Thursday, July 24, 2008

Notes on the rapture.

One thing I cannot get used to here is that the driver's seat is on the right of a car. I am down with traffic coming on the left side of a road (the "LOOK RIGHT" markings painted on the pavement at crosswalks help), and perhaps if I were spending any time in cars myself, I'd get used to the seat positions, too. But as it is, I look into the window of an oncoming car, and the person in the lefthand seat is turned around getting something from the backseat, and I almost scream, "Look out! Look out! Look out!" before I remember the real deal.

This is especially frustrating in moments like the other morning, when, crossing in a crosswalk and with a walk signal, I was nearly run down by a taxi trying to catch the yellow light. (He had missed by a long shot.) I tried to glare at him, but what seemed to be the driver's seat was empty, and I thought, "Well no wonder: the rapture has come at last, and half the cars are now without drivers."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I take that back.

About ten days ago, I was suggesting that the new-fangled modern exhibitions cannot match the sites themselves. To some extent, I still believe that, but yesterday I saw an exhibition that complicated my earlier thoughts.

This is the Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland. You can visit an online version of the show here, and it is worth doing, whether you can get to the actual show or not.

The exhibition features an array of W. B. Yeats's printed books, manuscripts, typescripts, and photographs. When you enter, there is a small room made of screens, where an audio track plays recordings of his poems, read by the likes of Seamus Heaney and Sinead O'Connor while slides of the text and accompanying images grace the screens. There are four films about Yeats's life and work, featuring images of Ireland, his notebooks, and commentary from notable scholars. There are well-presented cases of copies of his books, manuscripts of his poems and letters, pages from his occult notebooks, photographs of his family. There is a giant-sized replica of The Tower, perhaps his most important book, that you can walk inside of. In there you find a sort of family tree for the poems, tracing them from manuscript to periodical publication to other books where they were published and finally to The Tower--and of course all these stages are represented by reproductions of the artifacts in question.

It really is a marvel, an example of how multi-modal presentation can be put to excellent use.

And although it has been up for a couple of years, it got an ebullient mention in this weekend's NYTimes.

So I revise what I said before. Done well, these exhibitions do not take away from "the things themselves," but give you a new excitement about what you are seeing.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Does it get better than this?

Right now, I am sitting on a bench, looking out at the college park here at Trinity College in Dublin. If I had not consulted my map, I would have called it the cricket pitch, because it is right next to the rugby pitch, and most days there are cricket games in process here. Just now, one has wrapped up, and the players are changing into drier clothes and making their way to the pub that is the top floor of the next-door pavilion--they call the pub "the Pav"--and where there is an array of outdoor tables for taking your pint.

It turns out Joyce was right, and the cricket bats really do say, "pock, pock." I am always struck by those moments, where I find that something I am seeing or experiencing for the first time really does look or sound just like it does in some work of art. (I felt this way when I first got to Hong Kong, and I found that the mountains there do look like the Chinese ink paintings--and so different from the mountains I had seen in North America.)

Earlier this morning, I had my head immersed in typescripts, trying to figure out at what stage various textual changes were made. It is like detective work, in a way, with some of the glamor and all of the drudgery. But also the moments of "AHA!" which I live for.

But not right now. Right now I am enjoying the sun on my face. And I am enjoying enjoying the sun on my face, because in South Carolina in July, there would be few things I would enjoy less. But here? The last days have been cloudy and rainy, but today there is suddenly blue, up there, in the sky. The wind is blowing, the air is cool, and despite wearing a couple of layers, I am happy for the warmth from the sky. Out in the park there is a young couple running barefoot in the grass, laughing hysterically at something, and also a woman in a bright white skirt walking with her toddler, and a little ways away, people lying on the grass, perhaps feeling the same way I do about the sun.

So what could be better?

Now that I think of it? If I were over at the Pav, with a pint in my hand. So on that note, . . . .

Saturday, July 12, 2008

South Carolina is not really all that gay.

You know that Geico commercial where the caveman is riding on the moving walkway in the airport, and he passes a poster that says, "So easy, even a caveman could do it," and he kind of does a double-take, and then turns around and, seeming to do a sort of moonwalk, stands there gaping at the poster?

Well, that was me on the escalator in the Leicester Square tube station today. The poster I saw read, "South Carolina is so gay!"

At first I wondered if I read it right, which, it turns out, I did. It was part of a larger advertising campaign to draw gay tourists to American destinations. There were four or five posters in all, including adverts for Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans, and . . . South Carolina.

I kept wondering, How do they figure? Gay in the sense of extremely homophobic? In the sense that non-discrimation on the basis of sexual orientation only became prohibited by the university's policy in the last couple of years? In the sense that the so-called preservation of marriage amendment passed with flying (but sadly so unflamboyant) colors? In the sense that a guy who punched a gay man outside a bar--because he was gay--and killed him got off with a short sentence? Yes, that gay.

Luckily the series of posters repeated, and it was a long escalator, so I got to look at it again, and I saw mention of gay beaches. Really? Where????

It was all incredibly bewildering.

I was torn. Was this:
a) a sign that things are turning around in my adopted home?
b) a joke?
c) a mistake?
d) none of the above?

So I got home from my day's outing to find an e-mail from a friend, wondering whether I had seen these "South Carolina is so gay" posters while I was at Pride last weekend. And then, when I spoke to the PP this afternoon, he said, "I have huge news," and then went on to tell me that this story was all over the newspaper.

He was right.

And I was not the only one who thought it was a joke, but unlike me, State Sen. David Thomas (Greenville, R) did not think it was very funny, because "From my own perspective, it's bad for the state to make such statements about the state, to assert that South Carolina has gay beaches." Well, in a way I agree with him, because arriving at an SC beach and expecting it to be even gay-friendly would be at the very least disappointing. He called the ads "simply improper." I'd call them "simply inaccurate."
Now, it turns out, the person who approved funding for the campaign has resigned--surely not under duress!

But really, when I think of the ad again, I would not say South Carolina is so not gay. No: many parts of South Carolina are very gay--like little (largely hidden) outposts in a great sea of traditional family values.

Sigh. I suppose by now I should be getting used to being embarrassed by my state, but I just cannot come to like it.

Is this a sign of advancing age?

I was initially going to post this as an update to my post about the British Library, but then it sort of ballooned into its own issue.

UPDATE: Contrary to what I said, the old Round Reading is no longer a museum to itself. I went to pay hommage to it the other day, only to find the door to the Reading Room closed and guarded, with a sign about how it is closed while they install an exhibition. Closed? Now, or at least recently and in just a week or two, it houses blockbuster exhibitions, such as the upcoming Hadrian show, which I will barely miss. However strange it was to go into that room just to see it, without a reader's ticket in my hand, I want it back in its old form! I have been told it will be, after this series of shows about emperors--so where are they storing all the desks?

Anyway, there are activities for children in the Great Court around what had been the Reading Room. Why go see the mummies when you can play with plastic tubing?

I am seeing, though, that this is a larger tendency in museums, seeming to reply to the question: How can we get people interested in our boring old stuff? The answer, typically, is to construct multi-modal shows telling the history of something or another, but without using actual artifacts. Instead, there might be reconstructions of the way rooms worked, complete with "authentic" recreated smells and sounds. Or they might involve flashy films with music of the time rendered techno.

For instance, at Hampton Court Palace, there is the "Young Henry" exhibition, which uses a repeated series of three simple wooden thrones to represent the interactions, roles, and power plays of Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Katherine of Aragon. There are a few authentic paintings on the walls, but the real attention falls on the three thrones, each representing one of the three players, that appear in each room of the exhibition. Their positions and their carvings (which give in a sentence or so the person's situation at that moment) shifts, and they are always set on a carpet with a brief motto for the period in question. Somewhere in every room is an audio track, filling in more detail. As the Palace advertises it, "Historic paintings from the Royal Collection, together with audio-visual and hands-on displays, will help you explore and discover a very different King Henry VIII."

Harrumph. Do you really explore and discover when all you're doing is reading brief synopses of historical moments? Are we all so simple that the only way we can follow palace intrigue is through the shifting of chairs, like chess pieces?

And does anyone going through the show really look at the paintings? And it is a shame, too, because some of them are extremely precious and/or give clear views of the situation--from the perspective of the historical moment itself!

But to look at a painting requires more focus than the play of moving chairs.

Which takes me back to the initial question that I imagine curators asking, How can we get people interested in our boring old stuff?

The answer, sadly, seems to be: don't make them pay attention to our stuff, despite its great historical, artistic, etc. value. Instead, give them new stuff to be distracted by, so that paying the price of admission does not require them to look at the old stuff.

Distracted from distraction by distraction, or so someone said.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

All the hot girls.

There was one point today during Jay Kumar's Big Bollywood Dance Class when he yelled out to the crowd, "All the hot girls, make some noise!" and really, no one responded. He said, "Come on, you have to cheer now, because you're all hot girls, even the fellas!" and then tried again, and he did get a bit more response. But really: we were all having a great time, but did any of us actually self-identify as hot girls?

Perhaps I should back up and tell you that, as this was happening in the piazza of the British Library, his dance class was composed almost entirely of scholars and older Indian ladies. The former were on their lunch break, all deciding in unison that today was a workday like no other. The latter were there in hopes that there would be some time for some more traditional Indian dances, which there was (though for one woman, who kept going up to him as he was teaching Bollywood dance steps and asking was now the time, it could not come soon enough). We scholars were dressed in our sweaters and days-old trousers, while the Indian ladies were wearing beautiful saris with raincoats, and we were all wearing glasses.

Hot girls!

The event started with a performance by Jay Kumar's troup DanceAsia. Here is a video I found of them, though they did not have sticks at the library:

Then he got everyone out into the middle of the piazza to teach us some fairly simple (but extremely fun) steps so that we could dance to several different songs. There was a decent lot of phootographers there, too--amateur and professional--as well as a reporter from the BBC World Service, who he convinced to come up onto his platform and shake her ass, which she did with great aplomb.

If you have never seen Bollywood movies, with their enormous extravagant dance numbers, you may not know quite what I am talking about. But seriously folks, these are musicals to a new extreme--beautiful colorful costumes, elaborate scenarios, and music that makes you want to jump out of your seat. There are few situations in these films that cannot benefit from a dance number. Looking forward to a wedding? Dance. Unable to marry the man you love? Dance. Faced with a wedding you dread? Dance. Afraid of losing a cricket match and therefore all your land? Dance then too. Entire plot lines are introduced for the purpose of requiring dance numbers. And the dancing is fabulous! In fact, treated this past weekend to a vast display of fabulousness, I am still not sure that this is not MORE fabulous. Really.

(Now granted: a library piazza full of scholars in drab jumpers and older ladies in raincoats dancing in mid-summer drizzle did not look fabulous, but we FELT fabulous!)

In a way, what he was having us do was not unlike aerobic dancing or disco, except that some of the moves had a particularly Bollywood flavor. In fact, the whole experience made me wonder whether anyone has thought of structuring an aerobics class around Bollywood music and dancing. I am sure they have, but I tell you (or do I need to? You know how I love Bollywood music and films): if I could find one, I would go every day.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

In which you wish you were me.

I am just back from the Pride London Parade. Estimates from the organizers and the police said half a million people. The theme was Fairytales, Myths and Legends--can you think of anything that would better lend itself to fabulousness?

(with this theme you can even be fabulous on your mobile.)

The parade got off from Baker Street about half an hour late. The man beside me, temporarily holding his partner's pride flag while he got seated on top of the railing, speculated that there had not been enough mirrors on site for everyone to check their hair. We were standing on Regent Street, just around the corner from Oxford Circus proper, where I had been able to get close right up to the barricade. The parade took about another half an hour to get to us.

Meanwhile there were men walking up and down the parade route selling flags (small rainbow flags as well as larger flags of the Union Jack, but with pink instead of blue) and whistles (on rainbow cords).

After a while, the route marshalls forced people sitting on the curbs to get back behind the barricades lining the streets and then after a bit more the they closed off the crossings, sowe knew it was getting close. After more waiting, we started to hear the bands but could still see nothing, and my neighbor suggested that someone at the front might have broken a heel.

The photographers were waiting too.

Near the front was one of several percussion bands, setting the tone for the marchers.

Needless to say, not everyone marched to the same beat.

(There is no way these pictures do justice to the music and the whistles. Everyone along the parade route blew their whistles along with the music, and also anytime they hoped to get someone in the parade to look for a picture or a smile.)

There were representatives of the London Fire Brigade, the Metropolitan Police, and several branches of the armed services. Apparently this was the first year that they were allowed to march in uniform, and everyone applauded.

(Those of you who live in the land of Don't Ask, Don't Tell--can you imagine such a thing??? Wouldn't that be cause for celebration in itself?)

There were many other organizations represented--advocacy groups, health organizations, churches, a gay soccer team, a gay rugby team, lesbian rollerskaters, older members of the LGBT community. Then there were representatives of various labor unions, companies, the National Health Care system, even the archivists!

There were washboard abs and tricorn hats:

There were advocates for equal rights for transgender and transsexual people--a group not always accepted even in the LGBT community.

There were, uh, hairdos--

. . . and headdresses. . .

And shoes!

(the nipple accoutrements aside, could you walk 2.5 miles in those shoes. Ah, but if you could--how worth it would be!)

And even environmentalists got into the action:

Have you ever seen a green like that?

There was a giant flag, so big that the front of it had to go quite a ways past us before the whole thing was around the corner.

Oh, and don't forget the floats! They were either decorated buses or lorries with elaborate sets, and each one had its own soundtrack.

Someone knew I was coming!

There were men on stilts:

There were men on stilts--with wings!

There were great signs:

Fundamentally, it was a great party--and really just a lead up to the even bigger party now at Trafalgar Square.

Happy Pride, Everyone!

Friday, July 04, 2008

Independence Day.

Yesterday the PP, who is not traveling with me at this point, said this in an e-mail:
Speaking of tomorrow, we have a holiday over here called Independence Day. I assume you do not celebrate it over in the UK. Or if you celebrate you might want to do it quietly. Seriously, is there any notice of the date at all there?

Well, no, today really is no day of note here, and perhaps that is no surprise. I do not think, for instance, that in the US we have a day to celebrate the hasty removal of folks from the roof of a certain embassy, or the sinking of the Maine, and I can tell those of you living above the Mason-Dixon line that there are no official southern holidays celebrating union victory.

But since I do not hate freedom, I have been thinking a bit about Independence Day this morning. I am trying, for instance, to stop wondering: If we had lost that war, would we still be on the Pound, so that everything would not be so damned expensive for those of us earning in dollars?

It is frankly hard to think of the United States as an oppressed nation, given the way we have presented ourselves on the world scene for the last eight years, and really for another fifty or so before that.

But the letter writers to my local paper would remind me that even saying that is a freedom that I am now taking for granted. They are right.

Here in Britain, many people have been thinking hard about systems of government and, for instance, the prisons they employ in order to maintain justice, not just because of this show, which has been hot beyond hot, and which includes a pretty awful and frank plotline about what really happens in the joint. It is a bit of a reminder of what it means to free, on a personal level.

Having spent some time in recent years thinking hard about British colonialism and its effect on colonized places, it is strange to think of "the colonials" in what would become the USA revolting against their horrible oppressors, who were of course of their own culture. When I compare the situation of the folks of English descent in the colonies, I realize their situation was so different from those in Asia and Africa who were governed far more brutally by their English colonizers. But still: I believe that taxation without representation is a horrid thing, as is quartering troops among us, or making military power independent of and superior to civil power. And most of us in the US still believe in the importance of a fair trial by jury.

In fact, on this day more than any other day, it is worth going back and thinking about (or at least rereading) what it was that made those signers throw off allegiance to the Crown, because in doing so, we can remember the ideals that make us know how important it is to resist those who would distort this nation and what it believes in.

And tomorrow I will check out a real independence day.

Happy Fourth, Everyone!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

From the new BL.

If you are feeling ornery, you might try to point out to me that the British Library at St. Pancras is not that new, but to me it is, and it is my blog, dammit.

About 12 years, I spent a good bit of time working in the old British Library, located under the great dome of the British Museum. It was, after all, once called the British Museum Library, and as an institution it did not separate until 1972. Physically, the two institutions separated in 1997, when the new facility at St. Pancras opened to cheers and boos. This library is the legal deposit library for the United Kingdom , which means that a copy of every single book published in the UK and Ireland (and foreign books distributed in Britain) must be sent here. Talk about shelf space!

To get to the old British Library, you had to pass through the main doors and entryway of the British Museum. That meant climbing the impressive stone steps and making your way through hordes of visiting schoolchildren on your way to show your pass, squeeze your bag into the cloakroom, and search out a good desk, perhaps even with an outlet for your laptop.

Working under that dome was amazing: there you would be, having your serious thoughts and reading serious books in the same room where so many others had before you--Karl Marx, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, and on and on. Looking back on the I spent there, when I was researching for my dissertation, I do not believe I did that much work that I could not have done elsewhere, but to do it there was an experience I would not trade.

Particularly now that it is an experience never to be replicated.

Now they have converted that old space into a sort of replica of the original. The domed library is still there, with books lining it (and the same fake books disguising the doors). The architectural space around the dome, which used to serve as extremely cramped bookstacks (though it was not originally intended to do so--but the library, like so many, ran out of storage space), is now opened up to the light, and it holds a cafe. In the library itself, there are still the rays of numbered desks emanating from the central hub, and there are some books there (mostly samples of writings by important figures who used the library over the years), but it is no longer a true working space. It has become a museum of a museum.

UPDATE: It is worse than I thought.

At the time I was working there (1996 or 1997), the BL was in the process of moving itself to St. Pancras, which meant that the time between calling up a book and having it delivered was even longer than usual--and "usual" was already pretty long. An inevitable part of the BL experience, then, was waiting, and finding ways to use waiting time productively.

The new BL is, relatively speaking anyway, all about efficiency. Catalogues are now online. Materials can be reserved in advance, again online. There are outlets at every desk. There are ample lockers for securing your stuff. Book call time has dropped significantly. There is air conditioning. There is a restaurant in the building. There are limits on the number of little slips you can have at any time, so that you only submit the permitted number at one time. Everything feels spacious and light.

This time I am really using things that I can only use here--the Macmillan Publishing Company's archives, which I am consulting for another volume of my edition.

Some things have not changed. You still have to have a reader's pass to use the reading rooms, and getting such a pass requires "real reason" to use the collection and letters of reference. Getting access to manuscripts takes more letters and proof. There are still the earnest graduate students, and I can so clearly remember what it was like to see something rare or unique for the first time, something you can only see in this one place. I think I see that look on the faces of students around me, as they turn the leaves of an old manuscript.

And in the lobby areas and exhibitions spaces, there are still hordes of school-children, but now instead of being on their way to see Egyptian antiquities, they are looking at a screen that lets them "turn the pages" (virtually) of, say, the Lindesfarne Gospels, seeing larger than life and radiant with screen-light the beautiful images. (New meaning of "illuminated manuscript") Or they are listening on headphones to music from the 1968 on Record: A Year of Revolution audio exhibition.

Now there are also loads of undergraduates, apparently allowed to work here now, though in many cases their "work" looks an awful lot like the "work" students at my home institution do in that library. . . .

In some ways, the BL has become a giant media center, as have so many libraries, with its traditional collections still here for insects like myself who burrow into the past. The King's Library is on show in a giant glass-encased column at the center of the building, so that the spines can be seen, if not touched. Most of the books are in hidden stacks underground. In the summer, there is music on the piazza.

But it is still amazing to work here, to know that just about anything can be found out here. As I look at the pencilled names on the labels on packets of page proofs, and see there one after another eminent Yeatsian, I feel both intimidated and thrilled.

And honsetly? I can hardly wait for the Big Bollywood Dance Class next Tuesday! Yeats was a big fan of India, and I know that if he were alive today, he would join me in my love of Asha Bhosle!