world calligraphy day

My father is a self taught calligrapher. He taught me the rudiments of italics and other hands after a teacher complained about my handwriting. I continued to practice italics at an amateur level for years, obsessively repeating my shaky upright alphabet on large-square graph paper – and trying to distinguish myself from my father’s brand, which was tiny, perfect slanted italic on green-tinted computer coding forms, and later tiny copperplate on colored card. I never really leveled up beyond my one alphabet, though I taught it to other people, notably in an ESP summer class, after which one of my friends proved able to forge my writing. (I’m not naming names, but he has since worked in positions of responsibility in the securities industry.)

Last month I attended my own first lettering class at a local art shop, taught by a prizewinning scribe who impressed us at once by saying she still takes instruction from an even higher guru – in the manner of Margot Fonteyn showing up for morning class with de Valois.

The hand of the day was modern calligraphy, the characteristic display style of the 2010s, the hipster anti-font font, ubiquitous in logos, signs, cards, bullet journals. Meghan Markle most likely used it when she was doing professional lettering. My former officemate C does a very nice modern hand. Modern calligraphy is everywhere, the tutor said: “It seems to meet a need people have for craftsmanship, using the right tools, application and repetition to create something beautiful.”

The other participants were accomplished at what the art people call mark making. Several had taken previous seminars with the same teacher, some were artists and art instructors, and one was a dentist. The tutor said one of the benefits of handwriting instruction for children is to develop fine motor control needed by dentists and surgeons (and veterinarians and machinists and watchmakers and acupuncturists and tailors). Indeed, there is a 2009 national handwriting strategy.

Feeling very Ronald Searle.
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#moonliving

It was Glark who first said ‘70s sci fi is all about hexagons. Duncan Jones’ film Moon is all about octagons. Almost every space, structure, aperture has chamfered corners for no apparent reason except it looks futuristic and matches the Omni magazine fonts of the wall stencils.

There are three spaces in Moon: First, the lunar landscape, which is entirely inhospitable. Second, the lunar work and living space, which is sterile and unheimlich despite its isolated patriarch’s armchair, hobby table and exercise equipment. Third, home and family on Earth, which is seen only through blurry black and white video links. The protagonist is trying to move from the second nested space to the third, but it’s entirely possible he is being gaslit and will never make it. Coffins have chamfered corners too. 

Moon is a triumph of reusing existing elements, including SF tropes and the nearly sole actor. The lunar landscape was built from sand and models on a swimming pool sized surface, while the workspace was made of set elements and brought-in housewares in Shepperton Studios; see if you can spot the (not chamfered) IKEA cutlery trays.

Although the production is a spiderweb of satisfying intertextuality, it works for non-SF purists as well. I find both 2001 and Solaris nearly illegible, but was sucked into Moon immediately. Now I’m looking for octagons everywhere, rethinking my conviction that a good apartment looks like a high-end office, and generally chewing over this fable for our indentured times. 

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careers advice

In a previous lecturing post, I taught Professional Writing Practice, a full-year module including a work placement as well as research and reflection papers. That meant I was a de facto careers counselor. Eventually I wrote up the advice I was giving into an employability guide for English students (pdf) and now I’ve posted it to my page at Academia.edu. One thing I always meant to do was attach a reading list of books about work. Here are just a few of those I’ve recommended over the years:

Barber, Lynne. 2009. An Education.  Never mind the affair that inspired a Carey Mulligan film – the real juice here is about how Barber learned copy editing from working at Penthouse. Captures the absurdity of first jobs.

Newport, Cal. 2016. Deep Work. Everyone needs to learn to concentrate and there is some good advice here as well as acknowledgement of different working styles. Newport is problematic for his gender assumptions – more so in his other work addressed to students – and it’s useful to learn to recognize those too.

Preis, Michael W., with Frederick, Matthew. 2010. 101 Things I Learned in Business School. Looks like a humor book, but most of what humanities, arts and science majors need to know about business is here in concise form.

Samuelsson, Marcus. 2012. Yes, Chef.  Just about any chef memoir will do, actually, as a document of daily life in a rank-ordered low margin industry. The hazing is similar to that experienced by Michael Lewis in Liar’s Poker, but the salary and perks for an entry level HASS major are more similar to those of a cook.

Wells Lawrence, Mary. 2003. A Big Life in Advertising. War stories from the Mad Men era. David Ogilvy was right about a lot of things, but who remembers his bullet-point lists?


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the international job

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The Italian Job, now being re-released for its 50th anniversary, seems at first to be an ensemble drama like Ocean’s 11, with a diverse sample of loveable rogues rotating through scenes showcasing their specialisms and speech patterns. In fact, it is hierarchy made mechanism. Most of the talking scenes belong to Michael Caine, as Charlie Croker, a chameleonic working-class project manager, and some to Bridger, a toffish prison kingpin played by Noel Coward (who was called “the Master” on set by director’s orders). All the others – the chinless wonders, the Cockney mechanics, William the Black British getaway bus driver, the boffin played by Benny Hill, Franco, Butch Harry, Camp Freddie – mostly do what they’re told, leaving not much of an echo.

The film has been acclaimed as part of Britain’s swinging ‘60s image, and its soft nationalism is evident from the news clippings of the Queen that paper Bridger’s cell to the red, white and blue getaway Minis. Just a few years before British accession to the EU, continental economies are deliberately othered: in the world of the film, it’s absolutely fine to rob the Italians, and in particular to rob them of gold earmarked for building an Italian car factory (in China). It’s fine to make jokes about spaghetti and to threaten an Italian gangster with violence against Italian immigrants in Britain. When the main part of the heist is completed, the inmates of Croker’s alma mater prison shout “England!” The scenes were actually filmed in Kilmainham Prison, Dublin, where the British shot Irish freedom fighters before independence.

Yet The Italian Job is also an Italian job. It would not be what it is without Gianni Agnelli, who made Turin and his factories available for filming, fixed the authorities, and donated cars to smash up – nor without French stunt driver Rémy Julienne and his team – nor without the graceful ironwork of the Irish prison, chosen as a main location to help Coward dodge tax obligations, and the Irish extras. It is also an American job, backed by Paramount and scored entirely by Quincy Jones, including an ersatz Baroque lead-in to “Rule Britannia” as well as the anthem “Get a Bloomin’ Move On (AKA The Self Preservation Society),” which Jones wrote after a few days hanging out with Michael Caine and picking up rhyming slang.

If the nationalism is cringey 50 years on, so are the gender relations. Scenes that would have shown Maggie Blye’s Lorna as more than a disposable Bond girl were cut. Because Michael Caine couldn’t drive, Lorna still drives Croker in their outings, but this is unremarked and easily missed. Benny Hill’s Professor Peach was originally meant to be an enthusiast for trains, rather than “big women” (seen as comedy at the time). With a nerdier, less lecherous Peach and a stronger Lorna, a more inclusive and durable script could have been written. The nationalism would have been tempered in the proposed alternative endings in which the Mafia grab back the (unrealistically light) gold bars, either by airlifting the bus at the end, or by turning out to be in charge of the Swiss banks, setting up a bank heist sequel.

But any of these changes would have undercut the fantasy of men flying away to freedom in cars. When the last car has left the scene, things begin to go pear-shaped and it is clearly time to end the film. The cars are more human than some of the characters (a scene of them contradancing to Strauss was shot, and cut), and suffer the worst tortures. Even a hardcore #numtot could fall for those Matchbox-bright Minis and sleek convertibles, behind which the glories of an Italian city appear as a dun-colored backdrop. A celebration of automobility and its extension to the rest of us, an allegory of show business life as almost criminal in its license, an evergreen comedy of confidence – this picture has wheels. Brexit, you say? Hang on, lads, I’ve got a great idea.

The Italian Job, 1969, dir. Peter Collinson, at Genesis Cinema tonight and eternally on DVD (two disc version with commentary and making-of recommended). 99 minutes.  There is a remake with Mark Wahlberg which I’ve not seen.

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Toutes choses sont dites déjà; mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer.
Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.

— André Gide, Le Traité du Narcisse (The Treatise of the Narcissus)
via @CulturesCast

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The vital difference between sport and theatre … is that sport is unwritten; it happens for real. No authorial brain devises it before it takes places. In the world of sport, if Konstantin shoots himself in the last minute of extra time, no one has told him to, and it gets listed under the heading of unforced error. But for all this absolute spontaneity on the field of play, the relationship between sport and ‘reality’ is obviously a bit tenuous, when you think about it. Wimbledon finals do not simply break out when two terribly well matched young people can’t suppress their competitive yearnings any longer. Sport is staged – at great expense, with great expertise, and at great profit …

– Lynne Truss, Get Her Off the Pitch

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films on planes and off

When you’re in a straitjacket seat, can’t sleep, and the battery on your book device is fading, there is really not much to do but catch up on the contemporary cinema. (Spoilers ahead.)

Widows – Sad, tragic Ocean’s Four. Slow-paced, except for the scenes where it communicates complex information in a tearing haste.

Hidden Figures – You don’t get anything approaching fairness until unfairness starts costing the patriarchy money, or international standing – that’s the lesson from this story. Also, Sheldon is not your ally. The clothes and hair seem extra glam for a bunch of nerd girls, but Taraji P. Henson gets the parallax gaze of the myopic just right, and the film gets extra credit for accurate science details.

The Favourite – Allegory of unpaid internships and the future of work. Sparkling script. Olivia Coleman earned that Oscar.

A Star Is Born – The first part is exhilarating, and then just as you’re wondering how they are going to tell the real story of partnering an addict through his ups and downs and rehabs and relapses in less than four hours, the story ends. It must have been a trip for Lady Gaga to front a staunchly rockist movie that casts trendy pop as the devil. But then she has always had a traditional acoustic light to hide under her wigs and veils.

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No draws in war

Previous post tagged chess

A major element of fun in games, said Goffman (in the essay of that name) is that “the outcome or pay-off has a good chance of remaining unsettled until the end of play.” But what happens if in fact contenders are in fact equally matched in strategic ability and stamina?

In the 2018 World Chess Championships between defender Magnus Carlsen and challenger Fabiano Caruana there were twelve consecutive draws.

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the changes

National Express waiting room, Heathrow, August 2017

Over the last several years, I’ve found it harder to read in the evenings. The cause is partly biological (and helped by reading glasses) but partly or even mainly social. The lights are actually going out. In hostels and hotels, in buses and coaches, in waiting rooms and interstitial spaces of all kinds, bright incandescent lights have been replaced by dim LEDs with greyish spectrums. In some places the light is tinted to inhibit intravenous drug shootups, creating the illumination equivalent of the spiked park bench. Pub or subpub lighting is becoming a norm.

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“The 19th century was a strange century because the interior empires were beginning to decline, slowly but surely, while the exterior empires, the colonial empires, were still being constructed by the French, the British, the Dutch, the Belgians, throughout Africa and in large parts of Asia, if not all of it. On one hand there were liberation movements and on the other hand, at the same time, other peoples saw themselves brutally subjugated.”

*

“Years passed. In the summer of 1972 I went to Beirut for what I thought would be a brief visit, and stayed about three years. It was there that I met up with my old friend S and found a job: I became the culture section editor for a French newspaper in Beirut. I talked to S about the valise, but I continued to put off the day when I would come to collect it and bring it home. The Lebanese civil war broke out and S and I left for California … Around 1980 we made a visit to Beirut. When we got there I promised myself that this time I would visit the Xs and retrieve my belongings. I had made the decision. It was, let us say, a Monday, and I said, “This Friday, for sure, I will go. We will go.” Two days later, on Wednesday, we were on Bab El Driss, a street I knew well. We were walking down the sidewalk when all of a sudden the three X sisters appeared …”

– Excerpts from À propos de la fin de l’empire Ottoman, Etel Adnan (Galerie Lelong 2015), back translation mine since the volume is a translation of a leporello written in English and no English text has been published.

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progress

When I am not working
I have the impression
I know what to do.
Once I start I am lost.

The eye is very precise.
You risk losing the expression.
The head of an Egyptian in the Louvre
missing its eyes
brings it out.
I don’t try to capture it.

The closer I come to this head
the more it eludes me.
I have the impression
of progressing
when I no longer know
how to hold the knife.

At that point
if I persist
suddenly I have the impression
of a great leap forward.
It is only then
that we make progress.

— Giacometti, in a film shown at the Tate Modern

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museums: Fahrelnissa Zeid

Tapestry, carpet, stained glass window, mosaic, kaleidoscope are some of the metaphors that come to mind in viewing the work of the Ottoman-born artist Fahrelnissa Zeid. Her dominant tones were modulations of primary colors – tomato red, denim blue, Girl Scout green. A lover of great cities, especially Paris, she preferred a big, crowded canvas, with some geometric and tonal regularity. She varied the way she wrote her name, on her work and off, through her career: Fahrünissa, Fahr-El-Nissa, Fahrelnissa Z, FZ. Most of her work lives in private collections, including those of her family, and in the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

Works to spend time with include Third Class Passengers, which seems to layer dancers, subway straphangers, prostrate prayergivers, and families lounging on their rugs; Loch Lomond, where revelers and boats form a net of 45 and 60-degree triangles that melt into abstraction at the top; the rippling, Escheresque panorama of My Hell and the beaded city map of The Octopus of Triton. Abstract Parrot is the culmination of her stained-glass type. The three open page spreads from her sketchbooks tantalized with a bright watercolor-and-ink mountain landscape, writing (“pourquoi la mort m’appelait …”), and a stunning self-portrait. Her portraits of others, displayed in the last room, were deliberately naive, if not actually bad.

There were a few callouts to England. London (“The Firework”) is a blurred futuristic cityscape filtered through yellow-red light and then through a network of orthogonal brushstrokes that recall latticed window screens. Someone from the Past is a self portrait with, Zeid wrote, Persian hand attitudes, Byzantine dress, Cretan face and “Oriental” eyes. What it also resembles is formal portraits of Elizabeth I, if she had posed crownless wearing kohl and earrings.

This Tate Modern retrospective, supported by Deutsche Bank, moves to Berlin after 8 October. Zeid lived there in the mid-1930s while her husband was the Iraqi ambassador, and even took tea with Hitler. Fifty years later she asked Donald Trump if she could paint his portrait, and did so from a photograph, according to the exhibition catalog. The result is not to be seen here.

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