Summa: Diary (December 12-15, 2021)

One ought to be good, because good is what one ought to be (Messenger text (December 10, 2021)).

To do what I should do
To long for you to hear
I open up my heart
And watch her name appear
A word for you to use
A girl without a cause
A name for what you lose
When it was never yours
(Scritti Politti, ‘The Word Girl’ (1985)).

December 12. 11.00 am: TV Church. I really do feel as though I’m a member of the congregation at St James’s Church Piccadilly, London. It has made a considerable effort to ensure that the ‘onliners’ are not mere onlookers. My first and only actual visit to the church was on March 2, 2019 (which now seems like a lifetime ago). It was after I’d gone to the Bill Viola / Michelangelo show at the Royal Academy and bought an overpriced sausage roll at Fortum & Masons, and before I saw the Diane Arbus show at the Hayward Gallery in the afternoon and attended an evening performance of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaton at the ENO. What a sensational day! Too much of too many good things.

12.15 pm: These days, my sensory stimulation rarely rises higher than the daily walk. Today, I travelled down Llanbadarn Road, through the cemetery, up the Avenue, and across the Vicarage Field. (For whom and by whom had the bouquet been placed at the side of the pitch?) This constitutional has, since the beginning of the first lockdown, become one of my a well-worn paths. Over time, a nurtured familiarity has neutralised my awareness of the context and, thereby, enabled me to more fully enter into my mind and heart without distraction. 2.00 pm: The annual ritual began. Traditionally, we’re one of the last houses in our neighbourhood to set-up a Christmas tree. Our deadline is always: ‘before the boys come home’. In its fierce, fiery luminous intensity, I was reminded of the burning bush that Moses encountered. ‘Begone good taste! Behold, the tree’.

8.00 pm: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced (without any prior consultation with the NHS, some say) a ‘ramping-up’ of the vaccination-booster programme in an attempt to stave-off the spread of the Omicron variant (pronounced ‘om’ as in the sacred spiritual utterance, rather than as in ‘ohm’). This example of callous carelessness has been typical of Johnson’s style of leadership. It was one of his ‘abracadabra’ pronouncements: ‘You only have to say it, and it’ll happen’. Which, of course, it rarely ever has. Real, meaningful, and effective decision making takes time, negotiation, communication, evaluation, and planning in order to implement. Johnson is, however, a sluggard; which is the very least of his sins, reputedly. No doubt the TV broadcast represented precious time-out from his Sunday online Bingo session. The evening film was Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020) — a salutary antidote to the Christmas spirit, if ever there was one. It’s an account of the Srebrenica massacre, which took place in July 1995 during the Bosnian War. Over 8,0oo Bosniak men and boys were brutally murdered by Serbian armed forces.

December 13. This is the beginning of the last week of term before the Christmas holidays. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.45 am: I put the week in order. By next Monday, I hope to have published the fourth instalment of ‘The Road to Penallta Colliery’, prepared a good many more sound samples in readiness for composition, and completed my teaching and administrative commitments. Today, I dedicated the morning and the first part of the afternoon to furthering the completion of the fourth instalment.

In response to a recent posting by a Facebook friend, I recalled (in a moment of distraction) the ‘Christmas Trail’ that was held at Holy Trinity Church, Aberystwyth each year around this time. It was a mystery play, for all intents and purposes. If you yielded to the dramatic illusion, the effect could be emotionally and visually persuasive. As in so many representations of Advent and Christmas in Christian art, the biblical and contemporary worlds were conflated: those sacred events, there and then and for them (the Holy Family, shepherds, and wise men), took place as though in the here and now and for us: the birth of ‘Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us’ (Matthew 1.22-23).

‘The Christmas Trail’, Holy Trinity Church, Aberystwyth (December 2004)

3.00 pm: For the remainder of the afternoon and into the evening, I pressed on with processing samples. I applied a high-pass filter to remove upper frequencies while, at the same time, enhancing the lower frequencies using a different filter. In the dark brooding sonorities that emerged, I heard the first stirrings of dark churning machines and subterranean life.

December 14. 8.30 am: There was material in my inbox that needed to be read in advance of a 9.00 am PhD tutorial. At PhD level, the discussion is focussed upon content, ideas, philosophy, and debate. Questions about writing style and scholarly approach are always pitched at the highest level. There’s no need to address issues such as having the right attitude, making a sufficient commitment, and maintaining hard work. The presence of these ‘ambient’ necessities and preconditions for achievement is taken as read. 10.00 am: There was a skip load of postgraduate communications and applications, unresolved matters, and admin to process, and an afternoon class to finalise. In the background to the more mind-numbing admin tasks, I kept my sanity lubricated by playing ballads by the Beatles. In early 1970s, my sensibility warmed to their music when I encountered those songs from their oeuvre that were derived from an observation of people and places they knew. That shift in perspective — away from generalised themes of love and loss — was a turning point in their development which, I suspect, they’d recognised themselves. Compositions such as ‘Eleanor Rigby‘, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘Penny Lane’, and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ represent not only extraordinary poetic narratives but also as an incisive social commentary that cuts to the core of the human condition.

1.30 pm: There were a number of PhD Fine Art submissions (a chapter and several notational outlines) to review by first thing tomorrow morning. I made a start before packing my bag in readiness for a walk to the School. This would be my final MA Vocational Practice class, after I don’t know how many years of teaching the module. I would meet its members on only one further occasion, when we’d convene for the end-of-semester assessment of their presentations, in early January. Today’s topic (‘Delivering a Lecture (part 2)’) was, in part, a preparation for the delivery. Trying to project a voice through the encumbrance of a mask was a major obstacle.

Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • You can’t think more clearly than you can write clearly. The reverse is also true.
  • Writing, like life drawing, is always an appointment with humiliation. It’s that hard to do well.
  • ‘Writing is the only way that I can reflect upon a subject intelligently’.
  • Good writers are like gold: rare, refined, and to be treasured. If you can get a handle on clear, concise, and engaging writing, then, you’ll be miles ahead of the herd.

December 15. 8.00 am: A communion. 8.30 am: A review of the day. 9.00 am: The first of two PhD Fine Art tutorials. The great jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis once said: ‘Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself’. Creative people of integrity and identity don’t come into their own overnight. Our careers as artists begin as though we’re making through the hands, eyes, and ears of someone else — thinking their thoughts after them, as it were. With perseverance and strenuous application over time, imperceptibly and increasingly we may (no guarantee) become aware of the faintest image of ourselves being reflected back at us from the work.

12.00 pm: I’m now confident that each of my PhD tutees knows what they must accomplish between now and the beginning of the new term. Admin tasks had been either resolved or set in motion. My desk was clearing. At home, three floors below me, the piano tuner was strutting his stuff. He’d go on to tweak the instruments at the School of Art and Vice Chancellor’s residence.

2.00 pm: While waiting for confirmations and responses to my morning’s teaching and admin emails, I returned to finalise and publish the fourth instalment of ‘The Road to Penallta Colliery’. Betwixt all this, I engaged a LinkedIn exchange with a scholar who had dipped their toe into the murky waters of spiritualist photography. I’ve not written about it in over a decade. Populist and academic enthusiasm for cultural topics come and go and come again. I remarked:

The cycle of interest in spirit photography is fascinating in itself. In practice and scholarship, the genre appears to remerge during times of uncertainty.

Since yesterday I’ve, during the evening shift, been working to the soundtrack of pop music from 1982. ‘During times of uncertainty‘, we take refuge in our past. To my mind, the music associated with a period evokes — more palpably than any other residue — its spirit, temper, and emotions. Most of the songs played in the background of my life. I wouldn’t have either gone out and bought the records or stopped what I was doing in order to listen intently. But I was, and remain, grateful for their presence. Much of that music hasn’t endured, and only a handful of groups — including Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, China Crisis, and Scritti Politti — still draw me back. Their compositions, arrangements, and performance were original, innovative, and demanding. These were more innocent times, or so they seemed then. But things that were hidden have now been exposed.

Elaine, me, and Timur, Merthyr Tydfil (1982)

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