Thursday, 4 March 2010

Unbroken Britain

In the unlikely event that you are an avid reader of this blog, you’ve probably gathered by now that I don’t get out much. To be more specific, I don’t get out much in the daytime, preferring to ensconce myself in the darkened corridors of academe like a vegetarian vampire until the witching hour commences.

So it was an unusual event, as I travelled down south to meet my public – and yes, some of them did turn up – to find myself in the centre of Bath in daylight on a Tuesday afternoon. And I thought: who are all these people wandering about the streets at quarter to four as if they’ve got nothing better to do? They can’t all be appearing at the Bath Literature Festival. OK, using my enviable powers of Descartian deductive reasoning I managed to work out that those little people in uniforms carrying bags were probably children coming home from school. So I’ll let them off. But what about the rest of you? Why aren’t you all at work?

The audience at Bath Litfest is not exactly a tough crowd. In fact, if you’ll excuse the pun, it’s like being gently lowered into a warm bath of nodding heads and polite laughter. The citizens of Bath – which admittedly, is probably the only place in the known universe where I have any mileage as a bit of northern rough – are so polite that they even whisper on their mobiles on trains so as not to disturb you.

The words ‘broken Britain’ fail to spring inexorably to mind.

One thing I forgot to mention in Bath was that the historian Rosemary Hill mentions it in her book on Stonehenge, arguing for a direct lineage between this ancient megalith and a very British example of traffic engineering. In the mid-eighteenth century the architect John Wood modelled the Grand Circus in Bath on the beautiful proportions and sacred geometry of Stonehenge. The Grand Circus inspired other traffic circuses in London and elsewhere, eventually devolving ‘into that favourite piece of traffic planning, the roundabout’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Sociology, the study of what is common, recurrent and predictable in human life, is essentially the study of clichés … The fact that the queues at supermarket checkout points will all be roughly the same length is a matter of sociology. To say “I love you” is pure sociology, however sincerely one may mean it. For the Romantics, it is tragic that we are forced to express our most unique individual feelings in phrases shop-soiled by millions of others; for the modernist, it is only by the use of such phrases that we can express our feelings to ourselves … There used to be whole slices of dialogue which cropped up on both large and small screens with striking frequency, such as “Take a seat” … “Thank you, I prefer to stand!” … “As you wish”, or “But that’s blackmail!” … “Let’s just call it a business arrangement.” Most Westerns statutorily included the following metaphysical exchange: “You’ve got to stop running. What are you running from anyway?” … “I dunno. Maybe – myself” … Cliches may be stale truths, but they are usually truths even so; and they contribute to our liberty by making social life predictable, automating parts of it so that we are free to attend to others.’ – Terry Eagleton

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