Darned dogooder

I’ve been a fond reader of Utne for some time now, though occasionally I pass it by on account of the twee folksiness it can slip into. But there’s always something interesting. And I was pleased, while in the States, to pick up a copy of Cosmo Dogood’s Urban Almanac from the same stable. I like the idea of this: our lives are so citybound that we need to find an awareness of nature from within the metropolis rather than necessarily expecting to escape from it. Here in Oxford I have Port Meadow only yards away: but try stargazing there, and it’s compromised by the sky being orange.

The almanac has all kinds of daft lore in it, and lots of celebratory ideas. Again, there’s a bit of twee new agey stuff, but it’s a good idea, and one in harmony with a lot of things that Common Ground are into. In fact, I may tell them about it. (I’ve just discovered the latest site connected to them is a celebration of corrugated iron buildings!

Oh for more time to dwell on this sort of stuff, but I’ll *try*.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology

I’m not sure that LA is really my kind of place – but but but. It has the MJT (though the website can hardly do justice).

Think Sir John Soane’s museum on those candelit Tuesday nights. Think Dennis Severs’ house (though I *still* haven’t actually been there…). Now forget all that and think Borges and Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Think Voynich. Think Serafini. Now forget all that and bloody well get on a plane to LA.

The MJT is too good to describe, but suffice it to say it is an incredibly atmospheric coup de theatre, a satire on all museums, a confounding of epistemology, an aesthetic delight, and it’s next to a carpet warehouse.

This is definitely the best ‘museum’ I’ve ever been to, and I wish I had the money to set up something similar but different in Oxford. Give me a few million, someone, and I won’t let you down.

Yes yes, I kneau that

On Friday, I finally got to see The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.

If you don’t know, I’m a Peter Sellers nut, and probably have about 15 of his films on video or DVD (plenty more to go…), plus lots of audio. I openly acknowledge that (a) a huge percentage of his output, or his directors’ output perhaps, was dreck (b) he was a complete shit of a person. But.

In many ways it’s a good film, though by no means a great one. Good things, of course, include a very plucky performance by Geoffrey Rush, and a great supporting cast, and some game quirks such as the bits where various people in Sellers’ life transmute into Rush (an attempt to capture the spirit of all those films where Sellers, and Alec Guinness (his hero) before him, played numerous roles) and talk to camera. But.

Rush frequently captures the mannerisms of Sellers well, and if you squint, you can see the man. He also has a good pop at some silly voices, but at heart I think he’s the wrong man for this job (who the right man is, I don’t know, or modesty forbids ho ho). His normal voice, for one thing, is far too deep and growly – Sellers had a very hard voice to capture, and distinctive largely for its nondescript quality (with an affected twang of the d?racin?), in the same way that the ‘ordinary’ voice of someone like Rory Bremner is, well, ordinary. I could never quite let go of it being Rush, alas (plus no amount of prosthesis can disguise Rush’s glaciated face).

And the mugging to camera – why? If you’re going to have an element like that in your film, surely the point is to ‘stylise’ the subject’s life in some way, with some ‘theory’ to interpret their behaviour. No such theory was ever offered, really, even in the relationship with his mother Peg, which was only sketched with the broadest brush. Sellers’ family music hall background was ignored.

It seems the whole aim of this film (it must have been secretly backed by bitter Blake Edwards) was simply to say ‘Peter Sellers was a complete shit’. It’s absolutely true that he treated everyone in his life badly in one way or another, but the film never attempts to engage in any depth with why this might be, and the idea of him as a ‘child-man’ is nodded at without any sense of making it a real way to think of him. As ever, the real Peter Sellers remains elusive.

What saddens me most, really, is that for all its accuracy in biography and the extreme and appalling moments of selfishness in his life, the film fails to capture the positive side of him at all. It showed audiences smiling happily at his performances, but failed to make its own audience smile as they could have done. There is no sense in which this film is a celebration of Sellers’ remarkable talent.

So, er, anyway. I think it *is* a good film, but clearly created in a spirit of loathing for its subject. Contrast Man in the Moon, another biopic of an intensely irritating, selfish and demanding comedian, which nevertheless makes you go away with sympathy and a smile.

But for general readers, the entertainment lay in the fact that the sound went two-thirds of the way through watching it, in Oxford’s remarkable Ultimate Picture Palace, closely followed by the picture, leaving 12 people (count ’em) looking around the auditorium, at each other, and at glimpses of a white haired old gent in the projection room, somewhat baffled. The owner of the cinema has completely disappeared. I took the opportunity to annoy H with a couple of public Clouseau gags, and shone my bike light up at the projection room. Eventually the owner appeared and the film was rewound to the wrong place, then back to the right place for us to watch loads of it again, and eventually we got to see all of it, if not quite in the order intended. Marvellous.

Giant thoughts

The July issue of British Archaeology magazine has an article claiming that the Long Man of Wilmington and the Cerne Abbas giant both date only from the 17th century.

I admit I only skimmed the article, which was about things like remnants of brick, but I find this astonishing. I understand that the origins of these figures are hard to pin down, and that clearly much restoration or alteration may have taken place over the years – but what seems the strongest reason against the 17th century theory for me is their aesthetic.

The article rather lamely suggests that the Cerne figure’s priapic state is some sort of satire against Puritans or whatever – but I can’t really believe that someone in that age could have got away with such a stark image. And why, more importantly, would they have given an aesthetic with such an ancient feel to it? The Wilmington figure is weirder, less appreciable within a context of artistic development, perhaps, but the Cerne one in particular just doesn’t look like something anyone would have created in the 17th century.

Perhaps I’m just disappointed and defensive because I want to believe these sites really are ancient. But I still do.

On the flats, etc

1. Enjoyable cycle ride from Ely to Cambridge last month with T. – though I have to confess I don’t find the landscape round there very inspiring. The great acres of sky are fascinating – and helpful for avoiding the looming rain clouds – but the ground level is dull as fenwater. The atmosphere is so strange – and not just because of the ubiquitous smell of cabbage plantations: one expects an angry Tony Martin figure to brandish a shotgun at any moment. The countryside and villages improve towards Cambridge, with Reach very attractive, and then through Swaffham Prior with its preposterous two churches immediately next to each other. Also, a beautiful leper chapel on the edge of Cambridge – next ti the site of what is claimed to have been the largest fair in mediaeval Europe.

2. Also a very pleasant walk in Wiltshire last weekend with 7 friends, as a sort of anniversary to last year’s cycle ride. Ghastly train bureaucracy prevented us cycling this year (and, as it turned out, the weather), but on foot we enjoyed a great oub, an indifferent pub, and my favourite castle, the inevitable Old Wardour. No sign of what I hid there six years ago, but rather time to move on anyway. The best bit was throwing a frisbee around in the grounds.

3. My house is now officially on the market, so I must wean myself off the beautiful Wiltshire countryside and look for new adventures in Oxfordshire – assuming I can find a buyer.

4. Reading matters: have been consumed by James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds – though my attempts to develop a horse-racing system inspired by it and using Google as an index of mass opinion have not led to fame and fortune alas… The book’s not perfect, but the central premise is very beguiling.

More on Silbury Hill

There’s a useful summary of recent work and thought here [link lost, sorry]. It turns out that *some* bones were found in the 18th century, but nothing very dramatic – nothing has been found since, apart from a few fragments which help suggest a date of around 2500 BC, and mediaeval and Roman finds.

John Barrett and Paul Devereux have both suggested its use as a platform, commenting that it would raise people to a level just about equal to that of surrounding hills, and apparently people standing on a missing Obelisk at Avebury would *just* have been able to see people standing on Silbury, as if they were actually at the same level. Interesting – though they must have had a very good reason to go to all that bother.

What I’d like is a map showing exactly where in the surrounding area Silbury is visible *from* – it’s largely hidden from south and east by natural hills. Oh for the time to do a circuit of it and make that map myself. Obviously what you can see from the hill itself would be interesting to tally, too. (Maybe a day off in July beckons…)

Earth mysteries

I think my new ancient site of obsession may be Silbury Hill. Hardly a new interest generally, and I still remember fondly ascending it at 5 in the morning with T. on our crop-circle-hunting holiday of years back, but H. and I now pass it on our route between Wiltshire and Oxford, and I love the journey partly just for seeing it.

I think it may be more mysterious than Stonehenge and Avebury, really, in the sense that they, although not entirely fathomable by any means, nevertheless yield certain information – the alignments give one at least some sense of their significance and purpose. Silbury is silent. As far as I recall (and I should really read up *before* writing this, but I will do it shortly…), we have almost nothing on Silbury: no significant burials, and of course it’s hard to align a mound with anything in particular.

I was reminded passing it yesterday that it is actually notably recessed: although its crown is visible for some way (a Roman road nicely traverses a field towards it and then deflects), which is curious. But it seems too small – and too much effort to construct – for a defensive structure, and again perhaps too much effort for a purely ceremonial one. Though what else it could be I don’t know. It’s beautiful.

Wessex essays

All this talk of ancient trackways and so on has led me to wonder about writing a series of ‘Wessex essays’. One would be about the Harroway, another about Roman roads in this area, I think. And the one that started this idea is ‘In search of Egbert’s stone’ (see May 18th entry). I read an online draft of a book someone has written about the whole subject of Alfred and the war with the Danes, which includes a lengthy exposition on the location of Egbert’s stone, including a couple more possible locations. There are some notable inaccuracies – describing the Harroway as a Roman road, for example (though they may have adopted it) – and it would need some editing, but I wonder if it might be worth contacting the author (my age, it turns out) to discuss the idea of trying to publish it. It occurs to me I should try and write something on these themes for one of the history magazines.

The problem with writing for me these days is that I seem only to make the effort if I have a commission first – I don’t like knocking something out and then trying to flog it. But I could make some enquiries, I guess.

Nine Elms vs countless trees

What a contrast this evening’s cycle rides were, on my wobbly but enjoyable Brompton folder. In London: from Battersea to Waterloo, choking on the pollution along Nine Elms Lane and across Vauxhall Cross. In Warminster: taking the back route from the station, past a nature reserve, woods and fields, smelling fresh from afternoon rainfall. Much as I still love London history, and enjoy socialising there, I’m finding my albeit now limited commute (6-8 days a month) more and wearing, and indeed depressing.

The road once travelled

All this relates to another of my abiding topographic obsessions: ancient trackways, particularly Roman roads, but also prehistoric and mediaeval ones. It turns out (thanks to an excellent book I’ve got from the library, The Roads and Trackways of Wessex) that the ancient road running across White Sheet Hill, about 8 miles from Warminster, and one I’ve often wanted to walk at greater length, is part of the pre-Roman Harroway, which allegedly ran from Kent to Cornwall. You can certainly walk many miles of it in my area scarcely touching modern roads, There are numerous milestones dating from the 1750s along this stretch. Must explore it more soon, although it will be an ambitious walk, so a greater level of fitness might be required…