Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cookie-tin Banjo

Really lovely little song this. A James-Taylor-like ode to childhood and the lasting impact our parents have on who we are. It's perhaps a little over sentimental, but I'm a secret sucker for that sort of thing. I won't lie; it made me cry.

It's not hard to guess why this song would have such an effect on me, after all, my father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs. I grew up in a house full of musical instruments and music, with both parents playing the guitar and singing. Growing up I thought it was completely normal to be lulled to sleep by your mother singing Irish folk songs ('she is handsome, she is pretty, she's the belle of Belfast city') and woken by your dad playing raucous dixieland jazz on his guitar, making silly trumpet noises with his mouth for accompaniment.

Unlike the singer, however, this musical home never inspired awed reverence for music as a child. I would sit at my dad's knee and listen as he played his songs for maybe 40 seconds before ricocheting off on some hyperactive tangent. When he played me silly songs to wake me up in the morning I'd snarl and thrash as if it was just another alarm clock. I wonder if perhaps the ubiquity of music made it fade into the background somehow. Just something that was always there.

I liked music, don't get me wrong -- there were numerous albums that I listened to over and over again until I wore them out and songs that I'd bug my parents to sing for me -- but generally it had to be both loud and fast to get me interested. As I child I would fidget, bounce, and squirm my way through every school day and run through every weekend. I rarely stopped moving, and even more rarely stopped talking. My parents attempted to get me interested in a seemingly endless series of hobbies and pastimes over the years in an attempt to get me to focus on anything for more than five minutes. Amongst them was a 3/4-sized guitar that a relative unearthed from an attic somewhere. I think I played it for perhaps an afternoon before bouncing off in some other direction and never giving it a second thought. The only time I ever picked it up was to bang on it like a drum. Perhaps encouraged by this, they let me go to drumming classes. Presented with an actual drum-kit, however, I quickly lost interest.

I don't think it was until my early teens, when my brain slowed down enough to notice that the statues around me were actually adults going about their business, that I really took a serious interest in music. I can clearly remember the day when my mum, having finished restringing her old guitar, quickly rattled off an impromptu performance of "Blackbird" by Paul McCartney. Somehow I'd never heard that song before, I just stood there agape.

When I was sixteen I unearthed my dad's old bass -- a baroque slab of mahogany made by Gibson in the early 1970s. Dad showed me the basics, and then I taught myself to play a few punk songs. Over the next few weeks I progressed from "Dammit" by Blink-182 to "Longview" by Green Day to "Travelling Without Moving" by Jamiroquai. I don't know whether it was simply the passage of time, or if years of playing videogames had finally given me the ability to focus, but either way, I was practicing something and actually getting better at it.

The fact is though, I started too late. I'm a competent bass player, but I'm never going to be great, no matter how hard I focus. That hyperactive fidgetyness never really went away either. Perhaps the real reason why I'm not a very good bass player is that I'm also a bad guitarist, an awful mandolin player and a distinctly shaky performer on the upright bass. Like my father, I can't sit in a room with a musical instrument in it without getting an uncontrollable urge to pick it up and try and get a noise out of it (unless it's a piano, obviously. I'd be content to just sit in front of one of those).

I'm not generally bothered by this (this blog's title is an allusion to this, after all), but somehow that song reawakened in me the vague feeling that I should have tried harder to be something in particular.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


This morning I sat down on the train opposite a young man who was probably no more than 21. His clothes were fashionable, in a hipster-y sort of way, and his hairstyle looked time consuming, if not necessarily stylish. He was sitting in that sprawling, spider-like way of gangly young men everywhere, and reading a Penguin Classics edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost.

As the train rocked its way from Ladywell to London Bridge, I watched as his head dipped lower and lower. I don't remember if he actually turned the page in the whole time I was sitting opposite him, but by the time we were gliding through Bermondsey he was clearly fast asleep. His head was pressed against the window and his damp hair made a little halo of condensation on the glass.

I suspect if I'd seen this guy three or four years ago, I would have viewed him as a ponce. I would have scoffed at his inability to stay awake while reading Milton, despite the fact that such a feat is equally beyond me. I would have walked away feeling like I had won, in some small and unconscious way, and that I was the better man.

This morning, however, I was amused. In the same way that you can be amused by the imaginative ramblings of a cute little kid. His attempt to become the sort of person who reads Milton on the train struck me as adorable rather than vain. From where I stand today, happily married and edging ever closer to thirty, I can admit that I spent many years doing more or less the same thing. Everyone does when they're teenagers, I think, but particularly men.

There's something  inherently insecure about the male psyche, a lack of self-awareness that we find secretly bewildering. Unsure of who exactly we are, we consciously shape our actions in emulation of who we'd like to be -- a sort of internalised propaganda of the deed.

It's all a mating display of some sort, I think. Colourful feathers. Those who decorate themselves with the trappings of intellectual curiosity and creativity, no matter how thin this veneer of decoration is, are vastly preferable to those who pointlessly bash their antlers together.

Actually no. Bad choice of words. Anyone who has ever been in Leicester Square of a Saturday night knows that the noble stag is entirely the wrong animal to use as a metaphor. The dominance fights of walruses, with all their flapping flesh and uncoordinated heaving, bear far closer resemblance.

Ultimately, these displays don't seem to count for much. I don't think women pay them much attention. I'm sure that Kristen has a far better idea of who I am than I do, and made her judgement based on that, rather than (thankfully) the conceited and pretentious persona I projected at the time (and to an extent still do).

P.S. I'm aware that pedants will insist the plural of walrus is Walrii. I think they're wrong. We don't import plurals for any other language we've borrowed words from, why should we make an exception for latin?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The German Ocean

I recently finished reading The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. As with most of his books, you go into it expecting a daring tale and action and suspense, but end up finding something much more thought-provoking and strange. I'd strongly recommend reading it. It's short, entertaining, and out -of-copyright. There's no excuse not to.

While reading this book I was struck by Wells' use of a term I'd never heard before. The action of the The Invisible Man takes place around a sleepy village on the east coast of England, and as an inevitable consequence of this setting, he frequently refers to the North Sea in his descriptions of places. The odd thing is that he doesn't call it the North Sea. He calls it 'The German Ocean'.

At first I thought this was a term Wells had coined himself, perhaps a sly hint that the world of this novel was not quite the world he was living in. A few days later, however, while leafing through a set of seventeenth and eighteenth century maps of northern Germany (I have a strange job) I saw it again. A quick scan through another set of old maps confirmed that Mer d'Allemagne, Oceanus Germanicus, and German Ocean appeared just as often as North Sea or its variants. I was curious. When did this term die out, and why?

For the answer to the first part of that question, I turned to the all-knowing google hive-mind.

Here are the Google Ngram results for the relative frequency of the two terms in English-language texts since 1700. The X axis is time, the right axis is frequency. Frequency is expressed as the percentage of the total number of words published in a given year that word represented. It's a largely incomprehensible figure, so I've cropped it out.

As you can see, the two were used pretty much interchangeably throughout the eighteenth century. When you factor in variants of German Ocean -- like German Sea, Oceanus Germanicus, etc -- I think German Ocean probably has the edge. The two terms appear to have existed side by side until around 1850, when North Sea experiences a sudden rise in popularity and 'German Ocean' begins to drop away. By the time H.G. Wells used 'German Ocean' in The Invisible Man (around 1897) it was already well on its way out, and may have even sounded a little archaic to his readers.

So that's the when, but what about the why?

It is a well known fact that when a poor, innocent sea or ocean finds itself caught between two major political powers, things can get very ugly. In parallel with the fight for the physical owership of the sea -- the warships, trawlers, etc. -- there's also the more abstract fight over naming rights. Both sides typically want the official name of a sea of ocean to imply that they have undisputed strategic dominance over its waters, regardless of what the situation is on the ground (well, on the water). Sometimes the two countries can seemingly agree to disagree (as with the English Channel/La Manche), but most of the time it turns into nasty international confrontation in which the poor cartographers are caught in the crossfire (as with the Persian Gulf/Arabian Gulf).

For most of the nineteenth century, the British had enjoyed undisputed control of the North Sea. They had not bothered to change the name, however, because the name did not imply strategic dominance by any other state. It was neutral. The name 'German Ocean' was just a holdover from Pliny's Oceanus Germanicus (ocean surrounded by stinky Germanic barbarians).

In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the Kingdom of Prussia smushed into Saxony and Bavaria, making a new state called Germany. By a quirk of history and language, this new state was gifted symbolic dominance over the North Sea on English maps, even though it didn't really have a navy to speak of.

From this point, however, the English press started to become a little squeamish about writing the name 'German Ocean'. You can see in the graph above that 'German Ocean' begins to get dropped in favour of the neutral 'North Sea' the moment Germany emerges as a rival European power.

The abandonment of 'German Ocean' accelerates dramatically shortly after the passing of Kaiser Wilhelm's 1898 Fleet Act -- which began to ambitious process of bringing the Imperial German Navy up to parity with the British Royal Navy. Now that the Germans were seriously contesting England's ownership of the North Sea, to call it otherwise looked unpatriotic. The outbreak of war in 1914 made it look treasonous. By the beginning of the 1920s, the term 'German Ocean' was dead in the water (so to speak). 

The odd thing is that, so far as I can tell, the name for the North Sea in German is, and always has been, Nordsee, or 'North Sea'