Friday, 24 February 2012

Moelwyn Mawr

Going up mountains, or trying to, is the normal holiday ambition. (I know, it begs the question whether the practice can indeed be called normal!) In the summer it can be simple: the weather's good, the weekend's free, so we throw a suitcase into the car, add a bag of supplies for the dog, and head off to Wales or the Lake District (the dog can be presumed to have hopped into the car by herself as soon as she saw the suitcase.)

In the winter it's a bit more complicated.  Free weekends are at a premium, so the booking has to be made in advance, and the weather taken on trust--and, of course, the weather in Wales and the Lakes is never trustworthy.  Sometimes it seems to take a malicious pleasure in teasing you.

The first time we attempted Moelwyn Mawr was last Spring.  It was a beautiful sunny day when we set out, walking from Tanygrisiau, up through the slate quarries and ascending an easy grassy slope.  Alas, as we went up, the hillfog came down, and when we struggled on to the summit all that was visible was hill, fog, and one departing hiker.  We told each other it was bound to lift soon, and stood about for about twenty minutes looking stupid and waiting for the show to start.  It didn't.  We sighed and started down--and when we were about halfway, the hillfog shredded and the mountaintop smirked at us against a blue sky.

We tried again last weekend, staying in a lovely little eco B&B called Bryn Elltyd, right at the foot of the Moelwyns.  The forecast, however, was for heavy rain.  We set out anyway, and within the hour the rain stopped; a little later the sun came out. We walked up the Croesor valley noticing all the reasons we like to go to Wales.  Then we turned onto the path towards the mountain, telling one another that this time we might  make it after all.

As we approached the pass, however, the skies lowered, the wind got up, and then a blast of stinging snow swept up behind us.  At six hundred metres, where the path to the summit diverged, the top was covered in cloud, with more snow threatening in the west.  We sighed, skirted the summit, and came down past the slate mines, the dog hauling dangerously on the lead and making frantic endeavours to chase sheep all the way.

It cleared, of course, by the time we reached the bottom.  Moelwyn Mawr triumphed again.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Cave Canem
It doesn't really look a very savage dog, this one: the crouched front and raised tail suggest play, not attack.  It lies on the threshhold of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, as it probably did in life. The casts of its cousins, preserved in the volcanic ash, have been found alongside the remains of their masters.  Dogs were everywhere in antiquity.  Most of them would have been working dog-- guard dogs, ratters, hounds for hunting--but some were indeed kept purely as pets.  'Noisy dogs', Homer calls them, but wrote one of the earliest, and most touching, anecdotes of this interspecies affection with the incident of the dog Argos, who alone recognizes his returning master Odysseus, and dies wagging his tail.

The world of the past was harder on animals than the present age, however. A medieval verse recommends disposing of all dogs at nine years old:  'And when he is commyn to that yere, have hym to the tanner, For the best hownde that ever bikke hade, at 9 yere he is full badde.' One recalls, too, Chaucer's Prioress, where a reluctance to see a pet beaten provokes comment: 'Of smale houndes hadde she hat she fedde/with rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed,/but soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,/or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte/and al was conscience and tendre herte.'  The early Muslims were also hard on dogs, considering them unclean animals.

Unclean, of course, they are.  A dog encountering something really foul on the ground will either roll in it or eat it, and when you try to remedy their uncleaness with a bath it's like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian: the creature crouches there, eyes cast up to Heaven--'If it be thy will, o Lord!'--while buckets of warm water drench its innocent head.  They are messy, proverbially shameless, can be noisy, and never happier than when chasing some small helpless furry thing.

I like dogs.  Cats, too, but dogs more, probably because dogs like humans more.  An animal behaviourist I once read declared that really they're attached to being fed, not to their owners, but this I found simply annoying. I've seen dogs refuse treats when they fear their owners are about to leave; kennels will tell you that they can go off their food for days, or develop ulcers, waiting for their people to return. They are pack animals, and it makes perfect sense for them to have a strong emotional attachment to other members of their pack.  I suppose the commentator wanted to avoid the kind of sentimental anthropomorphizing many people indulge in, but I think he fell into the opposite error. A dog is not a 'furry person', and it does not have the same kind of mind and emotions as a human--but that does not mean it has no mind or feelings at all.

To me, this is really one of the most fascinating things about dogs, about animals in general. They are not human; they do not think or feel the way we do, their senses, brains and bodies are entirely different--but we can still communicate.  When my dog comes into my room at eight in the morning, puts her nose over the side of the bed, and makes steam-kettle noises, I know exactly what she wants.  When she sees the hiking boots taken out of the cupboard, she understands what's about to happen, and is delighted by the prospect.  I have this alien being in the house, and I talk to it every day.      

Friday, 10 February 2012


One of the great regular pleasures of my life is singing.  I'm a member of the University of Warwick Chorus, where I sing second soprano with more enthusiasm than skill.  It's a big chorus--about two hundred people--and for a modest annual subscription we get skilled directors and a brilliant accompanist to rehearse us and the joy of performing great music with full orchestra and professional soloists at least three times a year.

This term's project is Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem mass, one of the most thrilling in the repertoire.  I bought it on CD long before I got the chance to sing it, and have put it on in the background when I'm trying to write something particularly stirring (which is an abuse of good music, I know, but it helps.)  This is the second time our chorus has performed it, which means I have to struggle less and can enjoy it more.  It is a fantastic piece: ominous and electrifying, exhilirating and magnificent.  I always think the 'Dies Irae' (above: does the link work?) ought to be booming in the background while the alien fleet blows up the Earth, or the armies of Mordor advance.

That, actually, is rather odd, because the destructive force we're singing about is supposed to be the Christian God of love and justice.  Verdi, however, was apparently agnostic as well as a composer of operas: he went for drama, not theological precision.  For a vision of hope for the afterlife one would have to look somewhere like the final duet of his Aida, where the pagan lovers die locked in an embrace, singing 'O terra addio'--'O earth farewell, farewell vale of sighs . . .our wandering souls fly to the realm of eternal day'. (We got to sing Aida, too, a few years ago: a concert performance, but with real opera singers for the principals. Very much appreciated, by us, anyway.)

Of course, part of Verdi's take on the Requiem is conditioned by the words:  he's included the 'Sequence'--the medieval Latin poem that begins, 'Dies irae, dies illa,/solvet saeclum in favilla/teste David et Sibylla' . . .'Day of wrath, that day the age dissolves into ash as testify David and Sibylla.  What trembling there will be when the judge shall come to investigate everything thoroughly!'

Does that sound like good poetry to you?  Me neither.  'As testify Dave and Sybil'! The Sequence clatters--short three-line stanzas all with the same rhyme: aaa bbb ccc--and the sentiments are those of a self-absorbed whiner: 'I know I've been bad, but save me!  I don't care what happens to the rest of the world!'   'Day of wrath' is a good phrase, certainly, but it was actually taken from the office itself: 'Dies irae, dies illa, dies calamitatis et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde . . .libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda'--'Day of wrath, that day, day of calamity and woe, great and bitter day. . .deliver me, o Lord, from everlasting death on that terrible day'. Not a pretty idea, but magnificently expressed.

I suppose that the Sequence is better than, say, the 'Stabat mater', a poem whose Latin is so barbarous and ugly that I'm surprised the Catholic church didn't quietly drop it in the sixteenth century out of pure embarrassment.  Nonetheless, it isn't surprising that composers since Verdi have mostly omitted the Sequence. Gabriel Faure, composing a Requiem only thirteen years after Verdi, sets only the Office itself, and others have copied him, occasionally including biblical texts or poems instead. (Brahms, of course, sets nothing but biblical texts in German, most wonderfully.) It would be a shock, actually, to find the Sequence in a modern setting of the Requiem.  I cannot be sorry, though, that Verdi (and Mozart) decided to use these sorry verses.  In their hands, the wretched words set my hair on end.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Big Roman Buildings

After posting about Ravenglass, I looked up more about it on the web. (Yes, probably I should have done that before posting, but I reserve the right to blether.)  I discovered that it used to be called Glannaventa, and that it was garrisoned by, first, the Aelian Fleet, and, later, by a rather dim-sounding lot of auxiliaries called the Moroni. I also discovered that it claims to be the tallest surviving Roman building in England.

This last is clearly wrong.  Here are two pictures of Roman buildings which seem to me to be taller.  The upper one is Wroxeter Roman baths (a city bath-house is naturally going to be taller than the one at Ravenglass, which was, after all, only a little bitty auxiliary fort at the back of beyond). (It, too, survived through being used as a barn--but isn't the hypocaust nice?)  The lower picture is me a few years ago in front of the Multi-angular tower at York, part of the renovations to the city wall undertaken for the time Septimius Severus was in residence. (I wrote about him in Dark North)  (It wasn't a barn. It was kept up as part of the city wall.)  I strongly suspect that some of the Saxon Shore forts are taller than Ravenglass as well (I mean, Portchester is actually intact!)
Everything's relative, though.  None of the Roman buildings in England is a patch on the beautiful sites of Italy, Greece, or Turkey. (Above is the Pantheon at Rome.)  If I queried English Heritage, I'd probably find they meant that Ravenglass was the tallest surviving military building in the North of England.

We have a Roman fort here in Coventry, which I now designate the tallest Roman military building in the south-central West Midlands.  The bank must be a few feet high.