Truth and Deception

Commuting days until retirement: 94

My very first post on this blog, nearly two years ago, was about Alan Turing, and in the intervening time his public profile has continued to grow. That post still appears to be one of my most frequently read ones (which isn’t saying much) – probably because there are so many searches for his name now.  You may be aware that a dramatised film of his life was recently released – The Imitation Game – so of course I went to see it.

Warning: some spoilers follow. If you don’t want to read on, then I recommend seeing the film, but also taking a monster pinch of salt with you.

Cumberbatch as Turing

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing (still from film)

My expectations weren’t too high after seeing the trailer, and the words splashed across the screen: ‘It took a man with secrets to break the biggest one.’  This suggests elements of the Hollywood-style schlocky mindset that we are all familiar with. However it looked as if Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing had some studied integrity, as indeed I found it did when I saw the film. But I suspect the celluloid Turing had far more exaggerated autistic traits than the real one: there’s no doubt that he was shy and socially awkward, but hardly quite as indifferent to the emotions of others as he was made to appear.

As I wrote in that earlier post, his impulses were more often generous and considerate; perhaps an example of this was his breaking off of his engagement with Joan Clarke, his fellow cryptographer at Bletchley, feeling that as a gay man he wouldn’t be able to maintain an adequate marriage. What private conversation took place we will of course never know,  but the film version made it more abrupt and brutal than I would have imagined it to be.

Knightley as Clarke

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke (still from film)

The real Joan Clarke

Joan Clarke from a contemporary photo

Turing’s biographer,  Andrew Hodges, has criticised the film on the portrayal of Joan – played sweetly and demurely by the willowy Keira Knightley. I thought it was a good performance, given her brief (but should someone have told her that a double-first Cambridge maths graduate is not likely to pronounce the name of the great Swiss mathematician Euler as “Yooler” rather than “Oiler”?) I’m getting pedantic – but one of Hodges’ points was that Joan Clarke was stocky and bespectacled – not the ideal of femininity, but as such someone whom Turing would have found a congenial and comfortable companion, as he undoubtedly did. There’s some insight into their relationship in an interview she gave to BBC Horizon in 1992, four years before her death (see video clip at the bottom of this post).

I did enjoy the film, although the beautifully realised period settings were marred – as so often – by a cloth ear for the language and idioms of the time. Would a fairly patrician Englishman in the 1940s (Commander Denniston/Charles Dance) have said “You’re fired” rather than something like “I’m sacking you”? And would Joan Clarke have talked about “fixing” Turing’s lamb in an imagined future marriage, rather than “cooking” it?

I seem to be turning into one of those people who get their biggest kicks from looking for mistakes in movies; but what the hell – it’s fun, and these are the sorts of things that irritate me. And indeed I became increasingly impatient with the more serious departures from reality. For a start, there’s no evidence at all that anyone attempted to fire Turing – this was just a ladle of dramatic tension clumsily poured in to spice things up. And so it went on.

“Based on a true story”, we were told at the start. So there’s an expectation of some invented scenes and dialogue, and minor deviations from fact to help the story work as a film. If I had known nothing about Turing or his Bletchley work before seeing film I would now believe that:

  • Apart from some clerical help by the Wrens, the entire wartime decryption operation was down to four men,  one woman and a single machine which Turing built almost single-handed as well as designing it.
  • He named the machine ‘Christopher’ after his close school friend who had died, and that the machine was a sort of emotional substitute after this loss (as was a computer he later designed in Manchester).
  • Turing was effectively blackmailed by the Soviet spy John Cairncross into keeping quiet about Cairncross’s activities.
  • At the time of his arrest for gross indecency in 1951 he threw the Official Secrets Act to the wind and told the interrogating officer all about his wartime work. (This is used in the narrative as a framing device.)

These range from the absurd, through the highly improbable, to the patently false; and I have only picked out a few of the most egregious examples. Just to examine one of them: it’s true that the spy Cairncross was at Bletchley and passed details of decrypts to Stalin’s Russia. But these were not Enigma decrypts, but those of the later, more complex naval code known as ‘Tunny’, broken by Bill Tutte and decrypted by the ‘Colossus’ computer designed by Tommy Flowers – an operation which of course owed much to Turing. It’s unlikely that Cairncross would have met Turing or had any significant contact with him; but how the thought of livening up the dull old truth with a bonus spy gets those film writers’ pulses racing! According to the film, the good old Brits of course know what Cairncross is up to, and only let him release the material that suits their purposes. (How on earth they manage this without his knowledge, given that the character in the film has full access to the Enigma decrypts, is never explained.) In reality, Cairncross’s activities were not discovered until the 1950s.

Rebuilt Turing Bombe

The replica bombe in the Bletchley museum (Ted Coles / Wikimedia)

And of course there wasn’t just one machine (they were actually known as ‘bombes’) but eventually some 200 of them were installed, at Bletchley and elsewhere, to get through all the work. I don’t think any of them was called ‘Christopher’.

As is customary with fictionalised true stories,  we get the ‘what happened afterwards’  follow-up facts on the screen before the credits – but even these are sloppily inaccurate: the Bletchley code breaking activities, we are told, were kept secret for more than 50 years. The makers have apparently failed to notice that the Hodges biography on which they claim to base the film, and which describes Enigma in great detail, was published in 1983, less than 40 years after the war. And the existence of the Bletchley code breaking operation was in fact made public in the 1970s, nearly a decade before that.

There I go again; but the point at issue is whether all the distortions of the truth can be justified. The film’s producer Teddy Schwartzman has been quoted as saying that, while the makers did not want to fabricate events, there are some ‘creative liberties’. Well, that’s one way of putting it. More, I would say, that many important truths were distorted in the hope of pushing up box office receipts. I haven’t attempted to count the fabricated events,  but I doubt whether the fingers of both hands would be sufficient.

I don’t imagine that Turing himself, with his mathematician’s love of detail, would have been very happy with this portrayal. The truth of Turing’s life contained drama enough – it was unnecessary to daub the picture with splotches of gaudy dramatic invention and make such clumsy attempts to drag in a spurious emotional subtext. In a different way,  the film was as disobliging to his memory as the account by his prejudiced brother John which I described in my first blog post.

The Bletchley operation was one of the greatest examples in history of overcoming barriers to discovering the truth, as well as in helping to deceive an enemy. Unfortunately what we were given here was too little truth, and a generous helping of deception

Read All About It (part 1)

Commuting days until retirement: 300

Imagine a book. It’s a thick, heavy, distinguished looking book, with an impressive tooled leather binding, gilt-trimmed, and it has marbled page edges. A glance at the spine shows it to be a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works. It must be like many such books to be found on the shelves of libraries or well-to-do homes around the world at the present time, although it is not well preserved. The binding is starting to crumble, and much of the gilt lettering can no longer be made out. There’s also something particularly unexpected about this book, which accounts for the deterioration.  Let your mental picture zoom out, and you see, not a set of book-laden shelves, or a polished wood table bearing other books and papers, but an expanse of greyish dust, bathed in bright, harsh light. The lower cover is half buried in this dust, to a depth of an inch or so, and some is strewn across the front, as if ithe book had been dropped or thrown down. Zoom out some more, and you see a rocky expanse of ground, stretching away to what seems like a rather close, sharply defined horizon, separating this desolate landscape from a dark sky.

Yes, this book is on the moon, and it has been the focus of a long standing debate between my brother and sister-in-law. I had vaguely remembered one of them mentioning this some years back, and thought it would be a way in to this piece on intentionality, a topic I have been circling around warily in previous posts. To clarify: books are about things – in fact our moon-bound book is about most of the perennial concerns of human beings. What is it that gives books this quality of ‘aboutness’ – or intentionality? When all’s said and done our book boils down to a set of inert ink marks on paper. Placing it on the moon, spatially distant, and and perhaps temporally distant, from human activity, leaves us with the puzzle as to how those ink marks reach out across time and space to hook themselves into that human world. And if it had been a book ‘about’, say, physics or astronomy, that reach would have been, at least in one sense, wider.

Which problem?

Well, I thought that was what my brother and sister-in-law had been debating when I first heard about it; but when I asked them it turned out that their what they’d been arguing about was the question of literary merit, or more generally, intrinsic value. The book contains material that has been held in high regard by most of humanity (except perhaps GCSE students) for hundreds of years. At some distant point in space and time, perhaps after humanity has disappeared, does that value survive, contained within it, or is it entirely dependent upon who perceives and interprets it?

Two questions, then – let’s refer to them as the ‘aboutness’ question and the ‘value’ question. Although the value question wasn’t originally within the intended scope of this post, it might be worth trying to  tease out how far each question might shed light on the other.

What is a book?

First, an important consideration which I think has a bearing on both questions – and which may have occurred to you already. The term ‘book’ has at least two meanings. “Give me those books” – the speaker refers to physical objects, of the kind I began the post with. “He’s written two books” – there may of course be millions of copies of each, but these two books are abstract entities which may or may not have been published. Some years back I worked for a small media company whose director was wildly enthusiastic about the possibilities of IT (that was my function), but somehow he could never get his head around the concepts involved. When we discussed some notional project, he would ask, with an air of addressing the crucial point, “So will it be a floppy disk, or a CD-ROM?” (I said it was a long time ago.) In vain I tried to get it across to him that the physical instantiation, or the storage medium, was a very secondary matter. But he had a need to imagine himself clutching some physical object, or the idea would not fly in his mind. (I should have tried to explain by using the book example, but never thought of it at the time.)

So with this in mind, we can see that the moon-bound Shakespeare is what is sometimes called in philosophy an ‘intuition pump’ – an example intended to get us thinking in a certain way, but perhaps misleadingly so. This has particular importance for the value question, it seems to me: what we value is set of ideas and modes of expression, not some object. And so its physical, or temporal, location is not really relevant. We could object that there are cases where this doesn’t apply – what about works of art? An original Rembrandt canvas is a revered object; but if it were to be lost it would live on in its reproductions, and, crucially, in people’s minds. Its loss would be sharply regretted – but so, to an extent, would the loss of a first folio edition of Shakespeare. The difference is that for the Rembrandt, direct viewing is the essence of its appreciation, while we lose nothing from Shakespeare when watching, listening or reading, if we are not in the presence of some original artefact.

Value, we might say, does not simply travel around embedded in physical objects, but depends upon the existence of appreciating minds. This gives us a route into examination of the value question – but I’m going to put that aside for the moment and return to good old ‘aboutness’ – since these thoughts also give us  some leverage for developing our ideas there.

…and what is meaning?

So are we to conclude that our copy of Shakespeare itself, as it lies on the moon, has no intrinsic connection with anything of concern or meaning to us? Imagine that some disaster eliminated human life from the earth. Would the book’s links to the world beyond be destroyed at the same time, the print on its pages suddenly reduced to meaningless squiggles?  This is perhaps another way in which we are misled by the imaginary book.

Cave painting

A 40,000 year old cave painting in the El Castillo Cave in Puente Viesgo, Spain (

Think of prehistoric cave paintings which have persisted, unseen, thousands of years after the deaths of those for whom they were particularly meaningful. Eventually they are found by modern men who rediscover some meaning in them. Many of them depict recognisable animals – perhaps a food source for the people of the time; and as representational images their central meaning is clear to us. But of course we can only make educated guesses at the cloud of associations they would have had for their creators, and their full significance in their culture. And other ancient cave wall markings have been discovered which are still harder to interpret – strange abstract patterns of dots and lines (see above). What’s interesting is that we can sense that there seems to have been some sort of purpose in their creation, without having any idea what it might have been.

Luttrell Psalter

A detail from the Luttrell Psalter (Bristish Library)

Let’s look at a more recent example: the marvellous illuminated script of the Luttrell Psalter, the 14th century illuminated manuscript, now in the British Library. (you can view it in wonderful detail by going to the British Library’s Turning the Pages application.) It’s a psalter, written in Latin, and so the subject matter is still accessible to us. Of more interest are the illustrations around the text – images showing a whole range of activities we can recognise, but as they were carried on in the medieval world. This of course is a wonderful primary historical source, but it’s also more than that. Alongside the depiction of these activities is a wealth of decoration, ranging from simple flourishes to all sorts of fantastical creatures and human-animal hybrids. Some may be symbols which no longer have meaning in today’s culture, and others perhaps just jeux d’esprit on the part of the artist. It’s mostly impossible now for us to distinguish between these.

Think also of the ‘authenticity’ debate in early music that I mentioned in Words and Music a couple of posts back. The full, authentic effect of a piece of music composed some hundreds of years ago, so one argument goes, could only affect an audience as the composer intended if the audience were also of his time. Indeed, even today’s music, of any genre, will have different associations for, and effects on, a listener depending on their background and experience. And indeed, it’s quite common now for artists, conceptual or otherwise, to eschew any overriding purpose as to the meaning of their work, but to intend each person to interpret it in his or her own idiosyncratic way.

Rather too many examples, perhaps, to illustrate the somewhat obvious point that meaning is not an intrinsic property of inert symbols, such as the printed words in our lunar Shakespeare. In transmitting their sense and associations from writer to reader the symbols depend upon shared knowledge, cultural assumptions and habits of thought; something about the symbols, or images, must be recognisable by both creator and consumer. When this is not the case we are just left with a curious feeling, as when looking at that abstract cave art. We get a a strong sense of meaning and intention, but the content of the thoughts behind it are entirely unknown to us. Perhaps some unthinkably different aliens will have the same feeling on finding the Voyager robot spacecraft, which was sent on its way with some basic information about the human race and our location in the galaxy. Looking at the cave patterns we can detect that information is present – but meaning is more than just information. Symbols comprise the latter without intrinsically containing the former, otherwise we’d be able to know what those cave patterns signified.

Physical signs can’t embody meaning of themselves,  apart from the creator and the consumer, any more than a saw can cut wood without a carpenter to wield it. Tool use, indeed, in early man or advanced animals, is an indicator of intentionality – the ability to form abstract ‘what if’ concepts about what might be done, before going ahead and doing it. A certain cinematic moment comes to mind: in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the bone wielded as a tool by the primate creature in the distant past is thrown into the air, and cross-fades into a space ship in the 21st century.

Here be dragons

Information theory developed during the 20th century, and is behind all the advances of the period in computing and communications. Computers are like the examples of symbols we have looked at: the states of their circuits and storage media contain symbolic information but are innocent of meaning. Which thought, it seems to me, it leads us to the heart of the perplexity around the notion of aboutness, or intentionality. Brains are commonly thought of as sophisticated computers of a sort, which to some extent at least they must be. So how come that when, in a similar sort of way, information is encoded in the neurochemical states of our brains, it is magically invested with meaning? In his well-known book A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking uses a compelling phrase when reflecting on the possibility of a universal theory. Such a theory would be “just a set of rules and equations”. But, he asks,

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

I think that, in a similar spirit, we have to ask: what breathes fire into our brain circuits to add meaning to their information content?

The Chinese Room

If you’re interested enough to have come this far with me, you will probably know about a famous philosophical thought experiment which serves to support the belief that my question is indeed a meaningful and legitimate one – John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument. But I’ll explain it briefly anyway; skip the next paragraph if you don’t need the explanation.

Chinese Room

A visualisation of John Searle inside the Chinese Room

Searle imagines himself cooped up in a rather bizarre room where he can only communicate with the outside world by passing and receiving notes through an aperture. Within the room he is equipped only with an enormous card filing system containing a set of Chinese characters and rules for manipulating them. He has Chinese interlocutors outside the room, who pass in pieces of paper bearing messages in Chinese. Unable to understand Chinese, he goes through a cumbersome process of matching and manipulating the Chinese symbols using his filing system. Eventually this process yields a series of characters as an answer, which are transcribed on to another piece of paper and passed back out. The people outside (if they are patient enough) get the impression that they are having a conversation with someone inside the room who understands and responds to their messages. But, as Searle says, no understanding is taking place inside the room. As he puts it, it deals with syntax, not semantics, or in the terms we have been using, symbols, not meaning. Searle’s purpose is to demolish the claims of what he calls ‘strong AI’ – the claim that a computer system with this sort of capability could truly understand what we tell it, as judged from its ability to respond and converse. The Chinese Room could be functionally identical to such a system (only much slower) but Searle is demonstrating that is is devoid of anything that we could call understanding.

If you have an iPhone you’ll probably have used an app called ‘Siri’ which has just this sort of capability – and there are equivalents on other types of phone. When combined with the remote server that it communicates with, it can come up with useful and intelligent answers to questions. In fact, you don’t have to try very hard to make it come up with bizarre or useless answers, or flatly fail. But that’s just a question of degree – no doubt future versions will be more sophisticated. We might loosely say that Siri ‘understands’ us – but of course it’s really just a rather more efficient Chinese Room. Needless to say, Searle’s argument has generated years of controversy. I’m not going to enter into that debate, but will just say that I find the argument convincing; I don’t think that Siri can ‘understand’ me.

So if we think of understanding as the ‘fire’ that’s breathed into our brain circuits, where does it come from? Think of the experience of reading a gripping novel. You may be physically reading the words, but you’re not aware of it. ‘Understanding’ is hardly an issue, in that it goes without saying. More than understanding, you are living the events of the novel, with a succession of vivid mental images. Another scenario: you are a parent, and your child comes home from school to tell you breathlessly about some playground encounter that day – maybe positive or negative. You are immediately captivated, visualising the scene, maybe informed by memories of you own school experiences. In both of these cases, what you are doing is not really to do with processing information – that’s just the stimulus that starts it all off. You are experiencing – the information you recognise has kicked off conscious experiences; and yes, we are back with our old friend consciousness.

Understanding and consciousness

Searle also links understanding to consciousness; his position, as I understand it, is that consciousness is a specifically biological function, not to be found in clever artefacts such as computers. But he insists that it’s purely a function of physical processes nontheless – and I find it difficult to understand this view. If biologically evolved creatures can produce consciousness as a by-product of their physical functioning, how can he be so sure that computers cannot? He could be right, but it seems to be a mere dogmatic assertion. I agree with him that you can’t have meaning – and hence intentionality – without consciousness. For sure, although he denies it, he leaves open the possibility that a computer (and thus, presumably, the Chinese Room as a whole) could be conscious. But he does have going for him the immense implausibility of that idea.


How much intentionality?

So does consciousness automatically bring intentionality with it? In my last post I referred to a dog’s inability to understand or recognise a pointing gesture. We assume that dogs have consciousness of some sort – in a simpler form, they have some of the characteristics which lead us to assume that other humans like ourselves have it. But try thinking yourself for a moment into what it might be to inhabit the mind of a dog. Your experiences consist of the here and now (as ours do) but probably not a lot more. There’s no evidence that a dog’s awareness of the past consists of more than simple learned associations of a Pavlovian kind. They can recognise ‘walkies’, but it seems a mere trigger for a state of excitement, rather than a gateway to a rich store of memories. And they don’t have the brain power to anticipate the future. I know some dog owners might dispute these points – but even if a dog’s awareness extends beyond ‘is’ to ‘was’ and ‘will be’, it surely doesn’t include ‘might be’ or ‘could have been’. Add to this the dog’s inability to use offered information to infer that the mind of another individual contains a truth about the world that hitherto has not been in your own mind (i.e. the ability to understand pointing – see the previous post) and it starts to become clearer what is involved in intentionality. Mere unreflective experiencing of the present moment doesn’t lead to the notion of the objects of your thought, as disticnct from the thought itself. I don’t want to offend dog-owners – maybe their pets’ abilites extend beyond that; but there are certainly other creatures – conscious ones, we assume – who have no such capacity.

So intentionality requires consciousness, but isn’t synonymous with it: in the jargon, consciousness is necessary but not sufficient for intentionality. As hinted earlier, the use of tools is perhaps the simplest indicator of what is sufficient – the ability to imagine how something could be done, and then to take action to make it a reality. And the earliest surviving evidence from prehistory of something resembling a culture is taken to be the remains of ancient graves, where objects surrounding a body indicate that thought was given to the body’s destiny – in other words, there was a concept of what may or may not happen in the future. It’s with these capabilities, we assume, that consciousness started to co-exist with the mental capacity which made intentionality possible.

So some future civilisation, alien or otherwise, finding that Shakespeare volume on the moon, will have similar thoughts to those that we would have on discovering the painted patterns in the cave. They’ll conclude that there were beings in our era who possessed the capacity for intentionality, but they won’t have the shared experience which enables them to deduce what the printed symbols are about. And, unless they have come to understand better than we do what the nature of consciousness is, they won’t have any better idea what the ultimate nature of intentionality is.

The value of what they would find is another question, which I said I would return to – and will. But this post is already long enough, and it’s too long since I last published one – so I’ll deal with that topic next time.

Words and Music

Commuting days until retirement: 360

Words and MusicThis piece was kicked off by some comments I heard from the poet Sean O’Brien on a recent radio programme. Speaking on the BBC’s Private Passions, where guests choose favourite music, and talking about Debussy, he said:

Poetry is always envious of music because that’s what poetry wants to be, whereas music has no need to be poetry. So [poets] are always following in the wake of music – but the two come quite close in sensibility here, it seems to me.

Discuss. Well, for me this immediately brought to mind a comment I once heard attributed to the composer Mendelssohn, to the effect that ‘music is not too vague for words, but too precise.’ So I went and did some Googling, and here’s the original quote:

People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.

(Source: Wikiquote, where you can also see the original German.)

These two statements seem superficially similar – are they saying the same thing, from different standpoints? One difference, of course, is that O’Brien is specifically talking of poetry rather than words in general. In comparison with prose, poetry shares more of the characteristics of music: it employs rhythm, cadence, phrasing and repetition, and is frequently performed rather than read from the page; and music of course is virtually exclusively a performance art. So that’s a first thought about how poetry departs from the prosaic and finds itself approaching the territory inhabited by music.

But what is the precision which Mendelssohn insists is music’s preserve? It’s true that music is entirely bound up with the mathematics of sound frequency ratios in intervals between notes: it was this that gave Pythagoras and others their obsession with the mystique of numbers, in antiquity. A musician need not be grounded deeply in mathematical theory, but but he or she will always be intensely aware of the differing characters of musical intervals – as is anyone who enjoys music at all, if perhaps more indirectly.

I haven’t read a lot of theorising on this topic, but it seems to me that there is a strong link here with everyday speech. In my own language, as, I should imagine, in most others, pitch and phrasing indicate the emotional register of what you are saying, and hence an important element of the meaning. One can imagine this evolving from the less articulate cries of our ancestors, with an awareness of intervals of pitch developing as a method of communication, hence fostering group cohesion and Darwinian survival value. Indeed, in some languages, such as Chinese, intonation can be integral to the meaning of a word. And there’s scientific evidence of the closeness of music and language: here’s an example.

So, going back to Mendelssohn, it’s as if music has developed by abstracting certain elements from speech, leaving direct, referential meaning behind and evolving a vocabulary from pitch, timbre and the free-floating emotional states associated with them. Think for a moment of film music. It can be an interesting exercise, in the middle of a film or TV drama, to make yourself directly aware of the background music, and then imagine how your perception of what is happening would differ if it were absent. You come to realise that the music is often instructing you what to feel about a scene or a character, and it often connects with your emotions so directly that it doesn’t consciously occur to you that the feelings you experience are not your own spontaneous ones. And if you add to this the complex structures formed from key relationships and temporal development, which a professional musician would be particularly aware of, you can start to see what Mendelssohn was talking about.

The musical piece O’Brien was introducing was the ‘Dialogue between the wind and the sea’ from Debussy ‘s La Mer. In other words,a passage which seeks to evoke a visual and auditory scene, rather than simply exploring musical ideas and the emotions that arise directly from them. By contrast, we could imagine a description of such a scene in prose: to be effective the writer needs to choose the words whose meanings and associations come together in such a way that readers can recreate the sensory impressions, and and the subjective impact of the scene in their own minds. The music, on the other hand, can combine its direct emotional access with an auditory picture, in a highly effective way.

Rain Steam and Speed

Rain, Steam and Speed – J.M.W Turner (National Gallery, London)

I was trying to think of an equivalent in visual art, and and the painting that came to mind was this one, with its emphasis on the raw sensory feelings evoked by the scene, rather than a faithful (prosaic) portrayal. In his use of this technique, Turner was of course controversial in his time, and is now seen as a forerunner of the impressionist movement. Interestingly, what I didn’t know before Googling the painting was that he is also known to have influenced Debussy, who mentions him in his letters. Debussy was also sometimes spoken of as impressionist, but he hated this term being applied to his work, and here is a quote from one of those letters:

I am trying to do something different – an effect of reality… what the imbeciles call impressionism, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art.

I like to think that perhaps Debussy is also to some extent lining up with Mendelssohn here, and, beside his reference to Turner’s painting, maybe has in mind the unique form of access to our consciousness which music has, as opposed to other art forms. A portrayal in poetry would perhaps come somewhere between prose and music, given that poetry, as we’ve seen, borrows some of music’s tricks. I looked around for an example of a storm at sea in poetry: here’s a snippet from Swinburne, around the turn of the 20th century, describing a storm in the English Channel.

As a wild steed ramps in rebellion, and and rears till it swerves from a backward fall,
The strong ship struggled and reared, and her deck was upright as a sheer cliff’s wall.

In two lines here we have – besides two similes with one of them extended into a metaphor – alliteration, repetition and rhyme, all couched in an irregular, bucking rhythm which suggests the movement of the ship with the sea and wind. Much in common here, then, with a musical evocation of a storm. This I take to be part of what O’Brien means by poetry ‘wanting’ to be music, and being ‘close in sensibility’ in the example he was talking about.

But I don’t see how all this implies that we should somehow demote poetry to an inferior role. Yes, it’s true that words don’t so often trigger emotions as directly, by their sound alone, as does music – except perhaps in individual cases where someone has become sensitised to a word through experience. But the Swinburne passage is an example of poetry flexing the muscles which it alone possesses, in pursuit of its goal. And even when its direct purpose is not the evocation of a specific scene, the addition of the use of imagery to the auditory effects it commands can create a very compelling kind of ‘music’. A couple of instances that occur to me: first T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton, from The Four Quartets.

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long-forgotten wars.

I’m vaguely aware that there all sorts of allusions in the poet’s mind which are beyond my awareness, but just at the level of the sound of the words combined with the immediate images they conjure, there is for me a magic about this which fastens itself in my mind, making it intensely enjoyable to repeat the words to myself, I just as a snatch of music can stick in the consciousness. Another example, from Dylan Thomas, known for his wayward and idiosyncratic use of language. This is the second stanza from Especially When the October Wind:

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Again, I find pure pleasure in the play of sounds and images here, before ever considering what further meaning there may be. But what I also love about the whole poem (here is the poet reading it) is the way it is self-referential: while exploiting the power of words, it explicitly links language-words to  images – ‘vowelled beeches’ rhymed with ‘water’s speeches’. The poet himself is ‘shut in a tower of words’ .

But, returning to the comparison with music, there’s one obvious superficial difference between it and language, namely that language is generally ‘about’ something, but while music is not. But of course there are plenty of exceptions: music can be, at least in part, deliberately descriptive, as we saw with Debussy, he while poetry often does away with literal meaning to transform itself into a sort of word-music, as I’ve tried to show above. And another obvious point I haven’t made is that words and music are often – perhaps more often than not – yoked together in song. The voice itself can simultaneously be a musical instrument and a purveyor of meaning. And it may be that the music is recruited to add emotional resonance to the language – think opera or musical drama – or that the words serve to give the music a further dimension and personality, as often in popular music. In the light of his statement above, it’s interesting that Mendelssohn is famous particularly for his piano pieces entitled Songs Without Words. The oxymoron is a suggestive one, and he strongly resisted an attempt by a friend to put words to them.

But the question of what music itself is ‘about’ is a perplexing, and perhaps profound one. I am intending this post to be one approach to the philosophical question of how it’s possible for one thing to be ‘about’ another: the topic known as intentionality. In an interesting paper, Music and meaning, ambiguity and evolution, Ian Cross of the Cambridge Faculty of Music explores this question (1), referring to the fact that the associations and effects of a piece of music may differ between the performer and a listener, or between different listeners. Music has, as he puts it, ‘floating intentionality’. This reminds me of a debate that has taken place about the performance of early music. For authenticity in, say 16th century music, some claim, it’s essential that it is played on the instruments of the time. Their opponents retort that you won’t achieve that authenticity unless you have a 16th century audience as well.

Some might claim that most music is not ‘about’ anything but itself, or perhaps about the emotions it generates. I am not intending to come to any conclusion on that particular topic, but just to raise some questions in a fascinating area. In the next post I intend to approach this topic of intentionality from a completely different direction.

1. Cross, Ian: Music and meaning, ambiguity and evolution, in D. Miell, R. MacDonald & D. Hargreaves, Musical Communication, OUP, 2004.
You can read part of it here.

Watching the World Go By

Commuting days until retirement: 381

Not another description of me, looking out of the window of my commuter train, but a few thoughts prompted by looking at some early film footage. A recent programme on Channel 4 looked at the rise of Hitler, using contemporary film from the 1920s and 1930s, which had been digitally enhanced and colourised to a startling level of realism. The thoughts I wanted to share concern not the subject of the films, but the medium itself.

Edweard Muybridge

Edweard Muybridge (Wikimedia Commons)

Most people have some awareness of the early history of moving pictures, the notion having been conceived almost as early as photography itself. Probably the first pioneer of the medium was the somewhat eccentric, but evidently brilliant, Edweard Muybridge. (He had changed his name – as he did several times – from the original Edward Muggeridge). Born in England, he lived for most of his life in the USA, where on his first visit he suffered a near-fatal blow on the head in a stagecoach accident. He recovered, but perhaps this accounted for some of the eccentricity. Some years later, in 1875, on he was tried, again in America, for murder, having shot dead his young wife’s lover. The defence entered a plea of insanity, but he rather gave the lie to that with a speech on his own behalf which was both cogent and impassioned enough to sway the jury to acquit him with a verdict of ‘justified homicide’.

Muybridge's horse

Muybridge’s horse (Wikimedia Commons)

Having started his career as a bookseller he later became a professional photographer, and in 1872 he was commissioned to settle a debate over whether all four hooves of a cantering or galloping horse were ever out of contact with the ground simultaneously. Having established by means of still photographs that they indeed were, he developed a fascination with the possibilities of capturing human and animal movement photographically. His earliest efforts, in the late 1870s, involved placing a number of cameras along the side of a track, and and using various mechanical methods to trigger them sequentially as a moving horse passed by them. Showing the result involved laboriously copying the photos as silhouettes on to a disc, from which they were projected using a device which Muybridge invented and called a Zoopraxiscope.  The animation above shows a modern rendering of his original images.

By the turn of the century integrated, hand-cranked film cameras had been developed, and so, like insects from their pupae, we see the people of over a hundred years ago emerge from their frozen monochrome images into a jerky, half-real life. And in retrospect it seems as if the lack of realism was accentuated as the medium began to be put to use for entertainment. There was already the Victorian tradition of high melodrama, and on top of this actors had to find ways of expressing themselves which did not use sound. The results now appear to us impossibly stilted and artificial.

Alongside this, however, entrepreneurs of the time had, luckily for us, spotted another opportunity to exploit the new medium. They realised that if they were to film ordinary people going about their business, those people may well pay a good price to be able to see themselves in an entirely novel way. And indeed they did. So we have a wonderful resource of animated scenes from streets and other public places of the era. Until recently these early examples of ciné verité haven’t been seen very often, and I’m guessing that the most important reason for this is that other limitation on realism – the speed of the original cameras. They were hand-cranked to the highest rate that the early mechanisms would allow, but this couldn’t match the frame rate of later twentieth century equipment. The choice has been either to slow it down and put up with jarringly jerky motion; or the easier way, of simply showing it at the conventional frame rate so that motion appeared much faster.  The latter option has been resorted to so often that it has given rise to a trope: accelerated motion equals the past. Even more contemporary footage showing mocked up scenes of an earlier era has sometimes been artificially speeded up, in order to borrow a little authenticity.

But with today’s digital techniques that is now changing. Not only can individual frames be cleaned up and clarified, but new frames can be interpolated into the instants between the original ones, slowing bodily movements and restoring a natural appearance. This new realism was what struck me about the scenes I saw of 1920s Germany – but we now have an increasing number of such enhanced early films, going back to around 1900, thanks to those original entrepreneurs. There are a number of examples on YouTube, so I have chosen one to insert here. It shows a selection of scenes in England around 1900. I like to pull the image up to full screen and immerse myself in it, imagining that I am walking the streets of late Victorian or early Edwardian England, and I try unsuccessfully to think the thoughts I might have been thinking if I had really been present then. Although these are humans like us, how do they differ?

Well, most obviously in their dress. What always takes my attention is the ubiquity of hats. I searched through this clip for anyone without one. There us one smartly dressed man standing at the back of a very well-heeled looking family group, who has perhaps just stepped out of the door behind him. Otherwise all I could find was one small child (who had probably lost his) and the rowers on the river and (who are stripped down to their sporting gear, with their hats probably safely awaiting them on pegs in the changing room). Evidently if I’d been alive then I would have considered it almost unthinkable to have left the house on even the shortest journey without something on my head – whether I was rich or poor. And even the rowers are followed by another group of men out for an afternoon boat trip, and they are fully hatted and suited as they brandish the oars. I was also taken by the man who appears about 40 seconds into the sequence, approaching the camera while, in an apparently habitual gesture, he strokes back each side of his carefully manicured handlebar moustache. His bearing suggests that he considers himself the epitome of 1900 cool. He unceremoniously sweeps two children out of his way before moving off to the left. That action in itself suggests that a rather less indulgent attitude to children was commonplace then.

But looking at urban streets at that time, and allowing for all the obvious differences, there still seems something unfamiliar about the movement of the crowd. I realised what it was when watching the 1920s German footage. At that time, in the inflation-hit Weimar Republic, the streets were full of half-starved unemployed, with little to do but – yes – watch the world go by. The film clip above shows people in a more prosperous time and place, but in most of the street shots you can nevertheless see a number who are just passively standing. Some of course are staring at the novelty of the film camera, but you can see plenty of others just watching in general.

Consider what entertainment was available: if you were to stay at home, and were not a reader (many of course never got the chance to be) you either had to make your own entertainment, or go out and find it. And so the street provided the most immediate – and cheapest – way to occupy the mind. In a typical street scene today, virtually everyone would be rushing somewhere unless forced into stasis by a wait for a bus, or by a queue of some sort. And even then they will often be busily talking on the phone or texting. While most of our 1900 public are also on the move, they have to make their way around that now-vanished residue of watchers who are happy to stand and stare at the rest of the world getting to where it wants to get to. And a visual medium in its very earliest form has given us a sense of what life was like without the visual media we are now so used to.

When I Set Out for Lyonnesse

Commuting days until retirement: 405

View from Tintagel Castle

The stuff of myths: our view from Tintagel Castle

Another week’s escape from commuting, as we visit a part of the Cornish coast I haven’t been to before – the northeast stretch around Tintagel and Boscastle. The cliff walks are breathtaking, there are magnificent deserted beaches accessible only after a steep scramble down rocky paths, and the area is stiff with historical and mythical associations.
Lyonnesse is the kingdom of legend where King Arthur supposedly held his court. In writings of the past there is much confusion about its location, but it has mainly been associated with Cornwall, and sometimes the Scilly Isles. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, names Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception. Along with many other sandalled, bare-legged tourists we clambered up the hill to the ruined medieval castle, and from the atmosphere and views began to appreciate why it’s a place that has generated legend.

A meeting

St Juliots

St Juliot’s church

But my title is borrowed from the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. We had arrived at St Juliot’s, a small church outside Boscastle that we’d heard was worth visiting when I suddenly realised, having read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography a year or two ago, that this was a highly significant place in Hardy’s life. It was here that, in 1870, as a young architectural assistant with dreams of being a writer, he had come to draw up plans for restoration to the church. Emma Gifford was the sister-in-law of the incumbent priest and was living in the rectory. We are told that she opened the door to him on his first arrival, and a piece of paper bearing a poem he’d been working on during the journey was sticking out of his pocket. This immediately attracted Emma. Love ensued, and he became a regular visitor to the rectory (a full day’s  journey from his native Dorset, Tomalin notes, involving four trains and a 16 mile ride in a trap).
The poem whose title I have borrowed celebrates that first trip – it’s short and jubilant in tone, and has him returning “with magic in my eyes”. Although not published until after Emma’s death, the manuscript is dated 1870, the time of the visit.


Emma Gifford

Emma Gifford

Young Hardy

Thomas Hardy around the time he met Emma

They were married in London in 1874. With Hardy’s career as a novelist taking off, Emma was at first strongly appreciative and encouraging of his writing. It has been debated how far his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes was autobiographical, and whether the character of the heroine Elfride Swancourt is based on Emma. While the setting is no doubt drawn from life – Elfride is the daughter of a parson living near the sea, and visited by admiring young men – the parallels are not otherwise close. But there is one surprising scene for the time, where on a coast walk, one of Elfride’s men friends slips on a cliff edge and is trapped, dangling dangerously. However, concealed by the clifftop, Elfride is enterprisingly removing her voluminous underwear and tearing it into strips to make a rope with which she rescues him. They embrace, but overcome with embarrassment at being naked beneath her dress, she flees home alone. Quite apart from the more obvious preoccupations of a young Victorian man, perhaps there is something symbolic of Hardy’s own fortunes here.

Later in life, when Hardy’s success as a novelist had become assured, however, Emma became more disenchanted with his writing. She had nursed some literary ambitions of her own, and perhaps there was an element of resentment. But relations became strained and distant in general, and she eventually retreated to an attic room in Max Gate, the Dorset house Hardy had built, and spent much of her time there.

Memorial plaque

Memorial to Emma

In 1912 she died suddenly, and Hardy, overcome with remorse and regret, seemed fall in love with her a second time, this time in retrospect. To the right is my photo of the memorial plaque to Emma he placed in the church. By all accounts Hardy was already close to Florence, his second wife, before Emma’s death, but his posthumous love affair with Emma persisted long afterwards, sometimes to Florence’s irritation.

An engraved window

Memorial window

A part of the memorial window to Thomas Hardy

A few years ago a window was commissioned for the church, to commemorate Hardy’s association with it. Rather than being stained glass, the window is engraved, delicately and beautifully, by the late artist, Simon Whistler. I found it almost impossible to capture its quality in a photo; here is my best attempt, which just shows a part. You can see Hardy’s name in the centre pane, surrounding an image of the church  itself, and the date of his death on the right, under a representation of his architect’s tools. As you view the whole window, symbols and episodes from Hardy’s life shimmer against the backdrop of the graveyard outside, ghostly traces of the events of a century and a half ago.

The window also bears quotations from one or two poems inspired by his experiences in this part of Cornwall. In later life Hardy was independently wealthy from his novels, and after Emma’s death he turned to poetry in a way that he hadn’t before. In his collection Poems 1912-1913 he gives vent to his regret and hopeless longing. In a bottom corner of the memorial window are two lines from one of the most well known of them – Beeny Cliff. The window also depicts the figure of Emma on the cliff, astride her pony. Beeny Cliff itself is just a mile or so from the church, and some of our walks along the coastal path took us over it.

The poem made an impression on me when I first read it, before knowing anything about the context. If you are not keen on old fashioned romanticism, or a strong formal structure, then it’s probably not for you. But I have always had a soft spot for it: I like the way the emotion is powerfully conveyed by the insistent metre, and the poem contains many examples of the idiosyncratic but precise and evocative vocabulary often found in Hardy’s work. Here’s the whole poem:

Beeny Cliff

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.

– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

View from Beeny Cliff

“That wandering western sea” as seen from Beeny Cliff


Commuting days until retirement: 432


Wikimedia Commons / Patrick J. Lynch. Adapted

A break from philosophy, now, while we explore another discipline, one which I had not heard of before today – not under that name, anyway. I had the BBC’s Today programme on the car radio this morning, and there was an item about what it was like to live in an airport, with reference to the fugitive American whistleblower/spy, Edward Snowden. One of the participants in the piece was the writer Will Self, described as being a lecturer in psychogeography at Brunel University. This did get me listening more intently – I was intrigued as to what exactly he was teaching. It sounded like geography as taught by some of the teachers I remember from school. (To be fair, it was probably my lack of aptitude as a pupil that helped drive them to the brink of insanity.)

So the presenter started by asking, quite reasonably, “What is psychogeography?” Self’s reply was couched in such mind-numbing sociobabble that I was none the wiser. Instead I had to go to the BBC website later and find the recording, so that I could have another try. Here’s what he said:

Psychogeography is essentially the idea of purposeless transits across the urban context in order to deconstruct the commercial and political imperatives of contemporary space… [presenter: “Perfect”] …Well, yes, that’s it in a nutshell.

A rather hard nutshell to crack. Here’s my attempt at a translation:  A psychogeographer wanders about towns and cities, ignoring all the upfront messages and propaganda that the establishment would have you accept, and looks instead at what is really happening, in human terms. Maybe it’s rather like psychoanalysis: instead of accepting what the city tells you at face value, you delve into its messy, scatalogical subconscious. The difference, perhaps, between visiting an expensive restaurant and rummaging through its dustbins – you’d certainly learn a lot more of interest from the latter.

Here’s an alternative (in both senses of the word) definition, from Time Out magazines’s Bluffer’s Guide to Psychogeography.

A mélange of history, geography, pretension and psychology invented by ’50s Gallic eggheads, who described it thus: ‘The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Basically, it means making stuff up about London.

I suppose you can forgive Time Out for being a bit London-centric, even if the subject was invented by Frenchmen. The ever-helpful, ever-earnest Wikipedia fills this in a bit, tracing its roots in Dadaism and surrealism, and identifying a central figure in its development in the fifties as one Guy Debord. The article allows itself to quote his biographer thus:

This apparently serious term ‘psychogeography’ comprises an art of conversation and drunkenness, and everything leads us to believe that Debord excelled at both.

I begin to warm to the subject. And it does indeed seem from the Wikipedia article that much of the present day psychogeographical activity is centred on London: there are all the writings of Peter Ackroyd, and also a mention of Iain Sinclair makes me realise I have read him. His book London Orbital derives from a walk around the route of the M25, London’s orbital motorway, in which he explores life close to the ground, as it were, beneath the headline developments.

There are so many books in our house, so badly organised, that some of them disappear into the mélee and aren’t easily found again, and unfortunately that has happened to Sinclair. The same goes for what I remember as a very charming book in a similar vein, Christopher Ross’s Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher. The “Underground” is literal here – he took a job for a year and a half as a station assistant on the London Underground, where he studied, and entertainingly reported on, the oddities of human life in that environment.

However I have managed to unearth Leadville by Edward Platt, which does what Sinclair did for the M25 on the main road which leads westward out of London. And on my to-be-read pile is Edgelands by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley: two poets explore (in prose) those areas, largely created by commercial activity which are not quite urban, and not quite rural. A selection of chapter headings gives you the idea: Paths, Containers, Landfill, Sewage, Canals, Ruins, Mines, Airports, Piers. It strikes me that I have even dabbled in the area a little in this blog: see Memento Mori.

And perhaps psychogeography’s credentials as an academic subject are underscored by the sniping between its practitioners. I dipped into the Amazon preview of Self’s book, derived from a newspaper columns and simply entitled Psychogeography, but much of the contents didn’t seem terribly urban. And sure enough, in a Guardian Interview, Sinclair says:

For me, it’s a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which I happen to live. I’m just exploiting it because I think it’s a canny way to write about London. Now it’s become the name of a column by Will Self, in which he seems to walk the South Downs with a pipe, which has got absolutely nothing to do with psychogeography. There’s this awful sense that you’ve created a monster.

But you don’t have to be a writer to be a psychogeographer. It so happens that last night we watched a TV programme about the French/American photographer Vivian Maier. Again new to me – in fact she was obscure and unknown throughout her life, which ended a few years ago. Working as a children’s nanny in New York and Chicago, she spent all the time she could wandering the streets with a camera, and amassed countless thousands of marvellous photographs, many of which remained undeveloped at her death. She was secretive and solitary, and although something of a hoarder, she never owned her own place of dwelling, and had nowhere to keep her archive. Instead she paid to keep it in storage throughout her life, and soon before her death it was sold off when the fees got into arrears. This was when it was discovered, and has since been split between various owners and become immensely valuable.

There’s no question that her pictures got under the skin of the urban landscape: favourite subjects include down-and-outs, or any faces whose mood and character come right out of the picture, including many children. Although a recluse with little social contact, she seemed to have the knack of getting close to her subjects, both physically and psychologically, despite her cumbersome Rolleiflex camera. Other subjects include landscapes, found abstract patterns or any objects or scenes which appealed to her eye. There is a whole series of self-portraits, always with a portentous, even disturbing feel to them.

The website for her work is here: And the TV programme is on BBC iPlayer until early August.

Now a whole evening of Pinter

Commuting days until retirement: 518

For my homeward commute I sometimes get a different train to a nearby town, where my wife and I spend the evening in a small theatre which can put on some pretty good productions. Seats are not reserved so we can settle in the front row, sometimes right at the feet of the actors. When I was younger I probably would have found this rather unsettling – but now I love it. The standard is high – I don’t think we’ve ever seen a dud performance there.

After my one minute of Pinter in the previous post, I watched tonight’s actors tackling the demanding task of a double bill – two one-act plays (different actors in each). These were A Kind of Alaska, inspired by Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings, and Landscape, which you might think of as more like ‘classic’ Pinter. I was looking forward to the first particularly, but in the end it was Landscape that seemed to take a bigger hold on me. The audience was unusually small – maybe 40 or so – was it the cold weather? I don’t know – this isn’t a town where you’d expect Pinter to be shunned. But perhaps that added to the intensity.

For Alaska, what stood out was a gutsy and compelling performance by the central character, Deborah, who is woken by the drug from 29 years of suspended animation.  In the course of 50 minutes she passes from unconsciousness through confusion and rehearsal of memories whose relation with the present is puzzling to her, to realisation of her state, and an eventual foreshadowing of a return to catatonia. There are two other characters on stage – the doctor and the patient’s sister, whom the doctor has married. Pinter thereby links them all together, not admitting into the play any character who is professionally detached, or above the fray. And so these characters’ weaknesses are on display too, showing at times a positively accusatory attitude to the patient for what she has put them all through – and this seems grimly believable.


Landscape was shorter – 40 minutes, more like Pinter in lacking any  such concrete dramatic situation, but no less intense. It’s a dialogue (well, two intertwined monologues, really) between two married characters. Throughout the play she faces away from him, and seems immune to his half-hearted overtures towards her, the offered drink untouched.  The picture I found of another production gives an idea – although our wife looked rather more demure than this one. Meanwhile she describes a series of mildly erotic encounters – with another man, it seems (I wasn’t entirely sure, and, looking it up, am reassured to find Wikipedia isn’t either.)  Her descriptions alternate and sometimes overlap his more earthbound experiences involving pubs, dogs, drinking and sometimes his wife. The landscape of the title I take to be both literal and metaphorical – the literal landscapes, seemingly quite separate, in which their respective accounts are set, and the entirely different mental landscapes they inhabit.

So what was it that grabbed me? Probably what usually does it for me with Pinter – what I think of as his verbal ballet. A stylised dance, unlike real conversation in most aspects, performed on so many levels: the meanings of the words and phrases, the images, the intertwining in time of the successive speeches, the changes of mood. In this play, the man makes attempts to speak to the woman, which she entirely ignores. On the other hand, his narrative is entirely unrelated to anything she says, but, if I wasn’t mistaken, hers sometimes obliquely takes cues from him. And I love the way Pinter’s raw materials are all commonplace descriptions and expressions – the plays are rather like fantastical sculptures built out of good old ordinary, solid bricks. At one point the husband launches into an impassioned and painstaking account of how beer is stored and dispensed, which sounds absolutely authentic. I remember one play (was it The Caretaker?) where there is a detailed description of the 38 bus route in North London. I lived near the area at the time, and knew it was accurate.

I was wondering recently about the differences and similarities with Samuel Beckett.  Beckett I have always found to be far less approachable, and (dare I utter such heresy?) even a little pretentious. I’ve seen a video of Breath – 30 seconds of heavy breathing accompanied by a heap of rubbish, and I’ve been to a production of Happy Days, when (was it Peggy Ashcroft?) is buried up to the neck in earth, while her companion reads out the inscription on the back of a toothbrush.  And I’ve seen a novel that seemed unreadable. I’ve also seen Waiting for Godot, and Krapp’s Last Tape. I find them all opaque. If there is symbolism it seems overworked – but of course you’re never sure whether there is. Pinter’s subtlety and lightness of touch is absent. Probably a blind spot on my part, especially as Pinter himself admired Beckett. So I have added another video demonstrating this, but I don’t find it helps my unbelief.