The lost world of Ana Olgica

The lost world of Ana Olgica


Continuing from my profile of the work of Amity Cadet, I thought I would focus on another artist, once legendary, now only known by a fraction of their life’s work.

Unlike Amity Cadet, however, Ana Olgica is represeneted on Spotify by not one, but two works. Here, from YouTube, is “Sugarcane”:

On 7th September 1968, the Venice Film Festival was concluding, with the Golden Lion being awarded to Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed directed by the West German philosopher Alexander Kluge. In New York, an organisation called New York Radical Women organised a protest against the Miss America pageant that sent bra-burning into the public consciousness. Elsewhere in New York, the New Yorker on that date published George Steiner‘s essay “A Death of Kings”

Steiner’s essay begins:

“There are three intellectual pursuits, and so far as I am aware, only three, in which human beings have performed major feats before the age of puberty. They are music, mathematics, and chess. Mozart wrote music of undoubted competence and charm before he was eight. At the age of three, Karl Friedrich Gauss reportedly performed numerical computations of some intricacy; he proved himself a prodigiously rapid but also a fairly deep arithmetician before he was ten. In his twelfth year, Paul Morphy routed all comers in New Orleans – no small feat in a city that, a hundred years ago, counted several formidable chess players. Are we dealing here with some kind of elaborate imitative reflexes, with achievements conceivably in reach of automata? Or do these wondrous miniature beings actually create?”

As it happened, 7th September 1968, in the city of Novi Sad, in what was then the Socialist Republic of Serbia, which was a constituent republic of what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a baby girl who would become known to the world as Ana Olgica was born. And she would perform major feats in all three “intellectual pursuits” Steiner identified.

Her real name, and her parentage, are unknown. Rumours would abound in the Belgrade of the later 1970s. They were university professors, demoted in the aftermath of the 1968 student protests in Belgrade. Or they were in some way linked to Tito’s inner circle. She made public appearances alone, without reference to a mother or a father.

At the age of five, Olgica performed on a Belgrade stage, playing over fourteen nights Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. At the age of six, she defeated Boris Spassky – still, perhaps still, perhaps, not quite recovered from his defeat by Bobby Fischer in the famous 1972 World Championship, in a ten game series held in Rome. At the age of seven, she delivered a paper On the stability of the linear mapping in Banach spaces to the American Academy of Sciences.

With an infectious smile, Ana became a propaganda fixture of the latter days of the Tito regime. This deflected somewhat from her gargantuan talents. Furthermore, there was continual speculation that some kind of trickery was involved. Never mind that she played music and chess in exactly the same conditions as any one else, or that her mathematical papers were subject the the full rigour of the worldwide mathematical community’s review. What did she herself think of this suspicion? Her warm smile and sunny demeanour on stage seemed to suggest that she was at ease. But no press interviews were ever allowed; even with supine Yugoslav state media.

As the 1970s progressed, the world seemed to tire of the precocious girl. Like so many prodigies, what seemed initially miraculous soon became ho-hum, run of the mill. Just as the world reacted with wonder at Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon but the stupendous achievement of Apollo was met with more and more indifference, Ana Olgica continued to excel in her three areas. The Yugoslav state would send her on visits to nations where she would perform on the piano, deliver a mathematical paper, and beat a Grandmaster in an exhibition. Yet this schedule did not vary. In the later 1970s, Ana Olgica did not appear.

It was May 4th 1984, three years to the day after the death of Tito, that Ana Olgica reappeared to the world. She released a record, a single entitled “Sugarcane.” Yugoslavia, more Western-leaning than the Warsaw Pact, had something of a music industry, and through this the mysterious, placid, self-contained “Sugarcane” was released. It would become an hit in Yugoslavia, Norway, Belgium and San Marino. And still, Ana Olgica was as inaccessible to the media as ever. Now 15, there were no publicly available photos. Rumours spread that she was the cover for a German disco producer’s dabbling in the new ambient style.

Over the rest of the 1980s, a torrent of Ana Olgica works followed. They followed a similar style to “Sugarcane”, but utilised a bewildering range of solo instrumentation. Pipe organ, harpsichord, cello, double bass, trombone, tuba, glass harmonica, gamelan, french horn, oboe, bassoon, violin, violin, steel drum, xylophone, theremin, trumpet, flute, guitar, accordion, banjo, ukelele, bass drum… all were used individually, to create a world of gentle, yet flowing enchantment. These albums came out via the Belka Tashmaydan label, and achieved milestones internationally. The first commercially available CD in New Zealand was her “Glowing”, recorded entirely on hammered dulcimer. The highest selling album in Japan in 1988 was her “Panoply”, recorded on Northumberland bagpipes. A recording of her piece “Smoothness”, recorded on Fife drum, was launched into space aboard the space probe Galileo.

And then Yugoslavia broke up. Even more obscure than the obscurity of Ana’s prior years is what happened over the next decade. It is as if the stage were in shadow, and suddenly a kind of reverse spotlight thrust her into deeper darkness. What did happen is that Belka Tashmaydan became the subject of UN sanctions, and in the aftermath of these it transpired the company was being used to launder money from the heroin trade in Milan. The assets of Belka Tashmaydan, including the Ana Olgica recordings, remain in a legal limbo, and her albums of the 1980s cannot be released, or even mentioned, due to ongoing cases in the courts of eleven countries.

So her songs go unheard. Except “Sugarcane”, which was not released by Belka Tashmaydan, and one more song which appeared in 2000, just after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. “Atoms” is a song of quiet devastation, with a sense of loss that both sums up and transcends its historical moment. Ana Olgica may record again, but in “Atoms” she achieved a summation of all her musical work before. In a way, to hear “Atoms” and “Sugarcane” is to hear all her vast, eternal output, and to recognise that here was one prodigy who survived the crushing expectations of a demanding state and jaded global public to achieve a measure of peace.


“the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want” – Adam deVille on prayer and psychoanalysis

I have linked before to Eastern Christian Books, the blog of Adam de Ville. One of deVille’s recurrent themes is the unnecessary and unhelpful perceived antagonism between psychoanalysis and religion.. I recently linked to a brilliant post on the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and the idea of the “normotic” self.

DeVille’s most recent post is a particular highlight. Again he draws on Bollas, but also the theologian Herbert McCabe. I particular love the line on prayer from McCabe that deVille cites here, contrasting the worthy things our superegos tend to direct us to exhort the Almighty to do with the “vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want”:

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that “psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives,” as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is “disconcerting” for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas … says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand “subverts the analyst’s natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient’s wish to be dominated.”

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of “spiritual direction,” much of which consists of attempts at “mind control” as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one’s narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself–a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better–start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn’t come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I’ll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the “fundamental rule” (cf. Freud’s “On Beginning the Treatment”) of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be “the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want,” instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we’re distracted during prayer, it’s because we’re not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to–the “proper and respectable and ‘religious'” things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, “you could let world peace rest for a while.”And while you’re at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they “are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer.” (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain “ordinary regression to dependence” for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

Daniel Kalder on Cold War Armageddon

Children of the 1980s recall the pervasive atmosphere of imminent nuclear devastation which we somehow survived. Not unlike Daniel Kalder with the naval base warning siren, I found that the sound of jet engines could trigger a cascade of apocalyptic anxieties. We read – in the various worthy books for serious children in the library – that the world could be destroyed over and over again by the US and USSR’s arsenals each considered alone.

From Daniel Kalder’s text to accompany the “Lost Territories” exhibit:

Those of us old enough to remember the Cold War are privileged to have known, in acute form, the terror of the real and imminent threat of nuclear Armageddon. It was a peculiar psychological state, and one for which I feel a curious and inexplicable nostalgia: that awareness that at any time the entire human race could be wiped out at the flick of a switch.

For children, of course, the terror was even more profound, as it was so much harder for us to understand why we all might suddenly die by fire. I lived near a naval base in Scotland and the regular tests of the 8-minute warning siren, an eerie wailing audible as I played in my garden, instilled in me a cold panic: Am I really going to burn?

By contrast, today’s most prevalent doomsday scenario- climate change- unfolds slowly, and offers us an escape route so long as we switch to renewable sources of energy and eat more organic carrots. In its sense of imminence, nuclear Armageddon was closer to the terror of the Last Days as felt by the early Christians, but far more capricious, and infinitely more hopeless. A sublime ultra-violence from the sky would kill us all, and whatever unlucky remnant did survive would succumb to slow death by radiation poisoning.

And what exactly was it we were fighting over? Coke vs. Pepsi? Whose skyscrapers were the tallest? Something about noble proletarians and top hat-wearing villains? That, I think. Like Manichaeism, which once reached from the streets of Rome to the endless steppes of Asia it’s all gone, although moth-eaten copies of the sacred texts can still be found. Pick one up, however, and the threat we lived under makes even less sense. I mean, have you read The State and Revolution?

Great facts-of-life scenes: Elizabeth Taylor, “At Mrs Lippincote’s”

I read somewhere that someone (bear with me) explained the facts of life to their son by reading them a chapter of Richard Llewellyn’s “How Green Was MY Valley” wherein a father explains the facts of life to his son. I don’t think I, or anyone else, will be using this from Chapter 8 Elizabeth Taylor’s “At Mrs Lippincote’s” (by the way, Oliver is seven … and this Hardy, Brontë and Stevenson reading child is regularly referred to as ‘backward’ without apparent irony by other characters):


“I still don’t make out where babies come from,” said Oliver, when he closed his book, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “Oh, where from. I know that. But not how that began.”

“Oh,” said Julia. “I see. Well, now,” she assumed an expression, controlled her mouth. A flat and unemotional tone, she had read once in a pamphlet on sex-instruction. He wondered what was wrong with her voice. “This bores her,” he decided. She sounded unutterably fatigued. “It bores her more than anything else in the world.” Julia, busy drawing on the back of an envelope, seemed to be conveying a wrong impression and leaving out the most important part. She had never been good at drawing and had in any case only a hazy idea as to how such things are arranged. Bladder, then some loopy tubes, glands. ‘It looks like a picture of a Sheraton chair ‘, she fought, discouraged Half-way through , curiosity made her give a glance at him. His gaze slanted down away from her, at the table. When she stopped speaking, his eyes swept down under the lids and took a narrow peep at her. He rolled up his handkerchief and stuffed it into his mouth.

The door opened. “What is it?” asked Roddy.
“As, there you are!” She rocked and sobbed, than stopped and dabbing her eyes, rose briskly. “The facts of life,” she explained.

Roddy, who had also read a pamphlet on how babies are born, was appalled.

“Don’t look so hurt! She cried. “You are not responsible. You are only a victim.”

She stacked up the tray. “You are home very early, Roddy.”

“Yes. The Old Man’s gone to a conference, so Is skipped off. I thought I might be able to give you some help for the party.”

“Ah, how kind of you. We’ll twist the furniture round in the drawing-room and see what we can make of it.” She went out with the tray.

Roddy, who as a leader of men disregarded the intricacies of his own body, looked at Julia’s drawing without recognition; then, conscious that his son now regarded his parents in a new light (and hilariously at that) he murmured “Well, then,” rocked on his heels uncertainly for a moment and followed Julia.

Oliver, when his amusement had died down, began to feel he owed his parents some kindness. He was touched that his father had gone to such lengths to bring about his existence and that Julia should have been so bored. ‘I must try to be a better son,’ he thought. ‘I will run wild more and please them.’

Dylan Thomas, Poem in October, read by Dylan Thomas

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

You can’t look after others if you are dead: Blogging the Octonauts – Manatees, S2, E19.

Having three children under 10, a reasonable proportion of my time is spent watching children’s programmes. While I have of late been damning the notion that there is such thing as a digital native, no one can doubt that we live in a far more media saturated world than the one we grew up in. Whether this actually has far reaching cognitive impacts is another thing, but it is a challenge as a parent to find the balance in a world where children could theoretically watch a programme literally all the time. This is even more so the case in world where the moral posturing and virtue signalling around children’s culture (a rather clumsy formulation, but there you go) is stronger than ever

Anyhow, one of my very favourite programmes is the OctonautsSlightly magna-ified sea creatures posse who embark on Jacques Cousteau-ish adventures, this show – based on Meomi’s book series (though somewhat more grounded in realistic marine biology)

The shows are warm, engaging, and often rather witty. It feels a little churlish to begin a series of occasional blog posts with a mild criticism, especially in an otherwise delightful episode… but here we go.

The Octonauts and the Manatees” involves the Octonauts moving a group of manatees away from a lightning storm. In this episode, the manatees themselves are engagingly detailed, laid-back surfer-dude type vegetarians. Gentle tiki tiki music plays as their theme. Indeed, they are one of my favourite among the creatures the Octonauts help (and in real life too – and I am sad to report just discovering that Snooty the world’s oldest manatee died only a couple of weeks ago.

Back to the Octonauts, what’s not to love? Well, there is one thing… probably the only quibble I have with the whole Octonaut canon (except possibly a mild tendency to product placement)

In this episode, Captain Barnacles’ GUP is struck by lightning. This is what leads to him meeting the manatees in the first place, and therefore his rescue. However, Barnacles has to abandon his GUP and finds his paw stuck in a giant claw. He cannot move at all. Yet he does not ask his fellow Octonauts for help – despite multiple occasions to do so, and ultimately runs perilously short of air. I won’t ruin anything else (well, this is a children’s programme) but Barnacles is show subjugating his own life or death situation to the need to have the manatees looked after.

The Octonauts spirit of helping all creatures great and small is admirable (although the moral dilemma of how one helps prey evade predator, and in the next episode predator out of their snafu, is not fully grappled with) In this episode, however, I was a bit disturbed by how far Barnacles takes the principle of not asking for help while the manatees need help. It is a well established principle that if you take care of others, you need to take of yourself. In life support courses from simple CPR ones to Basic Life Support to Advanced Cardiac Life Support it is emphasised to check one’s own safety first. This is for a good reason; dead, you can’t help anyone much.

Octonauts is a wonderful show and I hope to blog more (and in a more openly enthuiastic vein) about some of the episodes in future – but this rather reckless self-denial is something I wish were a little different.

Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’