Mortal Thing

Gentle capillary
So small as the daisy, pulled
into petals from the precious lens
of a leaf.

Unfurl the tangles like twine;
only soft
as an organ,
and underneath
the quick pulse
of some other body, the beautiful body:
that lies over there and empty,
still empty in the yellow light
of this warm morning.

(Written from GU CW’s last week’s prompt ‘capillary’)

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12 Types You See in the Library: A Study of Students in their Native Habitat

source: pixabay.com
source: pixabay.com

So with finals approaching  I’ve been spending nigh on every day in the depths of my university’s library. I thought, therefore, that it would be appropriate to report my observations on human life as it seems to occur in this environment…

I’ve identified 12 subtypes which emerge amidst the Darwinist conditions of computer shortages, desk squabbles, bright lighting and excess caffeine…

  • The sleepers: always a good start to a list, these types are keen on the trend for daytime napping. You will find them either tucked in a comfy chair, their legs propped on the nearest table, or else face down over their keyboard. Probably the source of much resentment, but perhaps it does increase productivity. Still, there could be beds provided, when desks are in such scarce conditions at this busy period…
  • The chatterers: they come in pairs. Often they arrive around 9-10 in the morning and stay till 5, interrupting each other’s study constantly and engaging in joint Facebook stalking and looking up photographs of famous people on Google Images and giggling without much hush. Tend to take 2 hour lunch breaks and leave all their stuff to hog the desks.
  • The fortress builders: you rarely glance a peek at these specimens, as they tend to erect large towers of hardback books on their desks. It is unlikely that the books themselves will be opened, but the careful assemblage of pens, paper, notepads and books is very important to their sense of zen. 
  • The aggressive opportunists: to be found hovering about on every level, clutching their phones to their faces and occasionally hesitating an anxious glance around them, as if they were bird-spotting. These types basically scour every floor desperately waiting for someone to vacate their computer so they can dive in. You’ve got to feel sympathy for them, though there is something rather alarmingly aggressive about the way they rush to your desk as soon as you have clicked ‘log off’. It’s like they have super vision.
  • The stressor: he or she will either be a weepy type, or a sweary type. The weepy type invites deep sympathy, as it is awful to see a fellow human reduced to the state of tears or panic attack over university work. To be honest though, I have encountered more of the latter. In particular, it is common to see finance students sweating it out in the upper levels, swearing under their breath at a screen of what I assume to be frustrating figures, occasionally slamming their fist down upon a hefty textbook.
  • The gruesome eater: disappears for an hour, comes back with some disgusting excuse for a lunch gleaned from any number of surrounding convenience stores or supermarkets. They favour the more odorous of foodstuffs, and are inclined to make vile slurping noises as they lick their tub of oily pasta or packet of tuna sandwiches. The worst, perhaps, is the Monster Munch crunch.
  • The early bird endurance workers: these more elusive types tend to congregate in the upper floors with the segregated desks and rule of silent study. They arrive around 8am to get their favoured seat (the same one every day it seems) and are there for most of the day, working away like beavers. Will disappear occasionally for a coffee or cigarette, but rarely leave their desks, which begin piling up very quickly with masses of paper and scribbly notes.
  • The portable secretary: seems to get a phone call at least once an hour. Will either proceed to talk freely about a mate’s sex life with the entire floor listening, or else make a panic dash to the nearest ‘quiet zone’, leaping heroically over trailing cables. Sometimes is away and the phone will ring unanswered for twenty minutes until a brave stranger plucks up the courage to turn it off in his or her absence.
  • The rebel: turns up mid-afternoon and somehow still manages to blag a seat somewhere. Pulls the plug out of a PC to stick their laptop on charge. Doesn’t care. Eats trifle on level 8. Whose gonna challenge ’em? Snorts heartily with laughter watching silly Youtube videos in the middle of the day whilst anxious students rush around looking for a computer they can study on.
  • The drifter: seems not to ever do actual work, but to spend all day scanning every level for anyone he or she happens to be acquainted with, stopping, in an elaborate trail of procrastination, to gabber and pester said acquaintances. Tends to wear a school leavers’ hoodie, and very soft cotton joggers.
  • The library lightweight: most likely in first year, though the trait can continue up into honours sometimes. Tends not to venture beyond level 3. Dips into the library between classes and sits on Facebook for an hour or so whilst gobbling a sandwich loudly.
  • Lastly…(perhaps the worst) the foot shuffler: Need I say more? – Takes 10 minutes to walk 10 metres, owing to the way he or she drags their feet across the carpet. Pick your feet up when you walk, for God’s sake!

Poldark’s Romanticism: Solitude, Sex Appeal and Scenery

(Warning: contains possible spoilers up until the end of episode four).

 

'Wander Above the Sea of Fog'
Source: BBC
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‘Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog’

Moving from plumes of cloud and sullen mist to the flaming spit of fire below, the opening sequence of Poldark sets us up for a journey through the sublime chasms of history down to the core of its hero’s heart. The scene is Cornwall in the 1780s. The story is a beautifully rendered television voyage through various Romantic archetypes, culminating in the protagonist himself, who stands alone facing the open, churning sea, in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. In the first episode, Captain Ross Poldark returns, miraculously alive, from the American War of Independence, bearing the mark of his experience in the distinctive dark scar upon his cheek. After the battle scene in which Poldark alone escapes with his life, a dreamy flashback presents our hero in smart uniform, ready to go abroad, acquiescing to the breathless urge of his lover Elizabeth: ‘Pray do not be reckless, I wish you to return’. Well, like Robinson Crusoe from his shipwreck and 28 years of island isolation, Poldark does return. Only, while Crusoe returns to ‘civilisation’ to find a hefty profit from his Brazilian plantations to fill his greasy palms, Poldark returns to find his finances in ruins and his dear Elizabeth now married to his insipid cousin. What follows is a tale of Poldark’s redemption; once the idle gambler at war only to ‘escape the gallows’, he evolves into a near prototypical Romantic hero, embodying the necessary sentiment, broody solitude and bad-boy glamour that brought Byron his fame and trouble.

But while Poldark represents an idealised benevolence cut with rugged beauty, he is not a dandyish poet in the manner of Byron or Wilde, but a man of war and experience. While Byron would go off gallivanting with his many women, writing hopes of radicalism back home, Poldark says little of his time overseas – a quietness that only emphasises the intrigue of his character. As the frequent close-ups of his scar insist, this man has done battle, a distinction that reinforces his difference to the other men of Cornwall’s stuffy society.

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'Napoleon Crossing the Alps': note the comparison with Poldark - solitary man on horseback, though while Poldark traverses picturesque Britain, Napoleon ranges over the sublime mountains of the Alps
‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’: note the comparison with Poldark – solitary man on horseback, though while Poldark traverses picturesque Britain, Napoleon ranges over the sublime mountains of the Alps

And indeed, Poldark puts his experience to virtuous use. He represents in some ways that much-loved ‘cult of sensibility’ that wormed its way into novels and poetry of the eighteenth-century: rescuing a wayward waif, providing work for starving labourers and delivering an impassioned courtroom speech in defence of an unfortunate young poacher (played – did anyone else notice – by metal-head Rich from Skins). Sensibility, as we might guess from the title of Henry Mackenzie’s popular novel The Man of Feeling (1771), was a kind of fashion for displaying emotion; a newly remodelled masculinity which was exhibited through tears and expression and other public manifestations of feeling. While Poldark is by no means the soppy hero of Mackenzie’s novel (the Editor’s Introduction to The Man of Feeling warns that the novel ‘proceeds in due course through so many tears that it is hardly to be called a dry book’), his compassion towards the struggling labourers contributes to our image of him as a benign venture capitalist, a hero of industry for our postmodern age of corrupt public figures and criminal bankers. The symbolism of a man attempting to re-open a mine threatened by closure and poor investment, to work alongside his miners in the sweaty heat of the pit and to share the profit, was perhaps not lost on Poldark’s viewers when it was first broadcast in the 1970s. While many period dramas fall into the trap of caricature when representing the ‘lower classes’, Poldark offsets this problem by honing in on individual experiences which highlight the precarious economic and social position of Cornwall’s labourers in the late eighteenth-century: the plight of the young poacher, and, importantly, the story of Demelza, who is adopted from the streets by Poldark as a house-maid and later becomes his wife.

This is a show that milks the viewer’s voyeurism. Any chance it gets to parade Aiden Turner’s sweaty golden torso, visible as he swims in the sea or hacking at the land, it takes it. However, such enticing demonstrations of abs and strength are not merely to keep Turner loyalists from the Being Human days happy. They also serve as an interesting parallel to scenes of Demelza alone in nature. Well, not quite alone. While Poldark ranges the cliffs on foot or on horseback – once again parading the dazzling iconography of Romantic solitude – Demelza wanders off at dawn with her little scruffy dog. While Poldark is a figure of Promethean strength and virility (here another connection between strength and suffering – Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound), Demelza’s ethereal looks, in tandem with her ‘exotic’ Cornish dialect, establish her as an almost mythological figure of Romantic fascination. There are many tender scenes where she lies languid in the long grass, playing with pretty cornflowers, or trailing over the rolling cliffs; but there are also scenes where she tills the land with all the power of Poldark himself. We are led into believing the credibility of their marriage because the show sets them up as equals. Demelza is, in a way, Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper’: the ‘lass’ with the regional accent, who ‘cuts and binds the grain, | And sings a melancholy strain’ which flows through the land with ‘more welcome notes’ than a ‘Nightingale’. When we first encounter her, begging in the street and being heckled, she is clearly a ‘peasant’, a mess of coarseness and dirt; but her time as Poldark’s domestic tames her appearance, though not her spirit. While Wordsworth’s female Reaper was just one of the rural characters to feature in the revolutionary Lyrical Ballads (1798), Demelza is not merely a figure of some traveller’s amusement or poetic interest. The camera does not gaze at her always from a distance, but switches to close-ups and pan shots of the scenes around her: the swaying grain, the face of her dog, some plain little flower or the ever-present sea. At times, then, we share her perception. Episode by episode, we are lured in with her sweet pure voice; significantly, the voice which settles Poldark’s love for her.

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The master/servant romantic dyad is certainly not an original one, but a trope embedded in many prominent examples of canonical novels since the eighteenth-century. Hailed as one of the first ‘novels’ in the sense recognised today, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1970) tells through a series of its heroine’s diaries and letters the story of a virtuous servant girl resisting the sexual advances of her master, eventually redeeming his character through her writing and in turn being rewarded with an equal marriage based on love and respect. What made Richardson’s novel unique was that it placed value upon a ‘mere’ servant-girl’s right to self-respect, to protect her chastity and resist the common (and indeed legal) assumption that a servant-girl was her master’s property, to do with what he would. Also, the level of psychological detail afforded by Richardson’s epistolary form allowed the reader an incisive insight into the consciousness of Pamela’s character, a consciousness that gained integrity and resistance through letter-writing itself. While Richardson’s novel gives us an excess of detail, Poldark speaks often through silence. It is those moments in the gloomy interiors of Poldark’s home, with the fire flickering shadows over a rustic meal, or against the backdrop of the ocean, with only the gulls’ moaning, that things change between Poldark and Demelza. The show fleshes her out with a backstory and a problem father, a sense of longing for an unspeakable freedom – the kind of Romantic liberty we experience in her plain, almost Blakean singing.

When Poldark and Demelza do get married, almost on a whim, the show deals with the social consequences of this unlikely coupling. Like Pamela, who has to get used to calling her master by her name, Demelza struggles to address Poldark as ‘Ross’ instead of ‘master’ or ‘sir’. Moreover, the rebellious couple face an onslaught not only of gossip but the kind of exclusion that has very material consequences, not just in terms of how Poldark is treated by polite society but even in business, as investors withdraw from his start-up mining company. This is something Demelza worries about greatly, as does Pamela in her marriage to her master, Mr. B-, as she reflects:

The great Mr. B—— has done finely! he has married his poor servant wench! will some say. The ridicule and rude jests of his equals, and companions too, he must stand: And the disdain of his relations, and indignation of Lady Davers, his lofty sister! Dear good gentleman! he will have enough to do, to be sure! O how shall I merit all these things at his hand! I can only do the best I can; and pray to God to reward him; and resolve to love him with a pure heart, and serve him with a sincere obedience. I hope the dear gentleman will continue to love me for this; for, alas! I have nothing else to offer!

Richardson’s novel, I should add, was riffing off the tradition of conduct literature, expressing a kind of Puritan message of self-restraint and virtue. It loses pace in the second half, where Richardson has shunned the romantic convention of ending on a marriage and instead spends the rest of the book describing Pamela’s efforts to run a virtuous domestic set-up. It is with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) that the servant-girl heroine is imbued with a wilder, more defiant streak. While Pamela shows her strength not through any physical feat (indeed, her only two escape attempts constitute a foolish notion to drown herself in the garden pond, and a runaway plan which is aborted when she comically mistakes plain old cows for menacing bulls), Jane displays real physical endurance when she manages to flee Mr. Rochester after discovering about the sham marriage she was almost tricked into. I cannot help but quote that famous, impassioned speech that she makes to her would-be husband:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh:–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit: just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are!

This transcendentalist ideal of love carried through spirit is profoundly Romantic, and one that comes to inhabit the space of Poldark through the mystic enchantments of Demelza’s singing. This taps into Romanticism’s trope of the folk ballad and the femme fatale, found particularly in Keats but also Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, that warns of the strange seduction of the ‘wild’, exotic female:

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

Perhaps this description could be applied to Demelza too, as she dances at the village carnival and skips fairylike along the cliff top meadows. In Keats’ ‘La Bella Dame Sans Merci’ (1819), the speaker meets a curious, vampire-like woman, who seduces him then leaves him cold and alone in the ‘gloam’ of the lake’s bird-less landscape (and, of course, birds are a very importance presence in Romantic poetry). It is interesting that in the twentieth century, with the impact of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that the myth of the vampire, the lethal seducer, was transferred from the female to male (Turner himself played the tortured vampire Mitchell in Being Human). There are no vampires in Poldark. Demelza is more of the innocent fairy type, embodying the kind of alienated selfhood that Jane encounters as she perceives herself in the mirror: ‘the effect of a real spirit […] like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp’. Estranged from what she thought she was – a mere governess – and hurled into the beautiful turmoil of a fairy story.

Art thou pale for weariness      Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth, Wandering companionless       Among the stars that have a different birth, And ever changing, like a Joyless eye      That finds no object worth its constancy? (Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'To the Moon')
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a Joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘To the Moon’)

It is in Demelza’s metamorphosis from fawn-like (as Elizabeth describes her) child to Poldark’s wife that the show reaps the reward for both parties. When Demelza finally works up the courage to try on a jewel-green dress she finds stuffed into a drawer, it is in this dress that she winds up in bed at last with her master. Yet even here she still looks shrunken, pixie-like in the dress too-big for her, representing the absurdity of the bourgeois identity that she is inadvertently stepping into, like Cinderella. Here, she remains, like ‘plain Jane’, elusive and fairy like, ephemeral in her selfhood. It is in her later endurances, her resistance to the jibes of polite society, that Demelza emerges as our true heroine.

In Brontë’s novel, stumbling alone and starving over the moors, Jane Eyre embodies both female vulnerability and endurance against hardship within the stifling social conditions of the era. Steadfastly she refuses to be Rochester’s mistress and live under a sham marriage. Eventually, like Pamela, she too is rewarded for her virtue, by in turn claiming her own (now, like Poldark, wounded) Byronic hero, whose redemption is signified in the purging of a dramatic fire. The hearth is enflamed from quiet warmth to primitive passion. At the end of episode 4 of Poldark, Ross confesses his love to Demelza in a scene of bedroom intimacy that well resembles that of Pamela and Jane Eyre:

‘You are not too ashamed o’ me?’ asks Demelza, sitting on the bed.

‘Why do you think I married you?’ her husband turns to her.

‘I don’t rightly know.’

‘To satisfy an appetite, to save myself from being alone […] I had few expectations. At best, you’d be a distraction – a bandage to ease a wound. But I was mistaken. You have redeemed me; I am your humble servant, and I love you’.

Like Rochester, and Mr. B-, Poldark is a man redeemed by humble love. Only time will tell (no spoilers) how this pans out. The novel is a form which tends to drive towards closure, the pursuit of some fulfillment of marriage, death or didactic morality; whereas television drama feeds us with cliffhangers, the always open promise of a sequel. This is of course a simplistic distinction, but even so, the point remains that with a book, you can physically see when you are getting to the end, where the pages are running out, and with television, there is a kind of abstracted spatiality and temporality that leaves you always hanging.

Scene from Pamela (source the-toast.net)
Scene from Pamela (source the-toast.net)

As if I were watching a serialised version of Byron’s biography, I intend for the rest of the series merely to sit back and enjoy the picturesque landscapes and the pretty hair, the romance and tragedy and beautiful costumes. All acts of consumption I suppose, which is fitting because Romanticism, as Timothy Morton argues in The Poetics of Spice, invented consumerism; consumerism in the sense of Marxian ‘commodity fetishism’ – consuming something for its representative, fantasy qualities more than for the use value of the thing itself. Wordsworth with his mountains, Coleridge with his opium; objects of desire which offer some form of imaginative potential to the self. But I won’t go into anymore detail; that’s another story, another romance.

Easter Dreams

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How old am I here? I’m somewhere in England, awake early as usual from sleeping on the floor, stripping away the remnants of another dream about chocolate. A dream about chocolate? Oh wait, it’s Easter. The very word Easter sounds confectionary; like ‘viscount’ – a name recalling the little minty biscuit I used to have in my packed lunches – Easter connotes the crack of a thick chocolate shell, a glut of pastel colours, the consuming of cuteness. Maybe I’m seven. My mum is away in Brighton for the day and comes back with two beanie babies: a fluffy yellow chick and a pale blue bunny. Maybe I’m seventeen, walking out to Kildoon monument just to see the lambs in the fields and hope for a happier existence. You know, that’s Easter too.

cherry blossoms at Kelvingrove
cherry blossoms at Kelvingrove

Those who condemn reckless consumerism bewail the fact that Easter has forgotten its true message: the sacrifice of Christ, the promise of rebirth. It is a solemn hope that perhaps may only be touched by those with faith; it bears the risk of becoming kitsch in the Easter Story worksheets we used to cut out at school with those zigzag scissors. You know, ‘assemble the story of Jesus and the tomb’, where pupils tended more to desecrate Christ with bunny ears more than celebrating his existence. I remember as a child going to church on Easter Sunday and falling into the soft ambience of everyone’s prayer and the familiar stories about The Stone that Rolled and Jesus’s last day and all the other things that have slipped from my brain. I remember being given a Creme Egg by the priest on the way out and thinking he had handed me something precious and holy – but later eating it anyway. Did I feel guilty, biting into this symbol of the blood and sweat and sacrifice of Christ? The problem is, consumerism is good at assuaging such guilt with feelings of pleasure. Everyone’s doing it; everybody’s merry. And after the church ceremony I remember late afternoons watching a certain family member fall asleep after a generous glass of sherry…

Is it wrong that we value booze and chocolate eggs more than the faith and the story? Perhaps…but there is a certain gratitude in the exchange of happiness, the sweet serotonin glow of too much chocolate and a long Sunday afternoon spent with one’s family.

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How did we used to spend our Easter Sundays? Painting boiled eggs and rolling them down the hill at Miller Park. Fighting with my brother over who got to lick the bowl of melted chocolate, leftover from making crispy cakes. A walk to another park, somewhere in Burgess Hill or Milton Keynes, watching our dog do long jumps over a river filled with old trollies and sofas. Munching fizzy belts and trying to do loop-the-loops on the swing, never feeling sick but still exhilarated (I wouldn’t mind doing all that now, but I’d probably vomit rainbows). These were the good old, carefree Easters.

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When you hit fifteen, suddenly the Easter holidays are all about studying (or they are in theory). The endless, six am days spent copying diagrams for Biology or churning out practice essays for Modern Studies, or falling asleep in the sun with a Computing textbook over my head. Cooking some complex casserole in the evening and doing the washing up afterwards while my brother messes about with his playlist of ‘doing dishes’ music (or maybe it was the other way round; I always had the better iPod). The Easter of first year where I had a weekend down in Suffolk for my Grandpa’s 90th birthday, and got so excited about staying in the countryside that I went for a walk every morning at 7am, just to glimpse the pretty English fields and flowers. Oh, and the postman I accidentally saw peeing in the river – but that’s another story. The Easter afternoon where I laboured over a terrible wee screenplay for Advanced Higher English; or the one I spent laid up watching crappy old films because I had the house to myself for a week and it seemed a waste to bother with ceremony. That was, incidentally, a very good week: I watched three series of Mad Men back to back and walked up a hill and got my hair dyed and wrote about twenty practice essays for my uni exams. There is great productivity to be had in solitude.

Productivity in action...
Productivity in action…

The things I love most about Easter are basically the things I love about spring. As all the songs and hymns might sing, there is a simple joy to seeing the first daffodils and blossoms and lambs in the fields. Seeing everything through the spectrum of pastel colours, wearing lavender jumpers and polishing my nails mint green. At uni, I was too stingy to buy Easter flowers, so I would walk all the way along the Kelvin (halfway to Milngavie) just to find loose daffodils to purloin from their ungraceful state, where they were scattered along the path by wayward children.

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Back at school, Easter signalled the season of study leave; of long lunchtimes sitting on the hill gossiping while people were screaming at their football behind us. Bunnies are also very cool. I think I believed in the Easter Bunny more than I believed in Santa Clause. Maybe it’s the animal factor; there’s something creepy and alluring about anything anthropomorphic, reminding us of the fragility of our status as humans. The Easter Bunny, moreover, gets less visual representation than Santa in popular culture, leaving the onus on the child’s imagination to conjure what he (or maybe she; or should Easter Bunnies even have a gender?) looks like. One upon a time, my Easter Bunny was soft and probably adorned with buttons and ribbon, juggling a multitude of eggs with his paws and vanishing without trace at dawn (unlike Santa who takes his fill from a mince pie and carrot). Now, I can’t help but think of the horrifying rabbit, Frank, from Donnie Darko. The one that appears either as a schizophrenic vision or some weird spirit guide from the near-possible-present-future. Maybe that’s growing up; realising the terror in your favourite childhood memories. Pulling the latent darkness out of cultural myths and fairy tales. Still, there’s a pleasure in that too.

So yeah, today I won’t be doing much for Easter. I can hear the church bells ring for the morning service, and there are a few birds tentatively weaving their melody into the stiff Sunday silence. As far as I know, there aren’t any lambs in Glasgow, and that lovely lecturer who used to praise heavily the wonders of ‘curved chocolate’ is sadly retired. Today I will have to drag myself out of bed at some point to fall back into the world of studying, swapping festive joy for Johnson’s Rasselas, and juvenile pleasures for The Bell Jar. The only chocolate I have in the flat might be Tesco’s 30p Value, but secretly I’ll be celebrating Easter, if only in nostalgia.

My Mum gets extra parent points for always making us Easter baskets
My Mum gets extra parent points for always making us Easter baskets