And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

tirsdag 30. august 2011

That Man may stare himself beyond Significance

We find, therefore, under this orderly arrangement, a wonderful symmetry in the universe, and a definite relation of harmony in the motion and magnitude of the orbs, of a kind that is not possible to obtain in any other way.
- The Harmonies of the World, Johannes Kepler

God hath made stars the foil
To set off virtues;
- The Foil, George Herbert

Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.
- Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant

Half-sequestered among trees and bushes, situated by one of the pathways through Yorkshire Museum Garden lies the York Observatory, an unostentatious, almost timid little building of octagonal shape. I first became aware of its existence several weeks after my arrival by more or less stumbling across it on a day I happened to walk that middle pathway running past the observatory. I remember being taken aback a bit by my discovery since it blends very well in with its surroundings, chiefly due to its stone having the same colours as the neighbouring trees. An equally unostentatious note in the window heralded quietly and shyly that the observatory was open every Saturday from 11.30 a.m. to 02.00 p.m., and I think this note sparked an immediate interest. However, I came to spend my Saturdays elsewhere during my stay, either because I would sleep long or because my attention would be directed elsewhere, and it is important to remember here just how unpresuming and plain this building really is, for how else dare I account for my neglect something as awe-inspiring as an observatory? Consequently it took me until one of the last weeks of my stay to pop by, and also this was by pure chance. I was on my way back from the post office and in passing I noticed that the observatory was open and I went in. 

  A road diverging into the middle and the lower path. Beyond the little lamp-post by the middle track, nestled among trees and evergreens lies the York Observatory.

Considering how awesome the subject and purpose of an observatory is, stepping inside this huddled building was a bit anticlimactic, both due to its modest size and the rather palpable lack of enthusiam prevalent in the blank stares of its staff. The Observatory is apparently first and foremost a science museum displaying a range of instruments from the early modern and modern period, although I did learn at a much later stage that the telescope is actually functioning and open for the public to utilise. Somehow this eluded me, yet during my very brief stay I noticed some interesting microscopes and found the exhibition to be enjoyable. 

  From left to right: revolving stage microscope from the 18th century, swift "paragon" binocular microscope from the early 20th century, Collins Mineralogists microscope from the 19th century.

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.
- Emily Dickinson

The conception of the York Observatory took place at the first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was hosted in 1831 by Yorkshire Philosophical Society. The structure was completed in the winter of 1832-33 and its designer may have been William Wilkins, whereas the roof is believed to have been designed by John Smeaton who is more famous for Eddystone Lighthouse. The cost of the project was £300, an investment it took six years for the Yorkshire Philosophical Society to recover from, but which proved most auspicious when Halley's Comet came around in 1835 and an eclipse of the sun occurred the consecutive year. 

The telescope above, a refractor telescope, was crafted by Thomas Cooke of York in 1850, but already in 1844 the Observatory was presented with a transit telescope that allowed for great accuracy in measuring the position of the stars. In 1858 the Observatory was refurbished and in the same year Donati's comet could be beheld. During the 20th century the building was for a long period neglected and out of use, but Yorkshire Philosophical Society raised enough money for its restoration in 1981.

York Observatory is another of the numerous little gems tucked away in this marvellous city and although it is in many ways humble and seemingly insignificant, it has its profound value. I just hope that one day I will come across some event held here where I may try the telescope of Thomas Cooke and stare myself beyond significance.

onsdag 17. august 2011

Jeremiad on the JBM

Want to hear a joke? What's small, cramped and thinks it's a library? The JBL.
- From a fellow Constantine's facebook status

So, on I went. I think I never saw
Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers---as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You'd think; a burr had been a treasure-trove.
- Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Robert Browning

There are many good things to be said about the University of York, who so kindly took me under its wings after I had paid for shelter, and one day I ought to write more about that particular topic. This time, however, my agenda is quite different. This is a rant on an aspect of recurrent frustration and anger, not only to me but to several of my fellow students. The matter in question? The John Bowes Morrell library on Heslington Campus, henceforth abbreviated the JBM. 
The John Bowes Morrell Library.

I do not know what sort of person he really was, John Bowes Morrell, aside from his title Lord Mayor of York and his crucial role in getting the University of York established in the 1960s. I'm quite convinced, however, that he deserved to have a university library named after him, I only wish his legacy would not be associated with such vitriolic reprehension as now is the case. But having started in medias res I should perhaps begin with a more explanatory beginning. 

During my stay in York I lived in Constantine House just outside the York city walls and my classes were all in King's Manor just within the city walls and it was in this vicinity I spent most of my time. King's Manor is the home of the Centre for Medieval Studies, a couple of other disciplines and a rather decent cafeteria, and altogeher I found it a rather pleasant venue. Occasionally, however, I had to go take the journey out to Heslington in order to borrow or return books at the JBM and it was a trial every single time. The reason for this is manifold. The key problem is that instead of purchasing their own curricular material, the students have to borrow whatever material they need save the occasional handout. Since there's not a copy for every student - which of course is economically understandable - the students are forced into a hunt for books where they have to rummage the libraries of York University hoping that no one has beaten them to it, and often they end up very disappointed. On my first trip to the university, where I actually missed the main campus and had to find a bus back to it, I quickly had the issue tossed at me when several of the numerous books I had planned to borrow turned out to be on loan. My option was to send in an order on them so that the loans could not be renewed, but since they already were unavailable the very week I needed them, I saw no point in doing so, especially since this would cause frustration for the students in question. I did of course manage to find some material, particularly since the King's Manor Library has a nice enough collection, at least they had for a short while, but often I felt a sense of despair creeping up on me because my reading was hostage to the planning and resolution of my fellow students who of course were by then already familiar with the system.
 Some abandoned alien starship now serving as...well, God knows.

Beside the University system the very venue itself was a difficult thing to endure. The JBM is, like the entire Heslington Campus, a monstrosity of modern architecture, designed largely in the '60s and looking like some refuse from a bad science fiction movie from that particular era. The contrast to the old-fashioned, stylish and highly charming architecture of the city was appalling, and when considering the beautiful campus of Oxford University, as seen in the tv series Inspector Morse and Lewis, I couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed whenever I gazed at the soulless cluster of shapes sprawling the landscape like a colony of dead arthropods from a bygone era. 
Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse and have our light in ashes.
- Thomas Browne, Urne Buriall

Once inside the library building I would very often feel an intense desire to get the hell out of there as quick as possible, a very unnatural reaction for a man who considers libraries sacred ground and has devoted very much of his time to compile his own humble collection of books. The reasons for this idiosyncracy, however, were first of all the ridiculously high temperature which felt even higher when coming in on a crisp February afternoon, and which had me sweating even before I started the ascent of the staircase. Secondly it was very difficult to orientate oneself among the various sections of the library and to me it made no sense, and it still doesn't, that the section for history books is labelled "qt" rather than something intelligible like the obvious abbreviation "HIST". In addition to this you are required to take the book back home to your flat and read it there unless you have had the foresight to book a reading room one week in advance, despite the fact that several rooms were unoccupied. These mechanisms served to intensify the stress already inherent in the competitive booksearch, and the planning required such detail that I in the end decided against it and sought to weather the storm as best I could with what material it tossed in my way.

I do admit freely that much of this frustration and anger could have been avoided on my part had I put more effort into planning ahead and adapting to the requirements of the system. However, I soon discovered I was not the only one who felt a certain animosity towards this failed emulation of the sacred concept named the Library. I often encountered horror stories of failed quests and broken aspirations where the JBM played a crucial part, where it appeared as a temple of doom that sucked out the souls of devotees, chewed them up and returned them badly scathed upon departure. A prime example of this was the information meeting on the exam assignments which was followed by a session where the students were encouraged to voice their grievances and opinions, and to my petty delight it turned out to be a pleasantly long verbal harrying of the JBM and its numerous shortcomings, a harrying which the CMS representative agreed to and subscribed to completely and without reservations.

My final encounter with the JBM will hopefully serve as a practical example of how unhelpful the system itself is. This took place the last Saturday of March and I had to deliver a number of books since I was leaving York the next day. In addition to a number of books from the JBM - among them a short term loan book which I had had in possession two days longer than allowed - I brought with me a number of books from to the beautiful York Minster Library which also belongs to the University of York library system and which is closed on Saturdays. As I was returning my loot the man behind the counter told me I couldn't deliver the York Minster Library books anywhere but the York Minster Library. I should of course have foreseen this considering students are not allowed to order books to whatever library is closest, instead they are forced to conduct a tour of the realm to search - often in vain - for books throughout the scattered members of the hydra known as York University Library. Fortunately, however, the problem lies in the system, not its people, and when I had explained I was leaving the country in not long, he agreed very kindly to ship them to York Minster Library at the next delivery, because, you see, there is correspondence between the branches, it is just not open for students to take advantage of. However, after I had paid my fines to JBM and York Minster Library and left the country, I received e-mails for about two weeks from the latter asking me to return my books. In the second week, when the tone of the e-mails had hardened a little, I explained the case to them and received a reply saying the books had just arrived. 

As is evident I have had a bone to pick with JBM and I have had it for quite some time. This is meant as a warning to any readers who might be toying with the idea of studying in York. My message is not that you should avoid this, quite the contrary, I strongly encourage anyone to do so. However, it should be noted that despite the many good things about the University, such as a friendly staff, excellent courses and various perks like free admission at museums, the JBM library, the main campus library, is a disgrace to the very concept of a Library and it is the first library ever to have caused any resentment to surface in me. I pray that whenever Britain gets out of the financial mud it now stands waist deep in, some serious alterations of logistics will take place in the JBM.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci, John Keats

 The sun, which was burning red behind us,
Was interrupted in front by my shadow,
For its rays were stopped as I stood there.
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
- Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Robert Browning

lørdag 13. august 2011

London Letters - A London Miscellany

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow
- London, William Blake

Saddle up, kick your feet
Ride the range of a London street
- At the chime of a city clock, Nick Drake

And I walked the streets of London town
Looking for a place to put my head down
- No Can Do, Mark Knopfler

Although my stay in London was not of such a length as is required in such a metropolis and despite having missed a vast number of sights great and small, I nonetheless have a small number of pictures I would like to share with all of my two readers. Those who have read my previous London-related blogpost will know the course of my visit in sufficient detail, so I will not elaborate on the subject.

As often is the case when the mind is too fixed upon a singular aim, it will not allow the eyes to wander too freely, nor will it move the muscles to much beyond the aim in question. This was very much the case during my pilgrimage, since I noticed very little aside from my primary targets, as has been covered in previous blogposts.

Although my initial plan - established in late December 2010 - had been to spend several days exploring Britain's capital and its various historic sites, my friends in York got the better of me and I chose to spend a few more days in their delightful company rather than meandering the streets of London, a decision I do not regret. The following array of pictures gives a good indication of my whereabouts the first three hours or so, before I went searching for my hotel and thus ended up covering areas of London I had not imagined I would visit, areas where I sacrificed photography for relatively speedy progress on sore feet.

London National Gallery

  He was the most extraordinary compound of talent, wit, buffoonery, obstinacy, and good feelings, in short, a medley of the most opposite qualities, with a great preponderance of good - that I ever saw in any character in my life.
- Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington

Wellesley's comment is quite apt. Although George IV was a great patron of the arts, his various projects were immensely costly, especially considering they were performed in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution which both had taken their heavy toll on Britain's treasury and its citizens. 

 Plaques depicting scenes from the Battle of Trafalgar.
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind
- Streets of London, Ralph McTell

 View from Nelson's Column.

 Nelson's column.

 The Ugandan Embassy. In the hotel later that night I watched parts of The Last King of Scotland.Coincidence? You bet.

 Some posh building ostensibly commemorating the death of King Edward VII in 1910.

 London Eye.

 Big Ben and Houses of Parliament.

 There mighte men the royal egle finde,
That with his sharpe look perceth the sonne;
And other egles of a lower kinde,
Of which that clerkes wel devysen conne.
Ther was the tyraunt with his fethres done
And greye, I mene the goshauk, that doth pyne
To briddes for his outrageous ravyne.
- The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer

The gentil faucoun, that with his feet distreyneth
The kinges hond; the hardy sperhauk eke,
The quayles foo; the merlion that payneth
Him-self ful ofte, the larke for to seke;
Ther was the douve, with hir eyen meke;
The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth;
The oule eek, that of dethe the bode bringeth
- The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer
 The crane the geaunt, with his trompes soune; 
The theef, the chogh; and eek the Iangling pye; 
The scorning Iay; the eles foo, heroune; 
The false lapwing, ful of trecherye; 
The stare, that the counseyl can bewrye; 
The tame ruddok; and the coward kyte; 
The cok, that orloge is of thorpes lyte 
- The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer
 The sparow, Venus sone; the nightingale, 
That clepeth forth the fresshe leves newe; 
The swalow, mordrer of the flyes smale 
That maken hony of floures fresshe of hewe; 
The wedded turtel, with hir herte trewe; 
The pecok, with his aungels fethres brighte; 
The fesaunt, scorner of the cok by nighte 
- The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer
 The waker goos; the cukkow ever unkinde; 
The popiniay, ful of delicasye; 
The drake, stroyer of his owne kinde; 
The stork, the wreker of avouterye; 
The hote cormeraunt of glotonye; 
The raven wys, the crow with vois of care; 
The throstel olde; the frosty feldefare. 
- The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer

 At this point I realised that I was moving in the opposite direction of where I ought to be going and there was much frustration. Distances in London are surprisingly great, at least when your muscles are stiff from too much walking and refuse to cooperate.
 The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). This bronze monument was made to commemorate the Siege of Calais in 1346, when Edward III of England promised to refrain from a mass slaughter of the city's inhabitants provided that the six foremost citizens would give themselves over to him. This monument is one of the 12 casts of the piece and it was purchased by the British government in 1911.

 The images commonly presented of Richard I are perpetuated by the romantic and idealised statute of him on horseback that stands just outside the Houses of Parliament. But is this a true picture? Sadly, it has to be said that Richard was one of our worst kings.
- Kings, Queens, Bones & Bastards, David Hilliam

Hilliam is not too scorching in his critique of Richard I, far from it. Often have I wondered why anyone has paid good money for a statue of Richard on this very spot, surely the persons in question must have been too dazzled by legends to pay attention to proper history. He is indeed a very strong candidate for the worst regent in the history of Britain, and off the top of my head I can't think of any worthy contenders, save George IV as seen above. The reasons for his strong candidacy to a title of such dubious honour are numerous. During his reign (1189-99) he was very rarely in England - a matter of months all put together, most likely - and left the country pretty much in charge of his very able mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Upon his return from the crusade, Richard was captured by the Duke of Austria and sold to Emperor Henry VI who in turn demanded a huge ransom of the English government. To pay for the king's release cost, according to Hilliam, a quarter of every man's income for an entire year, in addition to livestock and church gold. In addition, his failure to capture Jerusalem, losing an ally in king Phillipe of France after Richard had refused to marry his sister and his probable lack of mastery of the English language all strengthen Richard's claim to be the worst regent in Britain's history.

This is an image which put enemies to flight,
But under which citizens enjoy quiet leisure.
- On a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, Andrew Marvell (translated from the Latin)

This is another choice of motif that puzzles me somewhat, although to a lesser extent than in the case above. On the one hand I can understand a desire, especially among Labour politicians, to display Britain's most well-known Parlamentarian of all times as a counterweight to the romantically royalist Richard I, for despite his shortcomings and his troublesome aspects Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was an able man in the face of an uncooperative, spendthrift and militarily unsuccessful king Charles. On the other side, however, he was an iconoclast in the right sense of the word, a zealous Puritan who sought to banish Christmas and a ruthless commander who had as little success in mastering parliaments as had his royal predecessors. Andrew Marvell is quite right in the first sentece of his couplet, but whether the citizens of England could find much leisure under his auspices is somewhat dubious, and it is noteworthy that Marvell's Ode upon Cromwell's return from Ireland is considered to contain numerous veiled critcisms of Cromwell.

Although historians must be careful in asserting too stern a judgement on the characters of persons past, I personally would be quite happy if this affront to Irishmen, monarchists, Catholics and most likely quite a number of other groups, were to be removed. The same counts of course for Richard I.