Monday, 4 November 2013

The Beatles

Kate has most of the Beatles' albums on her iPod, which means you can see all of the songs in one big list. It is a reminder of just what an extraordinary career they had - not just that they maintained the level of quality and never really dipped, but that they did so while constantly innovating, constantly taking huge risks, and, most impressively, constantly just working.

I realize that, for some, expressing a love of the Beatles is a rather bland, anodyne non-statement that hugs the mainstream so closely ('everybody likes the Beatles!') as to attest no real discernment. But this is fatuous and self-regarding - who is so pettily narcissistic to imagine that their own taste constitutes an interesting statement in itself? The music produced by the Beatles is far more interesting than the fact of my liking them and someone else not. 

And my reasons for liking them could well be bizarre and outlandish, and far from 'mainstream' appreciation, whatever that is - I'll not have my reasons imputed for me. Especially not by some sneering bloody hipster.

The quality or value of the Beatles' output can nevertheless be contested; but even then, there is no arguing that their musical development (admittedly at a time when everyone and everything else was changing rapidly too) was just extraordinary. Consider:

March 1963      Love Me Do 
July 1964           Hard Day’s Night 
August 1965     You’ve got to Hide your Love Away 
Dec. 1965           Norwegian Wood; Drive My Car 
August 1966     Eleanor Rigby; Tomorrow Never Knows; She Said She Said 
June 1967          A Day in the Life; Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds 
Nov. 1968          Dear Prudence; Happiness is a Warm Gun; Everybody’s got Something to Hide (Except for me and my Monkey) 
Sept. 1969         Come Together; Medley; Something

So they managed to go from Love Me Do (yeah, yeah, yeah - oooooh) to the dark and utterly unique Come Together in just over six years. In just three years they went from Can't Buy me Love and And I Love Her to A Day in the Life. A further two and a bit years later and they were at the lush, extraordinarily new sound of Abbey Rd, thereby kickstarting the seventies before Father Time had got round to it.

Contrast Oasis, a band once (laughably) compared to the Beatles by Britain's execrable rock journalists: Definitely Maybe in August 1997 and then burnt out a mere three years later with the leaden monstrosity that was Be Here Now.

The question now is how many of the 'landmark' songs I chose above were John songs and how many Paul's.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Granada! Part Dos!

Just a brief addendum.

The cathedrals and churches of Granada were, as you’d expect, a definite highlight, especially those in the mixed Spanish-Moorish style. Not all of them were open to visitors. Of those that were, the interiors were often very splendid as in this quire:

(My photographic skills are less than splendid – see here and here).

Sometimes they were slightly gaudy and over-gilded, as this from Guadix cathedral:

And sometimes they were downright terrifying, as this from the church in the Barrio de las Cuevas just outside Guadix (picture taken from the web):

I am not sufficiently informed to know whether or not this is a particular flavour of Spanish Catholicism, though my hunch is that to some extent it is. Either way it’s trivial to run down someone’s faith simply because I find its symbols aesthetically unappealing, so I won’t.

Nevertheless, I am interested to know why I find this style unappealing. There are lots of descriptions I could throw at it – macabre, kitsch, un-self reflective and so immune to irony – but these feel unexamined and therefore unfair.

Maybe what makes me uncomfortable is an extremity of belief which holds that it is impossible to overstate or hyperbolize what is absolutely and infinitely true. And, similarly, which holds that these images need no moderation or circumspection – Mary is absolutely full of grace, Christ absolutely having a shitty day up there on the cross – because there is no other alternative truth that could undermine or ironize it. You can only have irony where a plurality of truths is possible; to insist on its impossibility is to claim that there is just one, crushingly victorious truth. Which is probably why we respond antagonistically by emphasizing their kitsch value – we insist on reinstating the ironical potential we think has been peremptorily ruled out.

But even then, I’m not sure this is getting me any closer to why I was put off at the gut level – this is all a number of rationalizations down the line. And my immediate feeling wasn’t one of oppression. Maybe the problem is in over-exemplification – in her grace and lovingness and innocence Mary is, or poses as, the final and undiluted instantiation of those things. Again, this can be immoderate and oppressive: a claim that this is the highest, most perfect manifestation and therefore cannot be hyperbolized. But the real kicker is that it has a sense of the uncanny – they are human figures but with an inhuman idealness and unreality, and this human but somehow-not-quite aspect (see this) is what disturbs and alienates.

On an incidental note, and I am not sure in what way, if any, this is related, some of the Moorish décor of the Nasrid palace in the Alhambra has a similar impossibility-of-excess style. All over the walls are repeated passages from the Koran and Islamic catechism, like this:

As the guide pointed out, if you are an Arabic speaker the effect is of entering a room with the same words written all over its walls. If I wasn’t so afraid of the repercussions I’d compare it to that bit in The Simpsons taking off The Shining, where Homer scrawls ‘no beer and no TV make Homer go crazy all over the walls’.

I found the effect beautiful, though as a non-Arabic speaker I suppose it was mainly decorative for me. The same principle seemed to hold: that an uncontestable truth cannot be overstated. It reminds me of the only passage of the Koran I know, in fact not from the Koran (I just found out) but from one of the Hadiths, recounting Muhammed’s vision of the Sixth Heaven. This is quoted from Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (notoriously flaky, apparently) but from having a snoop on Google it seems the Hadith definitely says something very much like this:

I saw there an angel, the most gigantic of all created beings. It had 70,000 heads, each had 70,000 faces, each face had 70,000 mouths, each mouth had 70,000 tongues, and each tongue spoke 70,000 languages; all were employed in singing God’s praises.

Not sure what I’m doing with this. I suppose what immediately crossed my mind was some sort of cross-cultural historical link between Spanish Catholicism and Moorish Islam. But there’s no basis for that, and this is all getting a bit thin. I’ll just call it an interesting parallel and leave it at that.


I recently spent a week in Granada in Spain with my very dear girlfriend Kate. These are my ragged, slightly sangria-splashed impressions.

Granada is beautiful; the weather generally gorgeous; the food was delicious; most of all, the locals we talked to were almost all very friendly and welcoming. In fact, they were lovely, and for this reason I am never going to Italy again.

(The only exception was the chap with the guitar in the Mirador San Nicolás who, like many of his countrymen, sadly mistook shouting for singing. He’s probably still there, belting away, ruining his larynx and the digestion of the nearby diners).


  • The Alhambra, especially the Nasrid palace
  • Habas con jamón (soaked ham and beans – I think I’m only just starting to sweat out the ham fat)
  • Hamam (Arabic baths and massage)
  • Carmen de los Martires – beautiful and seemingly neglected gardens in north-east heights of the city.
  • Realejo, Albaicin, and Sacromonte (esp. the views they give of the Alhambra)

Kate was very keen to visit Sacromonte and Guadix to see the caves there and their modern-day dwellers. Unusually so, actually. I wondered briefly if she was looking to reunite me with my fellow cave-folk, as if escorting a lost ewok back to its tree-house.

Next are slightly more specific impressions, some of which will be very boring indeed. So if you stop reading now, let your take-home be: go to Granada and give them lots of your money, and time, and wild affection.


1. Free tapas with each drink


2. Potemkin high street?

I went there, predictably, with Spain's economic woes in mind, but was taken aback by how affluent Granada seemed, particularly its retail sector. It has a population roughly the same sized population as Oxford, I think, and yet has vastly more high-end clothes shops and boutiques. The Spanish seem to dress quite sharply so it’s conceivable that they are dressing to kill while living on a cup of rice a day, with the odd helping of habas con jamón as a treat (Jesus, those beans). But no doubt about it – there was a lot of swank, and where there is swank there is usually wedge. So if Spain is almost broke, what gives?

The ‘Potemkin villages’, if the term is unfamiliar, were ‘any of the sham villages said to have been built by Potemkin to give a false impression of prosperity in the Crimea’ (OED). It crossed my mind darkly that these businesses might be shop fronts and nothing more – fine facades supported only by maxed-out plastic and over-extended lines of credit. I hope that isn’t the case – and not being economically literate what do I know? – but there was definitely an ominous air, as if this beautiful and smiling city is secretly dying and not able to face that awful fact.

It’s like the last days of Pompeii, had the Romans been into Zara and handbags rather than orgies and slave-thrashing.

Also, the siesta seems crazy to me, though I didn’t experience it from the locals’ perspective (I just stared at shuttered shops and swore at myself for going shopping at the wrong time, again). How committed can you be to the task at hand (that is, your job, which pays for food and shelter, and other luxuries) if you are happy to abandon it for two hours every day, like a bored cat? It jarred with all the other signs that Granada was part of a modern, moving economy. Frau Merkel, I feel your Schmerz. But this is no more than my ignorant foreigner's perspective.

3. Architecture

Many of the churches have large stone panels on them, as below. Does anyone know what they are for? Structural? Decorative – i.e. they once had murals painted on them? To reflect heat better?

4. Spanish < Latin (a real turn to the boring here)

One way I entertained myself in Spain was by working out the regular patterns of sound change between Latin and Spanish. You might think that only the most appalling tedium could bring me to seek my entertainment in such dismal corners of pedantry – but you would be dead wrong, sir. In fact, it often helped me work out the meaning of Spanish words without a dictionary – for instance I was able to work out that signs saying caja denote cash machines because caja corresponds with Latin capsa, French caisse, whence English ‘cash’. I was also helped by the large numbers of Spaniards drawing wodges of banknotes and rubbing their hands.

But seriously, this is quite a useful way for a Latinist (esp. one with a cack-handed grasp of historical linguistics) to guess the meanings of words in Romance languages. It is much easier with Spanish and Italian than it is with French.


Latin word-initial f-  >  Spanish h- (i.e. 0):

furnus  > horno ‘oven’; faba  >  haba ‘bean’; fames  >  hambre ‘hunger’; facere  >  hacer ‘do’

Medial geminate Latin or Romance -ss-  >  Spanish -j-, /x/: 

With It. basso cf.  baja ‘low, beneath’; Fr. pousser  cf. empujar ‘push’; caja as above

/l/ is frequently destabilized (as common throughout IE langs), esp. in any position other than start of syllable onset. So, Lat. -li-  >  Sp. -j-, /x/: 

mulier  >  mujer ‘woman, wife’; al(l)ium  >  ajo ‘garlic’

?? Lat. obstruent + /l/  in syllable onset (or is ‘when word-initial’ better?)  >  Sp. ll-, /ʎ/ 

clamare  >  llamar ‘call’; pluvium  >  lluvio ‘rain’ (cf. Lat. labial consonant + l in syllable onset > It. bi-, pi-, fi-, nebula  >  nebbia, planus  >  piano, flos  >  fiore etc.); with Fr. plage  cf.  llegar ‘arrive’ (for the semantic shift cf. ‘arrive’ > ad + ripa – to arrive is to ‘beach’?)

Lat. -o-  >  Sp. -ue- 

monstrare  >  muestrar ‘show’; ovum  >  huevo ‘egg’; focus  >  fuego ‘fire’

Lat. -ens- (also -ons-, -ans-)  >  Sp. -es- 

sensus  >  sesos ‘sense, brains’; pensus  >  peso ‘that which is weighed out’; monstrare  >  muestrar ‘show’; mansio  >  meson ‘inn, place to stay’ 

Difference between ser and estar also very interesting but I very much doubt I could do it justice. Although alienating to English speakers to think such an all-encompassing idea as ‘being’ can be rendered into separate, discrete ideas, really it just lexicalizes a semantic difference already present in the different senses of ‘be’. I guess one way to approach it is to say that one uses estar when the predicate (is this right?) can be plausibly paraphrased as a prepositional phrase denoting the adjunct mode or state in which the subject finds itself; ser when the predicate is a constitutive attribute of the subject. estar for ‘Eric Blair is warm’ (= in a state of warmth) but not for ‘Eric Blair is George Orwell’ (*= in a state of being George Orwell) or ‘George Orwell is an author’ (*= in an authorial state, in the state of being an author). For the latter two, one would use ser(1)

5. Very Moorish

And now we rejoin the human race.

Granada is most worth visiting for its Moorish remnants and the mixed Moorish-European mudéjar style. The Moorish theme of the city, presumably vital to its tourist pulling-power, has also been boosted by recent immigration from North Africa, such that one could easily believe that the souk-style shopping streets and tea shops (teterías) represent a continuity with Al-Andalus of old. Actually that’s probably the entire point, now I come to think of it. Problematic, though, given that there was no such continuity - Moorish Spain, I think I am right in saying, was thoroughly Christianized in the Reconquista.

A very minor quibble I have with Granada (and there has to be a quibble) is that it seems to prevaricate over the significance of this historical legacy. Aside from the beauty of the historical monuments, which are reason enough to visit, there’s little coherent sense (on the tourist trail at least) of their moral and historical significance. It would be odd to visit WWI battlefields just for the Belgian countryside, as this would perversely ignore the more pressing human and commemorative value they ask us to acknowledge.

Granada, as the last Moorish city in Spain to fall to the Christian reconquest, obviously has a story to tell that is more than the sum total of its old stones, but (on the tourist trail at least) it is unclear whether we are to celebrate its past diversity in ethnicity and religion, and accept the monuments as its proudly surviving legacy, or to lament amid the few remains all that was destroyed in the Reconquista. In other words, what is the human interest, once we've had enough of the architecture - is it tragedy or triumph that so little / so much of Al-Andalus remains?

To take an illustrative example of the celebrate-remains vs. mourn-loss distinction – admittedly a rather extreme and emotive one – it would be perverse to embrace the Krakow Ghetto wall (apparently one of the few remains from the Ghetto’s liquidation by the Nazis) as a lingering presence fortuitously linking us to, and continuing, the Jews’ long history in Poland. Rather, the wall is significant because it implies everything else around it that is now absent and lost to us.

I am not equating the Reconquista to the Holocaust. I do not know enough about the former’s history to say if it even qualifies as ethnic cleansing. Nor am I even sure that Granada is under a moral obligation to confess to the past it obliterated – this has happened in every place and we can’t live our lives as one big apology. But given how prominently the victorious Catholic Monarchs are celebrated in Granada, and given that the Muslim presence in Spain – and therefore also the extinguishing of that presence – were more or less unique events in mainland Western Europe (2), the message seems a little unclear, a little mixed. The illusion of continuity created by the modern North-African stylings is certainly dubious.

But then maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

6. See point no. 1.

  1. Much of this is probably unsound – I guess I could always look it up, but then I don’t want nobody to give me nothing – open up the door, I’ll get it myself.
  2. Is this true?