Advent

I was lucky enough to have a hot ticket for the King’s College Advent Procession last night.

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Processional – Benozzo Gozzoli

Advent at King’s is a theatrical affair. The whole chapel is darkened, except for the candles in the choir stalls. The choir and celebrants (assorted priests, chaplains, acolytes, vergers) mass by the West Door, where the choir sing various introits and anthems; then make their way by degrees to the Rood screen, where once again they stop and sing; then to the choir stalls; thence towards the altar, pausing midway to perform an antiphonal hymn; then up to the alter for some Bruckner and Bach; and finally back to the choir stalls. As they progress along the chapel, the lights come on in their wake, until the whole chapel is once again a refulgent ship in the night. It is almost enough to make you wish you were a Christian.

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Ceremonial and Ritual are not exclusive Christian preserves, of course. The taxi driver who drove me to King’s was from a Bangladeshi family (as he informed me), and he is a Muslim. He had asked me where I was going, and when I told him, asked me if I was religious. I said no, and we talked about why I might be going along anyway, and agreed that it was nice to take part in a ritual, religious or otherwise. There is a peculiar sense of community in the celebration of a ritual, the community in question not only being those bodily present, but also those ghosts who have participated in the ceremony or ritual in years and centuries past.

I was put in mind of the vague awe one of our students, Alexei, felt recently (read about it here) when he attended a football match at Villa Park on 11th November, Armistice Day, and the sounding of the Last Post was followed by a minute’s silence from the forty-odd thousand spectators, and then a great roar when the referee’s whistle blew.

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The advent ritual at King’s is a relatively recent one. The processional order of service was first fixed in 1934, and has been added to over the years – it begins and ends with anthem written especially for King’s by Philip Ledger in 2007. The tradition continues to deepen. But the gradual alteration of a tradition does not alter its status as tradition. The Last Post was played at Villa Park this year, for all I know, for the first time.

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Black Fridays

It is Black Friday, a strange name for a festive event but perhaps apt given the degradation which traditionally accompanies it, a sort of harrowing of consumer hell, wherein the righteous are raised to eternal bliss with their various discount purchases and the rest are left wailing and gnashing their teeth.

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Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving in the USA, is named, some say, for the crowds and traffic which it draws out; but many Fridays (not to mention the odd Monday) have been called black, first among them the Friday on which the US gold market collapsed in 1869.

In Britain Black Friday is chiefly remembered for the clash between Suffragettes and police in November 1910. A bill had been passed in parliament on its second reading allowing property-owning women over thirty years of age the vote; but the Prime Minister of the day, Herbert Asquith, dissolved parliament before the act could be read a third time and passed into law.

300 enraged Suffragettes marched on the Houses of Parliament, where, on the orders of the then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, the police declined to arrest them, but instead methodically beat them and variously assaulted them.

Not one of British democracy’s proudest moments, perhaps; but then neither is our modern-day Black Friday one of capitalism’s great triumphs. On the bright side, however, suffrage is now pretty universal, thanks in part to that black day; and while we are still a long way from universal consumer-goods Nirvana, you can always, in the meantime, subscribe to Buy Nothing Day.

 

Kiss of Judas

I was talking to some of my students about iconoclasm – the breaking of images – on Monday (and taught them the word in the process, those who didn’t already know it, which is a first for me) because one of them, Masato, had been to Ely over the weekend and had visited the Lady Chapel in the cathedral there, where the statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints in niches had their heads or faces smashed during and after the Reformation (something I have posted about before, here).

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Iconoclasts going about their business in Zurich, 1524

Iconoclasm during the Reformation in England and elsewhere was a serious matter of conscience. It was usually carried out not in frenzied uprisings of riot and carnival, but soberly, with ladders and appropriate tools, as a necessary public work. In some cases it was treated as a family day out, with people bringing food and children playing in the naves of the great churches.

Perhaps because of the bureaucratic levels of organisation, it was a thorough business. Very little remains of pre-Reformation religious art in England. Hence the excitement over the restoration of a fifteenth  century (i.e. pre-Reformation) panel painting by conservators at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The panel depicts the kiss of Judas, and was therefore at risk in its lifetime not only from Protestant iconoclasts but from zealous Catholics appalled by the representation of the betrayer-apostle. It seems the painting was saved by the quick thinking of someone who turned it around and used its back to list the Ten Commandments. Which have something to say, if I recall, about graven images.

Anchor

I officially have a lazy mind, anchored on the easy answers.

How so? I am always trying to encourage my students to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book of great insight and almost-comical depressiveness (keynote idea: we are terrible at thinking and can do nothing about it).

Of the anchoring phenomenon, Kahneman writes: Insufficient adjustment is a failure of a weak or lazy System 2 (System 2 being what he calls the calculating, number-crunching, non-intuitive sub-systems of our brains).

Oh boy.

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What he means is, once we have an idea in our heads, the weak and lazy (i.e. me) will move away from it only with great reluctance. Thus if we are asked when George Washington became President, we know (or should know) that it was not before 1776; we then have to adjust from that figure (assuming we don’t actually know the answer) until we feel we have somehow gone ‘far enough’. 1777? Not far enough. 1779? Nah. 1783? Hmmm, could be. Only those with a properly functioning System 2 would adjust as far as 1789 (the actual year).

And so when, not that long ago, I was discussing with two colleagues the grade which we should award a rather strong student, and I was surprised to find that while they thought she might be a C1 sort of standard, I was nearer B1 (I said, I think, neighbourhood of B1/B2), I should have suspected a false anchor of some sort. And indeed, I realised later, I had marked the student’s entry test, where she had done very poorly because she was a little late starting; and I had also read the estimate of B1 from her telephone interview, which, by her own admission, she found particularly stressful. She was clearly a good B2 level (and she ended up straddling the C1/B2 boundary); but I had never really managed to drag myself very far from the anchor of B1.

Just goes to show, not only that I have a lazy and weak System 2, but that a little collective wisdom can uncover a great deal of slack assumption.

Desk Life

I do a little administration these days, and spend more time sitting at a desk than I used to. This has its ups (second breakfast) and its downs (groaning in-tray, not really an in-tray at all, but a static pile which refuses to compost).

And I’m not sure if it’s an up or a down, but I have started to eat my lunch at my desk. I mention this, not as testament to my industrious soul (I haven’t got one), but rather to my conventional one. To work at a desk, after all, is to conform in all sorts of ways.

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…not my desk

Yesterday, however, while my lunch was a classic improvisation of the age – left over lasagna, chopped into ragged bits and scooped from a special microwaveable (i.e. non-microwaveable) cup – I did not eat it at my desk. I rebelled. Instead I ate it standing at the bottom of the stairs by the library (next door to the kitchen, not coincidentally). It is peaceful down there, and represents a change of view, and when you eat hot food in the cold outdoors it always tastes like trail food anyway, so it didn’t matter that it was an hideous parody of the culinary arts. My lunch, you might say, smacked of boundless adventure. Context is everything (not to mention a vivid imagination).

And then, lunch done – in about two-and-a-half minutes, including preparation time and a conversation with Vibeke (going home to a proper lunch, I’ll bet) snatched between mouthfuls of mulch – it was back upstairs to my desk, where I stared hard at my in-tray, to see if there had been any movement in my absence.

Little Gidding

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year.
T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

Well it wasn’t midwinter, but it may as well have been. Some violent north winds (remnant of Hurricane Barney, I believe) brought relative cold and absolute sun, and winter arrived. There is nothing to make you feel less sempiternal than a wind from the north, although November does seem to go on forever, once you are fairly in it.

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T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (published individually 1941-42), of which Little Gidding is the last, are locally specific. The Dry Salvages, for example, is a group of rocks (les trois sauvages) off Cape Ann on the New England coast, where Eliot used to go sailing as a boy (I was on Cape Ann just a few miles from the dry salvages in October); East Coker is in Somerset, in the South West of England; Burnt Norton, the first of the set, is a manor (Norton Manor), located in Gloucestershire, which burnt down in 1741; and Little Gidding is a village just up the road from Cambridge, just beyond Huntingdon.

This weekend would have been an ideal one to visit it, except that there wasn’t enough windless cold. Perhaps at midwinter…

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St. John’s Church, Little Gidding

Three Words

Yesterday afternoon I had the experience of being interviewed on film for an in-house publicity video, as did my student, Chiara. We both had a lovely time.

Lovely? Well no. Perhaps not. In three words then, the experience was: discomforting, odd, and (vaguely) humiliating. Discomforting, because being asked to externalise how you feel about a large part of your daily life,whilst simultaneously policing certain boundaries of good taste and good sense, brings you up against all sorts of underlying equivocations. Odd, because I’m usually the one asking the questions. And humiliating, because there is necessarily something coercive about submitting to a line of questioning; doubly so when you are expected to respect an invisible underlying script.

But I suppose I am over-sensitive. I wasn’t exactly sweating under the lights.

 

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I have chosen to summarise the experience in three words because in the interview I was asked to say what I liked about working at OISE, in three words. That gave me pause. CUPS OF TEA?  STUDENTS AND CAKE? GOING HOME TIME? ALL THE GLASS? MIKE HUMPHRIES DAVIES? NOT THIS INTERVIEW? In the end I settled on something anodyne, if broadly true (I think it was, professional, intimate, and interesting).

But I was, of course, playing a sort of game, a game I could only at best hope to draw.