Friday, June 15, 2007

Dying for the Words

A rare event: I got talking to a fellow cinemagoer after we caught each other surreptitiously checking out our tear-reddened eyes in the washroom mirror after the film. Talking about things that make us cry, I mentioned the newspaper, and she cited a story she'd heard on BBC World this week about the assassination of master calligrapher Khalil al-Zahawi in Baghdad. And that's the only traditional news outlet where I could find information. Blogger liosliath, at Morocco Time, links to the BBC article and to some examples of al-Zahawi's calligraphy. Follow the link for the art, not the blog, which is reductionist and partisan in claiming al-Zahawi's death as part of a Zionist plot.

From the other reductionist, partisan corner comes Bobfrombrockley, who makes the excellent point that there's been no news coverage of this story in the English-speaking world (comparable to, say, David Hockney being mugged and shot and no-one reporting it), and the slightly less sound point that al-Zahawi's death somehow proves that the US & UK are right to be in Iraq.

Logic fails. Words fail. Language is shorn of beauty. A library burns.

Also in memory of novelist, filmmaker, educator, provocateur Ousmane Sembene.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Innocuous yet volatile? Verbose yet inchoate?

Yes, I have been wasting more time online in the last couple of days, on a new site called Wordie. I was tipped off by the LibraryThing bloggers, who were offering alternative pursuits to bookhounds howling at the downed LT server.

And it's soooooo addictive. It's one of those fabulous web applications that seems almost, but not too, useful -- aha, you say, a place to store all the words I don't understand from reading critical theory, and see if other people understand them. Or, wow, now I can save up all my silly anglo-francisms. Or collect lovely made-up words from poems. Or try to have the most neologisms. And so the lists proliferate... Unlike, Wordie doesn't seem to exist in order to cache demeaning sexist and racist slang 'inventions' of bored wiggas. Or if it does, I haven't really tripped over that list yet.

Wordnerds may be equally unappealingly elitist, but who can resist the almost embarrassingly profligate sensual charm of vega's gems of colour list? It's like an art store for poets!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Be Kind, Read Wild

On a completely different note, my friend Alison talked me into adding iRead to my Facebook page yesterday -- I was waiting for books in the British Library and bored, so not so much with the arm-twisting. It made me realise that I hadn't written a thing on this blog for ages, hence the guilt-induced double post.

Particularly shamefully, I forgot to post a book launch for Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilisation, a book that seems far from my normal beat, but is a) written by one of the best teachers I ever had, Ted Chamberlin, and b) is actually a book about the entwined history of humanity and its companion species that offers a horse's eye view on colonialism, agriculture, war, poetry and just about everything. It was held in the lovely new branch of Daunt Books in Holland Park, the latest flowering of the fiercely independent travel bookstore whose musty attic galleries of antiquarian maps and books in the original Marylebone High Street branch suffused my teenage years with a wanderlust that has been largely bookish. Books and travel are natural partners in my mind, two ways of exploring, two kinds of journeys. Ted's books - not only Horse, but also If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? - are ideal travel companions: anecdotal, erudite, political and passionate in equal measures.

Horse is not the only book currently fanning the fires of summer wanderlust (the execrable air in London is also doing its bit - yesterday it was, I swear, brown by 7pm). Chamberlin points out that part of the horse's fascination for writers/riders is its double signification of wildness and domestication - the promise of mobility and the promise of home. It's a paradox that would, I think, delight Jay Griffiths, author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, who lights out for the homes that EuroWestern thought sees as wilderness (the Amazon basin, Nunavut, the Australian outback, West Papua), and finds there that a sense of wildness is instrumental in making home for the people who live within and with it.

I absolutely fell in love with Wild from the first review I read in the Observer, followed by a fortnight's wait to have the book in my hands - during which I read everything I could find about the author: an interview in G2, an old Utne cover story that sets out the philosophy of wild time that lies behind the book, and some loopy, goofy, charming, playful writing for magazines like Resurgence and Aisling.

The web - its very name suggesting stuck, caught, constrained - is not the best place to meet Griffiths, although searching for her work does point to the wilds of the web, the way it brings small magazines to a wider community and allows them to connect with one another. Its webbiness is taken back from Spiderman and returned to Spider Woman, to Anansi, and to the increasingly uncommon garden spider as a labour of love, of storytelling, of subsistence.

That wild style isn't mine, but an imitation in tribute of Griffiths. Her wor(l)dplay is reminiscent of the wise, wild Mary Daly and another Spider Woman, poet Cecilia Vicuña, the title of whose English-language collection The Weaving of Words and the Unravelling of Water could also serve for Wild. As the Independent's review points out, Griffith has found wildness within an English paradoxically domesticated by globalisation. She returns frequently to the roots of words whose wood has been transformed into bland flatpack furniture.

One such astonishing etymology, that threw even this Inga Muscio reader, was Griffths' connection of "cunt" not only to "kenning" and other words for knowledge, but to "kind." Hello! I once spent an entire semester studying the use of the word "kind" in a Coleridge poem (I can't remember which poem, instructive in itself) with the archetypal eccentric professor, and although spiralling into all sorts of places - Japanese woodcuts, Roma songs, Saussurean linguistics - to explore the full menaing of "kind" as an animist Brotherhood of Species, not once was sex, gender or sexual difference mentioned. Even though (through the haze of memory) I think that the poem was about fatherhood and lacked more than the shadow of a mother.

Similarly, the reviews I've read of Griffiths' book (four so far) have all conformed to the notions of suburban, patriarchal, disembodied deathliness against which she sets the lifeforce of wildness, by glossing over the thread of kindness through her book, focused as it is on womankind, women's kindred to the wild, and particularly the kindness and kenning of cunts. While some of Griffiths' country business (in Shakespeare's pun) is the useful stuff of travel literature (how do you change a tampon while canoeing up the Amazon? hiking through West Papua?), there are passages of prose dedicated to the interconnections of interior and exterior wildscapes. Rather than sublime unknowability inspiring feats of phallic conquest, Griffiths learns and shares an indigenous sense of respect for the necessary mystery, an unknowing that is the basis of true knowing.

I'm tempted to quote whole chapters, but that would be like turning the Rockies into ski-chalet subdivisions: this is a book whose (argument is that) wildness is in its wholeness, and that wholeness is in wildness. To read it is a kindness - a gentling of the spirit, a sense of affinity, an erotic learning and an elemental call to action.

Bureau of Film Incompetence?

Cary Bazalgette's letter in today's Guardian is the latest strike against the British Film Institute's mishandling of its role. As Cary points out, control of the BFI has been given to the Film Council, a commercial body whose total contribution to the canon of British cinema is Sex Lives of the Potato Men. The full woe of the story is documented - of course - on a blog, bfiwatch, run by Pam Cook, a BFI and Screen author.

Here's my take, unsanctioned by senior academics, just based on interactions with various high-ups in the BFI over the last year, and also on conversations with library staff. In the tradition of corporate takeovers, the Film Council is now severing the BFI into edible chunks under the cover of convergence and flagship-ness. Squillions of pounds were poured (literally, the place is made of very expensive concrete) into the ugly echo chamber of the BFI Southbank's new "wing" (think 1970s brutalist institution rather than beautiful bird), while the library struggles to fund new acquisitions and, er, pay staff.

While many researchers gently mock the BFI Library - until last year, the catalogue was entirely DOS-based and required an advanced degree in information science to find anything; there's no internet available, wireless or otherwise; the microfiche machines print ghost copy - they do so with great fondness and, more than that, a long, democratic history of use. Because the library is public, all you need to work there is a library membership (roughly a tenth of the cost of a London Library membership) and a pen (yes, a library that allows pens!) There are open shelves for browsing current and reference material, as well as a treasure trove of publicity material, deposited screenplays, audiotapes and videos. You may find yourself working alongside well-known film scholars such as Laura Mulvey or film journalists or producers or costume designers or students. All sorts of names pass over the screen that lets you know your books have arrived from the basement.

Most important of all, the staff know the collection brilliantly -- able to judge whether it's worth searching for that obscure Polish film magazine, and equally able to advise on how to find what you don't even know you're looking for. Currently, there are too few staff working too few hours, because of pay cuts siphoning off money to the empty concrete box on the other side of the river. While it's undeniably exciting that the new Mediatheque is (selectively) making material from the National Film and Television Archives available to viewers on site and on tour around the country, it just points up further the way in which the Library and Publishing divisions are being regarded as poor relations. It just reinforces a comment made to me by a student in a first-year film studies course:

"What do you mean there's a reading package? This is a film course!"