman’s Christmas by J.A.R Pimlott, P3).

There is little doubt that the mid-winter holiday was deliberately chosen by early Christians as the time for a nativity feast. The idea was to assimilate pagan traditions into Christianity rather than attempting the hopeless task of suppressing them.  The 25th was probably chosen because this was Mithraism’s day of celebration, the idea being to steal the thunder of a rival.

Written evidence of the Christian attempt to assimilate winter festivals actually exists in the history of the English Christmas. Augustine, the Pope’s emissary had arrived in Britain in 597. Soon afterwards he received instructions from Gregory the Great which described how Anglo Saxon mid-winter festivals should be Christianised:

“Because they are accustomed to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in place of this… they may make bowers of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but for the praise of God kill animals for their own eating…” (Quoted Pimlott, P6)

St_Augustines_Abbey_Arch

St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

Christian influence, however, remained superficial until the time of the Norman Conquest. Rites included yule logs, use of evergreens, eating, drinking, and games such as leap frog and blind man’s buff, two recreations which actually originated in ancient fertility customs.  The Chuch made a concerted attempt to move in on Christmas at a conference of the Catholic Church at Tours in 567.  This council designated the Twelve Days of Christmas as the period between the Nativity and Epiphany.  By the 870s, Alfred The Great was insisting that during the Twelve Days, people refrain from carrying out any business.  By 1066 the Christianisation of England was complete and the Twelve Days were the main annual holiday. Scribes of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles had referred to Christmas by name for the first time in 1043, using this term rather than the more usual Mid-winter Mass, or Nativity.

The shape of Christmas was now set until the seventeenth century. It was a time of eating, drinking, good cheer, all taking place against a Christian backdrop. The Christmas story had grown out of nativity plays staged at many churches, most notably the Abbey of St Martial at Limoges in France. There were generally two plays in the Christmas repertoire, one about shepherds, the other involving wise men. These plays merged and some details about Herod and the slaughter of innocents were later added for dramatic effect. Carols derived from singing rites of the mid-winter celebrations. These festive songs were originally condemned by the Church but, as with other pagan Christmas rituals, assimilation was more effective than suppression. Present giving and eating of turkey at Christmas dinner became popular in Tudor times. The turkey had been imported from America by the Spaniards. An exotic and expensive meat, turkey became popular with the upper classes. The rest of society then followed on. Much of the Christmas food tradition we continue today originated in Tudor England.

 

PuritanChristmasBan

Public notice in Boston, Lincolnshire, declaring Christmas illegal

Then in the seventeenth century came a festive social earthquake.   Christmas was banned by government decree for about fifteen years. As the puritans won power, Christmas came under increasing pressure. During the Civil War, Parliament needed Scottish support against royalist forces. Part of the price for this support was bowing to demands from Scottish presbyterians that Christmas be stopped. The presbyterians didn’t like all the fun and games, and they also thought that Christmas had Catholic overtones. For some reason their anti-Catholic ire was focused on mince pies! Once royal control had been defeated, legislation was passed banning Christmas in 1644, although it was widely disregarded. Another big effort was made to stop Christmas in 1647. There were riots and general unrest in many parts of the country. The worst disturbances took place in Canterbury on Christmas Day 1647, when protestors took control of the entire city. This was an early manifestation of the major insurrection in Kent in 1648, which actually became part of a second phase of the English Civil War. Cromwell put this last gasp resistance down, and from then on Christmas went into hiding for over ten years. Ironically it was the religious observance of Christmas which was the easiest to suppress. Mark Stoyle has written: “Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. It is ironic, to say the least, that while the godly had failed to suppress the secular Yuletide festivities which had vexed them for so long, they had succeeded in ending the religious observance of Christmas! (No Christmas Under Cromwell in BBC History Magazine December 2011). Christmas only returned when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.

Battle_Of_Maidstone

Re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, during the Second Civil War, precipitated partly by the banning of Christmas

Christmas reformed as a family celebration and remained popular until the early nineteenth century. At this time Christmas began to decline again, designated holidays becoming fewer and fewer until only Christmas Day itself was left. The revival of Christmas coincided with the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843, and the enthusiasm that Prince Consort, Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had for Christmas. He followed the German tradition of erecting a Christmas tree at Windsor in 1840. In subsequent years the rest of Britain began to follow suit. Holidays started to expand again, and the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 stipulated that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were to be taken as a holiday. Christmas was resurrected as a time of giving and remembering your fellow man.

Ghost_Of_Christmas_Present

Ghost of Christmas Future at the Dickens Festival

Today Christmas is a popular but ambiguous festival. It used to be the case that many would bemoan the lack of religious feeling in Christmas, attacking commercialisation, eating and drinking, and the general lack of substance, even though some of these aspects of Christmas represent its most ancient features. In recent years worries have emerged that Christmas might actually be too religious, in a specifically Christian sense, serving to alienate other faiths. Christmas was originally a tool for the triumph of Christianity over pagan religions, and in this sense Christmas has long been part of a religious struggle. Indeed any and all major celebrations of whatever kind could be seen as a threat to general social cohesion if other parts of the population do not join in.

The ultimately reassuring thing is that midwinter festivals show remarkable similarities in different parts of the world and in different cultures. The midwinter celebration is a way of banishing the cold and hoping for the light, in whatever form you feel it might come.  Happy Christmas.

Reading the World’s Oldest Book

The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating to 2100 BC, tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk, who, demented with grief following the death of a friend, goes on a journey in search of eternal life.

Andrew George, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, describes how The Epic of Gilgamesh takes us back to the earliest days of writing, which emerged around 3000BC in the Euphrates and Tigris valleys. Humanity’s first cities developed here, writing evolving when the work of administering these increasingly sophisticated societies became too much for human memory to cope with. Scribes then used the resulting cuneiform script to record The Epic of Gilgamesh on stone tablets. This is a truly ancient story, the starting place of literature. The Bible, which in parts clearly owes much to The Epic of Gilgamesh is, by comparison, a recent and somewhat derivative publication.

People designed writing to record life. It is fitting they should use it to tell a story about a man trying to hold onto his life. To read what remains of their efforts thousands of years later is a moving experience. The text is fragmented in places, where time has eaten away at the stone manuscripts. This most revered of stories, stored in ancient libraries ordered by futile royal decree to endure forever, comes to me in shards, partially pieced together. And yet survive it did, writing fulfilling its function to help us hold onto life.

Writing is the defining quality of Gilgamesh’s complex society, a means for people to aspire to a new kind of immortality for their thoughts. There is certainly danger in this development, a sense of vertigo. The friend whose loss caused Gilgamesh so much pain was a man who was the antithesis of the sophisticated city dweller – a man raised by animals. This man, endowed with a sense of natural justice, taught Gilgamesh valuable lessons. This was the kind of instinctive existence that life in the cities with its writing and learning had left behind. Gilgamesh mourns the passing of his friend. He mourns both the loss of the individual and, more symbolically, the natural life he represented. Gilgamesh tries to find a way to escape his own death and the passing of the old life of humanity. While his efforts are frustrated, humanity’s new society ironically seems to offers new ways to preserve experience and guard against loss.

Writing has a resilience that outlasts buildings, walls and statues. The story of Gilgamesh remains for us to read today.

“He came a far road, was weary, found peace, and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.”