Monday, September 12, 2011

Music can be a peculiar thing. It can attach itself to emotions and memories in a way like nothing I can think of. I dug out one of my old cds yesterday. It's not anything particularly amazing, in fact I doubt many other people have it, but that doesn't really matter much. I bought it nearly two years ago in the Borders closing down sale. Now everytime I put it on I'm pulled back to another place. Suddenly I'm living in Kelvinhaugh Street again, it's about fifteen below (at the time we thought that this was unusually cold for December!) and I've a slightly loud and excitable Slovenian in the room next to me. I'm not all that interested in database design but I have got this really cool particle physics project to work on. For another five tracks this will be very close to being my world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Twas time for a change.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Cremation of Sam McGee -- Robert Service

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘taint being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows—O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
Then I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked;” . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

With Eyes Wide Open

Taking a small step from routine can have a strangely profound effect on how we see the world. Take away the familiar and it seems that the mind just doesn't know what it is meant to take in and what it is meant to reject anymore. To compensate it begins to observe everything. All the tiny details that ordinarily would be disregarded from experience as being of no importance to the tasks at hand. Suddenly we are able to see the world around us with far greater clarity and are amazed by what we have been missing. A change of location is one of the greater causes of this effect.

It is with this in mind that I think back to last weekend. Being the first time I'd returned to Scotland since moving south at the end of the summer, there were many such subtle discoveries to be made. For instance, it transpires that I actually do like bagpipes. I'd always treated them as somewhat of a nuisance, a bit like dogs barking in the street late at night. And yet, there is nothing that can quite compare to their sound drifting through the cold November air as you step off the train in Edinburgh. More interesting is the fact that one of the most popular coffee shops in Glasgow closed down several weeks ago and yet several of my Glasgow friends heard about this first from me. This is perhaps a particularly strong example of the previously mentioned effect.

Of more profound interest -- to me anyway -- is just being able to see the world as it is. This is one of the great benefits of being in a large city. When so many people are living in the same place you can observe pretty much every aspect of society with relatively little effort. This isn't really possible in a small country town like Boroughbridge. Here everyone is fairly similar -- affluent, middle class, reasonably educated, and conservative. The thing that really stood out to me is just what a mess we've managed to get ourselves into. It's impossible to walk down Byres Road without passing at least a few beggars. By early evening there will be at least a few folk who've had far too much to drink. More generally, I reckon I heard more sirens in those two days than in the previous two months. Everywhere there is suffering of some sort, and yet this is a reasonably affluent city in a very wealthy nation.

Whilst I was there someone jumped off Kelvinbridge. That's the fourth time I've seen that happen. The first time it shocked me quite a bit but, to be honest, it doesn't even surprise me that much anymore. That's the really scary thing. All this has been going on around me and I've mostly not noticed. It's like I've been living my life wearing blinkers, only noticing what won't get in the way of my own comfortable existence. Who wants to see injustice when seeing it might compel us to do something about it?

For much of today I've been thinking about the words, 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'. The thing is, if I can look a beggar in the eyes and not care, or see an old woman struggling to move some boxes and not feel like helping, can I really claim to follow Jesus at all?

Extract from 'The Great Towns' by Friedrich Engels

A town, such as London, where a man may wander for hours together without reaching the beginning of the end, without meeting the slightest hint which could lead to the inference that there is open country within reach, is a strange thing. This colossal centralisation, this heaping together of two and a half millions of human beings at one point, has multiplied the power of this two and a half millions a hundredfold; has raised London to the commercial capital of the world, created the giant docks and assembled the thousand vessels that continually cover the Thames. I know nothing more imposing than the view which the Thames offers during the ascent from the sea to London Bridge. The masses of buildings, the wharves on both sides, especially from Woolwich upwards, the countless ships along both shores, crowding ever closer and closer together, until, at last, only a narrow passage remains in the middle of the river, a passage through which hundreds of steamers shoot by one another; all this is so vast, so impressive, that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England’s greatness before he sets foot upon English soil.

But the sacrifices which all this has cost become apparent later. After roaming the streets of the capital a day or two, making headway with difficulty through the human turmoil and the endless lines of vehicles, after visiting the slums of the metropolis, one realises for the first time that these Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilisation which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained p. 24inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others. The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd, while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes the more repellant and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking is the fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of mankind into monads, of which each one has a separate principle, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Final Year Frustrations

So, after five months of project work, I can no longer avoid the inevitability of having to write an actual report, trying to explain what it is I've been doing for the last while and why I deserve to be given forty credits for this. (To be honest I can't really imagine why anyone would wish to give me anything for my work but I don't think that's really what they want to hear.) Somehow five years of studying physics just hasn't properly prepared me for writing large pieces of coherent prose. The thing is, I've been come far too lazy and complacent with this. I haven't written an essay since I took french lit back in first year. I want to write everything in beautiful equations, not these clumsy ill-defined words that come in no exact order and can never fully convey what I want to say. Language can be so powerful in communicating high ideas and concepts, and yet so completely inadequate when place in the hands of a novice.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What weather like yesterday's always makes me think of

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up -
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

-- Ted Hughes

Tuesday, October 27, 2009