“A culture is no better than its woods” – W H Auden, “Bucolics”

From Auden’s sequence “Bucolics”, part II, “Woods“, dedicated to Nicholas Nabokov

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

Matthews Oates on butterfly watching, from “In Pursuit of Butterflies”

Butterflying, and Emperoring in particular, does not entail hours of walking, but eternities of standing about, watching and waiting. Patience is everything, and those of us who have spent our youths fishing will have mastered this essential skill. Sitting down is no good, as it narrows the field of vision too much, as any hunter will appreciated. So, butterflying is more akin to game angling than coarse fishing. One of my favourite standing places was in a young conifer plantation, where I would loiter for hours, gazing up at the adjoining oak edge in wait of Purple Emperors and their attendant knight, the Purple Hairstreak. Early in July I found a rusty milk churn in another wood, and laboured it on my shoulder to where it was needed. … I stood on that milk churn for hours and hours, gazing up at the oak edge. No one ever saw me. It was an excellent vantage point. The churn stands there still, a forgotten monument to times gone by, but woods are strewn with the features of personal memories. They collect them.

I loved this passage, from what is proving a hugely enjoyable book, for two reasons. One is the invocation of the value of being one of those who “only stand and wait”, a necessary admonition to our restless age. The power of still observation, of waiting, is profoundly countercultural. Secondly, I love the invocation of forests as repositories of human memories. Analogous to the urban concept of the Tomason (or Thomason) but without the overtones of civilisational decay and more richly personal, I wonder could there be a word coined for these “features of personal memories” that populate the landscape.

Our Selves, Alone. Extract 4. Nthposition. 2010

“When society was organised along rational lines, it is surprising how many people were left behind.” That line is striking on re-reading this stories. I am not sure how well my attempts to describe Kelly’s perception of books and kettles and other early 21st century commonplace objects is.  Initially when I posted serial extracts from the story I thought it was “really about” psychiatry and my own feelings about it, but as it goes on it seems to be “really about” standardisation and technocracy. Or is it “really about” the impossibility of doing without some kind of illusion (or “illusion”)? Of course, the scare quotes should be a giveaway that it isn’t “really about” anything.

 

Full story here. and Extract 1 here and Extract 2 here and  Extract 3 here.

 

Kelly awoke to light streaming through the window. Still more asleep than not, she experienced seeing the room from the doorway, seeing herself in the bed eyes half open, seeing the rumbled sheets, seeing the wooden stained bedside locker, seeing the old mirror hanging on the wall, seeing the bare window without curtains or blinds. Then she was back inside herself, and aware of how painful her head was. She lay there, unsure of whether to sleep or get up to go the toilet. Then she was seized by nausea, all over her and all inside her.

She walked out of the house. The fresh air helped. Above loomed the mass of Mount Errigal. From a distance so distinctive with its double peak, closeup it was a indeterminate bulk, dominating the landscape but curiously absent. On the other side, fields sloped down to an ancient road, more pothole than tarmacadam, weaved beside a stream sunk out of view. This was a cosy little valley, tucked away amidst the harsh landscape of the mountains. There was a satisfying smallness of scale – the houses, which would have been dwarfed by the peaks anywhere else in this area, seemed commensurate to their surroundings.

A donkey was grazing at the edge of the field, right up against the edge of the road. Kelly made her way down to it. The placid animal did not stir as she approached, and began to gently pat its head. Kelly, trained to be wary of anthropomorphism, nevertheless found herself thinking that the animal was a kind, rather long-suffering beast. It is absurd, she thought, and yet she went on thinking this.

This was her tenth day in the mountains.Or was it her eleventh? On her previous visits she had been warned that the roads were impassable, the inhabitants hostile when they were articulate, and frighteningly inarticulate when they weren’t hostile. Manus had told her that the mountain people spoke a dialect of a dialect that was itself difficult for outsiders to begin with. He had said that he couldn’t help her decipher their speech.

Dr Gallagher had been her guide. At the beginning of their session, she had asked him where he lived. He gestured out towards Termon, and that bend in the road that was known as the limit of not only iMe coverage but of what would have been called, in a less enlightened era of anthropology, civilisation. At the end of their session, after Gallagher has expressed himself in nearly five hours of stream-of-consciousness, recorded digitally by Kelly and simultaneously being stored, via iMe, in the Research Archives back in Cambridge, MA, she had asked him again.

“Over that way.” he had replied. He was visibly drained from the effort of recollection and debate, and simply grunted the words with no accompanying gesture.

“Where?”

“In the mountains.”

She had persuaded him to take her there. Gallagher started a battered internal combustion vehicle, and driven along a road that, while dramatically potholed by North American standards, was nothing new for Kelly. She knew that they were heading towards Creeslough, and the coastline that would lead towards the wild shores of Bloody Foreland and Gweedore. It was a dull grey day, with greyness penetrating even the greenery. The road rose and fell. Suddenly, a few miles beyond Kilmacrenan, Gallagher took a sharp left turn, at a point where Kelly would have expected him to go straight on. This was just at Termon, but before the bend in the road where iMe went down. There was, dimly discernable, a slightly road-shaped furrow in the ground they were driving on, and as Gallagher continued Kelly began to realized that this must have once been a fully tarmacadamed road.

This road was straight enough for a while, and in places the tarmac showed through. Abandoned bungalows and farmhouses were scattered around. The countryside looked like reasonably good farmland. Immediately after passing the shell of a bungalow, perfect in desolate splendid symmetry, the terrain became a good deal rockier and the road began to twist and turn. Bulky mountains loomed all around, with Errigal – familiar to Kelly only from a distance – off to the left.

The day became less grey, and a mix of bogland colours took over the visual fielld. The sky was streaked with low, long clouds. Gallagher kept looking straight on. At one point, just after a stretch of smoother track than usual, they passed a stone wall on the left, with “Glenveagh National Park” engraved.

Lakes and forests came into view. While she had not noticed the road rising, she realized that they were now at a considerable height. The bulk of Errigal grew ever closer. Then, with a sudden sense of being perched between the mountain on the right and a sheer drop to twin lakes on the left, they were at the mountain.

The road curved along the side of the mountain. Little waterfalls were everywhere, each above a glistening green clump of moss. Rocks seemed to grow out of moss and small streams. The peak looked different at this angle, no longer twin summits with a crescent path between, but a more amorphous thing, difficult to see in one vision. Ruined houses abounded on the slope leading down to the lakes to their left. Suddenly, the mountain was past, and Gallagher took the car up what seemed to be nothing but a hill. Kelly grasped the side of her seat, and again after a little adjustment – like the adjustment of the eye to darkness – she realised that this was also a road. The grass was very slightly paler then that surrounding it. Soon, they stopped at what looked like another deserted bungalow.

**

“It looks pretty wrecked from the outside, doesn’t it?”

“Is this another ruin?”

“…of the obsolete vernacular architectural form known as the bungalow? It certainly is.”

Gallagher prodded what seemed to be a rotting wooden door. It swung open, seeming to Kelly about to break on its hinges. They walked inside.

The bungalow itself has looked simple, a combination of straight lines. The tiny windows

Kelly felt overwhelmed by plenitude. Everywhere her gaze turned, she saw strange slivers of colour. Dark red, faded yellow, white offset by a green tint, bright blue – there was no pattern to the arrangements of colours. On most of the slivers, she saw shapes that she realised after initial confusion were letters on their sides. These slivers of colour were the spines of written passives – books. Every possible walls space was taken up by books on shelves, and piles of books were heaped on three long tables that were running through the room. On one wall, there was clearly a cooking apparatus, and also a device she recognised as being used to boil water to prepare infusions. The room was lit from both the tiny windows and a dim light from the centre of three tall devices on each table. This gave the effect sometimes experienced in historically-set interactive passives of candlelight. The room was also quite warm, though there was no obvious source of heat. The overall sensation was of not only being surrounded by books, but of actually being part of them, at one with them. Out the tiny windows one could see grass, and a little strip of sky, but they looked the most artificial things in the scene.

Gallagher was looking at Kelly with a certain complacency.

“You’re impressed,” he said.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“So many books, or rather ‘written passives’ as they are supposed to be called now. There was never anything passive about reading, I can tell you.”

“I remember as a child, my grandmothers house was full of books. When she died, my parents had them all taken away for pulp. I was only six. I remember crying and crying and crying, and screaming when they were to be taken away.”

“Really? That mustn’t be all that long ago.”

“25 years.”

“You’re talking normally now, have you noticed?”

“You mean incorrectly?”

“Yes, you are talking in a way that perpetuates the illusion of the self, the illusion of reliable memory, the illusion of linear time. A host of philosophical errors are manifest in your speech. It hasn’t quite conquered all, this Correct Speech. All these now selves and past selves and continuing selves.”

“No, it hasn’t. And yet, I have never forgot myself like this before.”

“It takes time. Believe me, I know. I was interested in philosophy, once. Indeed, I was once at the forefront of trying to bring Correct Speech to Donegal. Only the people who fancied themselves cultivated used it, and then they all left, pretty much. When society was organised along rational lines, it was surprising how many people got left behind.”

“You sound like a militia man.”

“What do they call themselves? Minutemen? That’s a word that’s meant many things over the years. But here, sit you down and let me make you a cup of tea.”

He gestured at a wooden chair, whose seat was covered with just a few magazines. Kelly sat and stared at the cover. They were Irish political magazines of the early twenty-first century, chronicling the petty political woes of those days before the Contraction had forced rationality on the public sphere. Arguments about motorways, about airlines, about broadband internet (some kind of ancestor of iMe and TotalWeb; Kelly could not contain her boredom when faced with earnest histories of technology) She read threw some. Then sudden an odd high pitched whistle came from the room, near the cooking apparatus. It was the water boiling. Kelly had heard much of the once overwhelmingly popularity of this infusion in Ireland. This would, however, be her first time tasting tea.

Later that day, Gallagher showed her around the bungalow; she was inducted into the rituals of everyday life such as how to work the cooker and the lamps. He showed off the central heating system, “based on what the Ancient Romans did, they did more than own slaves and be generally patriarchial, you know” and what he called the septic tank. Most of all, he showed her the books – the biographies, the novels, the volumes of poetry and of history, the disciplines discredited for perpetuating one illusion or another. He was one moment tart and cynical, another enthusiastic and boyish, another grave and wise-seeming. That first day passed in a blur, and she feel asleep on a rug in the corner of the main room, drifting off amidst the enormous towers of books.

The tale of the Tomason part 2 – piece “Tomason and Thomason” from nthposition, November 2013

Part II of my Tomason/Thomason/Thomasson revival  …this was originally found here  and entirely failed to ignite any kind of interest in this blog I wrote for a while.

electronology

More recently I thought of writing a piece on the Thomasons / Tomasons / Thomassons of that megapolis Fethard – but haven’t got round to it yet

Tomason and Thomason

A few years ago, I came across the concept of the “Tomason” in Bruce Sterling’s introduction to Glenn Grant’s short story collection Burning Days. In my review of Burning Days, I paraphrased Sterling thus: “those solid parts of our urban environment which once had a definitive, eminently practical purpose but are now shorn of this, yet are still adrift and rooted in our everyday world.”

A short time later, I was walking along Frederick Street in Dublin, a short street perpendicular to Nassau Street and just opposite the railings of Trinity College. I noticed a formation of alarm boxes (or at least that’s what I call them, I’m sure there is a more precise technical term for the box bearing the alarm company logo which adorns the property thus protected) arranged in a sort of demicircle to the left of a Georgian door mantel.

One of the alarm boxes bore the confident logo “Modern Alarms” (http://alarmsofdublin.blogspot.ie/2012/04/modern-alarms-south-frederick-street.html ), another a unicorn which apparently represented “Electronology Limited” and which I liked for its unclear visual relationship with any aspect of the security industry. I began to notice alarm boxes more; shiny, evidently active boxes; boxes with rusting fronts and faded if not invisible logos; boxes with phone numbers that predated later digit expansion. It struck me that the alarm box was potentially one of the more productive sources of Tomasons. Presumably many of even the most faded-seeming boxes are still active, but surely many weren’t.

It probably ages me considerably that I used Blogger rather than Tumblr to create a photo blog devoted the alarm boxes of Dublin (or wherever else I might find myself) but there you go. Alarmsofdublin.blogspot.com was created to approximately zero traffic, as far as I can see. The blog nevertheless became a place I could upload photos of alarm boxes, whether unused or simply interesting-looking. There as a pesky problem. I wished to contextualise the blog by writing about Tomasons. But, Sterling’s intro aside, there was very little I could find online. So much so that I began to suspect that it might not only be a neologism of Bruce Sterling, but possibly an elaborate private joke.

It turns out that the “Tomason” was first promulgated by the Japanese conceptual artist Genpei Akasegawa, and was named for the gaijin Yomiuri Giants baseballer Gary Thomasson. Thomasson, formerly of the San Francisco Giants, was noted in Japan for securing an extremely lucrative contract and proceeding to play poorly and retire early. It seems loaning his name to a de-functional urban object is now his lasting legacy.

There is, at the time of writing, a Simple English Wikipedia page for “Tomason” but not in the “ordinary” English Wikipedia. Genpei Akasegawa comes fourth in Wikipedia’s Tomason search results; the first three results refer to Audrey Tomason, the counterterrorism expert featured in the famous photo of President Obama and various other luminaries watching the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Simple English Wikipedia article elucidates subcategories of Tomason as followings (syntax as per the article on October 30th 2013): “Tomason can be grouped by features they have in common. These include: ‘useless stairways’, ‘pointless doorways’, ‘overhangs’, ‘blocked windows’, ‘sealed up walls’, ‘A-bomb type’, High places (高所 kōsho?) (doors opening from a high place into open air), ‘outies’, ‘poundcakes’, ‘atago’ (strange bumps or things sticking up out of the road for no reason), ‘premature burial’ (when a wall is built partly covering an existing feature), and more.” The article also lead me to a Japanese Tomason Flickr page and a blog post from 2008 which had somehow escaped me and which summarised the Tomason more gracefully than I had managed: “If dame architecture is the awkward result of relentless functionality, Tomason are the useless, abandoned leftovers. Stairs to nowhere are a favorite. Bricked up windows are a close second. Tomason are the flashings and detritus of the incessant churn of building, destruction, and redevelopment that characterizes the Japanese city. No clean slates here, no way.”

The alarm logo Tomason is not one of the more spectacular ones – not as evocative as the staircase to nowhere, or the blocked windows, and unlikely to be described as one of the “A-Bomb type.” Nevertheless, it is one of the more accessible Tomasons, one which unobtrusively testifies to the faded dreams of security of days past.