Tuesday 11 December 2012

45 Astonishing Minutes

Every day, I walk to my work in Kentish Town. I have always walked to and from the office, because I have lost whatever steel-hearted stoicism I once had, which London public transport demands. Even when I lived in Wood Green I walked to work, and the journey took well over an hour.

As of next week, my office is moving to just down the road from where I live, cutting my walk from 45 minutes each way to a little over 20 minutes.

In essence, I am gaining an extra 45 minutes to every day. This is great news, but not true. Firstly, it implies that the Earth's rotation will slow down by 3 per cent, causing the sort of disruption that will far outweigh any personal convenience to me. My friend Baz describes the tragedy in the following helpful terms:

Well one thing's for sure, if the change was instantaneous then everything not tied down would keep going at the old speed and fly off the surface at quite a pace. At the equator surface stuff is travelling at about 1000mph so it would fly off at about 30mph!! If it was tied down then it would be like an immovable object lets say a train or the ground (!) hitting it at 30mph!! This initial devastation death and destruction would probably cause all services, water, electricity, gas, telephone etc to instantly and irrepairable fail as every tree, building, phone tower, powerstation, Dam etc would fall, burst or collapse!!.... There wouldn't be much left to celebrate the extra 45 minutes a day!!!... 

(I welcome scientists of the 'pub speculation' school of thought to flesh other, more mundane, consequences of this disaster.)

Secondly, the time I spend walking to and from work is not 'wasted' time. I fill it either listening podcasts, music, language tapes (those of Michel Thomas are a current firm favourite). Or, if for any reason I have nothing to plug into my ears, I indulge in one of several imaginary scenarios in my head:

  • reliving past conversations and substituting better things I could have said
  • playing out both sides of an argument I might have with some appropriately inarticulate straw man or other, in which my victory is both inevitable and spectacular
  • speculating in paranoid fashion that everyone I love and trust has been secretly working against me, and plotting my strategy for revenge when this secret is uncovered
  • Lotto win scenario (I do not play the Lotto)

Wasted time? I think not!

Either way, from next week I will be forced to spend 45 minutes less every day walking to work, listening to that stuff and thinking those thoughts, and 45 minutes more doing something else.

Something? But which something? Any something. Anything. Anything is better than nothing.

It's the anythingness of the unspecified something that unnerves. The range of 45-minute activities is overwhelming. But here is a shortlist of things I could quickly accomplish by putting an that extra time aside every day towards a clearly defined goal:

  • master the accordion
  • write an oulipian novel
  • cook all meals using fresh ingredients
  • jog, swim and boxercise my way to a beach-worthy physique
  • meditate my way to not being such an arsehole
  • transform my garden into a paradisus terrestris
  • finally read all those Arsène Lupin novels

Truth be told, with just a little bit of time management, I could have found those 45 minutes years ago. Now I have no excuses. One is as likely as not to be terrified of failing, and I have already written about the fear of the blank page, but the fear of success often runs deeper. 

Why not put aside 45 minutes a day to accomplish astonishing things?

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Dennis Severs' House

On Monday I visited Dennis Severs' House in Spitalfields. I heartily recommend it – arrive early to beat the queues. The house's arch motto Aut visum aut non! – 'Either you see it or you don't!' – hints at an implication of snootiness towards those who don't 'get it', but there's plenty to see even if you think you don't get it.

I don't want to prejudice your interpretation of what's on display by giving you a mundane description. It certainly isn't what I assumed it was when I first arrived – a museum reconstruction of an eighteenth-century interior. Suffice it to say that artifice and naturalism are blended, as are past and present. Part of my experience involved taking the role of a time-travelling detective looking for clues, though it wasn't a murder I was investigating, but rather a subtle, unspoken trauma of the heart that had become imprinted onto the day-to-day activity of the house for generations.

About a dozen visitors are allowed into the house at a time. With the fulcrum of centuries so delicately poised, the illusion would be spoiled if talking were permitted, and we were warned against doing so, first by the doorman and then repeatedly by prominent notices displayed throughout the house. So it was surprising that several of our fellow visitors found it so hard to keep quiet.

I've seldom come across such a clear example of language being used to inhibit communication. Something uncanny and disturbing was going on in Dennis Severs' House, and it would take much more than a single visit to get to grips with it. All that is required is to observe, listen and smell. But this requires a certain submission and vulnerability that is far from straightforward. There was a strong impulse to block out the house's story. You could see from the pained expressions of the chatterboxes' faces that they earnestly wished they hadn't succumbed to the temptation to speak. I felt sorry for them.

Get yourself to Dennis Severs' House at your earliest opportunity! Shh!

Sunday 18 November 2012

Against Imagination!

In recent years, I have become increasingly annoyed by the high regard in which 'imagination' is commonly held. The word is used almost synonymously with 'creativity'. It is time for me to speak out. I am against it. There. I appreciate that to declare yourself to be against imagination is to equate yourself with the worst excesses of Gradgrindian utility, or fascist suppression. 'Imagination liberates,' you will say, 'whereas reality is a prison.' You are wrong. Imagination is a dead end.

I don't believe that reality/imagination form a true opposition. 'Reality' is itself such a murky concept that almost anything could be placed in opposition to it. I find system/madness a more useful distinction. If madness consists in the chaos of the unknowable, and system is merely the makeshift collection of stories and games we call 'knowledge', which we indulge in to make sense of it all, then 'reality' becomes little more than a tradeable commodity along that axis. We need madness to refine and adapt our knowledge and understanding of the world, but gaze too deeply into the chaos, and all our systems, laws, accounts and logic begin disintegrate. All true creativity springs from that dangerous madness, but imagination is something else.

Imagination is not creativity; it is a product of the same rational part of the mind that creates those systems that limit and define us. We use imagination in order to shield us from the madness that threatens those systems. Imagination merely supposes a world in which knowable elements are swapped or substituted as a sort of stand-in for the realm of madness. A cow that flies, a car that talks, a dancing tree, a bee that sells you insurance: these delightful and fanciful images could be assembled by a computer using an algorithm to pick out interesting combinations. Imagination is rarely edgy, hardly subversive, never destructive. Notions that derive purely from the imagination cannot undermine us. Madness, however, is treacherous and impalpable.

When we are ready to look beyond imagination, to use parts of our brains in unthinkable ways – beyond the rational, conscious skill of contriving unlikely combinations – to risk our very identities, to kill 'the watcher at the gates of the mind', to transcend language, to submit to the deadly madness that crouches in the shadows of all our daily activities, then, and only then, are we creative.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Fear of the Blank Page

On Sunday, I'm starting a new website devoted to my improvisation-related activities in association with monk-like improv anagarika, Luke Beahan. It's called Luke & Michael. Click here!

A new blog these days is like a new exercise book used to be. I am not alone in my fetish for stationery products, and I'm a proud lifelong fan of Ryman. There is something emotional about their shops. The promise they encapsulate – in all that pristine paper, those fully-charged pens and empty filing systems awaiting content – is overwhelming. The entirety of human creativity is there, suspended in perpetual potentiality. Ryman is a sacred time-locked temple of the possible.

When I was at school, my slowest, best handwriting and my most carefully considered words would fill the first page and a half of any new exercise book. Thereafter, with the first crossings-out, dog-ears and smudges, the quality would rapidly diminish. By the end of term, the thing was a complete disgrace.

By the age of twelve, I realised that maintaining the perfection of a new exercise book was a practical, philosophical and linguistic impossibility. In order to combat my instinctive terror of the first page, I got into the habit of deliberately spoiling it with messy scribbles or spillages. This act of rebellion against the blank page's stern reproof (an assertion of the supremacy of the id over the super-ego), liberated my creativity, and allowed me to write what I wished, free from the injunction to be perfect. Thus, content and creativity were always born out of a destructive act.

The notion of reality being born from an imperfection is well rehearsed in both religious and scientific narratives. The Big Bang is a wobble, the accidental imbalance of quarks and anti-quarks that crudely spits out matter and energy from pure undifferentiated light. Gnostic myths also tell of the physical world being an imperfect emanation from an uncreated sphere of unity.

Vestiges of that pre-Creation perfection remain in our imaginations, like a half-remembered Platonic Form, even as we get older. We see it in a freshly-laid carpet of snow on a January morning, into which we feel compelled to rush out. Or a blank canvas. Or the surface of a crème brulée. Or, if you like, the empty stage that exists in the moment of an intake of breath, just before an improviser steps out and opens his mouth to speak.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Jo Christian

Jo Christian is retiring today. She taught me everything I know about editing books, and has been a constant source of inspiration for the last twelve years or so. She's one of those REMARKABLE PEOPLE – of whom you will probably only meet a small number in your life – whose attitude to life and attitude to their craft seamlessly merge. It will certainly be a lot duller around the office without her.

I wrote this for her leaving card:

Great editors represent one of the marvels and strengths of publishing, yet they remain a rare breed. Jo Christian is timeless. She has been here since the early days, after a varied career at Vogue and as Stanley Kubrick’s researcher-cum-governess. Now, her tattered address book is crammed with every great gardener and garden writer in the country, including Penelope Hobhouse, Rosemary Verey, Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, as well as some unusual marquesses and duchesses. 
She refers to almost all of these by a well-chosen nickname, often accompanied by an impish twinkle in her eye and some whispered morsel of gossip, because she is young at heart, a breath of fresh air in a stuffy office, making even Torriano Mews seem like an elegant address. And her youthful passion is infectious. 
Jo Christian operates in a timezone all to herself. Her work day begins on the stroke of 9.53am, when she arrives clutching a Mr Coffee large latte ‘with a Jo twist’ or a hot cross bun from Crusty Bloomers, but she works often late into the night. She takes no short-cuts, either with books or with authors. Her relationships with both are deep; she is meticulous and chaotic.
She not only has her own clock, but her own calendar. She squeezes every production schedule until it squeaks, conjuring extra days like rabbits from a hat in order to put the maximum crafted care into every page. Inexplicably, bound books arrive on her desk seemingly only a few days after she has tweaked the jacket copy for the umpteenth time.
Whether at work or play, there will never be another Jo Christian: generous, patient, funny, pragmatic, mischievous, gracious: the editor par excellence.

Friday 21 September 2012


Rob Grundel asked me to write about Fear. I said I wasn't certain I wanted to write about Fear. In doing so, I fell straight into his trap. He said I was Afraid to write about Fear.

I might have added that Tingtinglongtingtingfala follows only two editorial guidelines: I do not write about improvisation and I do not write about negative things. These are rules of thumb, however, rather than foundational principles. I break these rules often enough.

There are, of course, countless things to fear. It is surprising, then, that there is any consensus on what the feeling of fear is. After all, no one can agree on what love is. Poets and artists work themselves into a tizzy attempting to taxonomize love. Its gradations, species, aspects, names, categories, bands, etc. have been repeatedly agonized over ever since Mankind had anything to say on the matter.

It is easy to appreciate how your love of porn and brandy is a different thing from the love you have for your country, your god, or your mother, even if it is less easy to prioritize your passions usefully. Love is mutable and deceptive. We may fool ourselves into thinking we love someone. Jealous lust and pure affection can swap masks, while the object of love remains exactly the same. We don't know what we're feeling. We're idiots.

By contrast, fear is fear. Exactly the same dizzy stomach wobbles and sweats afflict those gazing at a spider in a bath, the precipice of a cliff, a stern interview panel or a beautiful woman. Some people have exactly the same feeling about Velcro as you do about rejection.

Fears can be listed as a comical set of phobias. We give them names to rationalize and externalize them. Merely acknowledging that a fear exists goes most of the way to overcoming it. This simple process gives credence to the notion that our fears are less real than we make them out to be, yet the visceral experience of fear, and its physical symptoms, shriek otherwise. Consequently, fear often goes hand-in-hand with shame, and the two reinforce each other. Like a fit of giggles, knowing you shouldn't makes it worse.

Many fears are daft, but many aren't. It is easy to understand how, for example, the fear of expressing ourselves in public – or, to be more specific, the fear of being judged for our self-expression – has roots deep in human paranoia and loneliness. The intrinsically ambiguous nature of our consciousness and of language make this a near-universal fear. Yet even this fear can be managed – if not completely overcome – and when this happens it is often accompanied by a terrific burst of formerly pent-up creative energy.

Like all loves worthy of the name, fears are largely irrational. Typically, we have no reason to fear the things that we fear, unless it is to avoid facing up to another thing, something more terrible, which we really do fear. But that one reason alone can be a powerful one. It is in our interests to imagine that we are weak, and hamstrung by humdrum insecurities. If we were to suppose the truth of the matter – that we are all brave and brilliant, capable of inspiring almost godlike depth and generosity of spirit – well, then there would be no further challenges left, other than the one we know will defeat us. The paradox is that we indulge in needless failures in order to avoid confronting a necessary one. 

What, then, is that primordial fear, for which all of these strategies and counterstrategies are merely cyphers and avatars? It is universal. It is hidden in plain sight. And – despite what you might think – it cannot be named.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Mirrors on eBay

Fascinating glimpses: photographs of mirrors, and the things reflected in them, all taken from eBay advertisements.

Thursday 13 September 2012

The London Circle Walk

A few years ago (quite a number of years ago, in fact), I was sitting in The Lock Tavern in Camden with Tim Wilson. This pub used to employ the ruse of playing painfully loud polka music at chucking out time in order to get everyone to leave. I don't know if they still do, as I haven't been back there in ages.

We were several pints into the conversation and for reasons unknown we were discussing the work of the 'land artist' Richard Long. It was he who took art into pioneering conceptual realms by calling a walk 'art', and he is particularly noted for the circles and straight lines that he would trace over stretches of countryside, both in this country and across the plains of Canada, Mongolia and Bolivia.

We argued pointlessly about how hard it would be to walk in big circles in different parts of the world, given geography and rights-of-way and that sort of thing. Much easier to walk nice geometrical shapes on the flats of Mongolia, of course. But what would happen, we asked ourselves, if we were to apply a pair of compasses to a map of London? How much zigzagging would you be forced to do in order to walk as closely as possible to an imaginary circle on the ground? What would we find along the way?

Thus, the London Circle Walk was born.

The London Circle Walk (click to see full size)

The circle's position and dimensions are partly pre-determined and partly arbitrary. There can only be one viable location for its centre: the equestrian statue of Charles I at the top of Whitehall. This traffic island, south of Trafalgar Square, was the original location of Charing Cross, and is the official centre of London. A plaque marking the spot reads:
'On the site now occupied by the statue of King Charles I was erected the original Queen Eleanor's cross a replica of which stands in front of Charing Cross station. Mileages from London are measured from the site of the original cross.'
The radius of the circle is not a round number of miles or kilometres, but instead is chosen to take advantage of convenient crossing places of the Thames. A circle that uses Tower Bridge and Albert Bridge creates a walk that fills one whole day (at least six hours, though often longer, depending on how much dawdling, sightseeing and stopping for food is done). A larger circle, crossing the Thames via the Rotherhithe Tunnel and Wandsworth Bridge, for example, would look much more geometrically perfect, but would take more than one day to complete.

Tim and I have since walked the route many times in both directions. We have agreed that, for reasons both aesthetic and practical, the walk is best done in a clockwise direction, and it is best to start at the middle of Tower Bridge (at '3 o'clock', if the circle is imagined as a clock face). The route begins by working its way south among the housing and industrial estates on either side of the Old Kent Road. Skirting the edge of Burgess Park, it runs between Kennington and Camberwell, crossing several of the large thoroughfares that slice through South London, reaching the southernmost point at Stockwell. The route then zigzags in between New Covent Garden at Nine Elms and the rail junction at Battersea, before emerging into Battersea Park, where it runs around the edge of the boating lake and up the steps to the Peace Pagoda. A small detour is needed to cross the river by Albert Bridge. Then the route ascends through Chelsea and South Kensington, round the Natural History Museum, through Imperial College and past the Royal College of Art, entering Kensington Gardens at Queen's Gate. This is the halfway point.

The walk exits at Lancaster Gate, does more zigzagging around Paddington Station and under the Marylebone Flyover, then joins Regent's Canal for a short stretch at Lisson Grove, entering Regent's Park next to the London Central Mosque. It crosses Regent's Park, and runs along the Outer Circle through the middle of London Zoo, exiting the park at Gloucester Gate. Up Parkway, through the heart of Camden Town, the route then has to do a large detour around the massive construction site still occupying the area north of King's Cross, which marks the northernmost point. Residential streets then take the walk through Barnsbury, across Islington Green and down to meet Regent's Canal again. There are some interesting back streets in the Hoxton/Shoreditch area before the route abruptly enters the City of London at Bishopsgate, runs down Petticoat Lane to Aldgate and Minories, before returning you to Tower Bridge. It is always a slightly surreal experience to return so abruptly to the point you started at earlier in the day.

The London Circle Walk contains some amazing and unexpected highlights. It also runs tantalizingly close to major well-known monuments, which it blithely ignores. There are places where shortcuts could be taken, in order to get closer to the geometric circle. All involve a degree of daring and/or illegality. Hire a boat to take you across Battersea Park boating lake to avoid going around it. Bribe a security guard to let you out the fire exit at the back of the Natural History Museum. Bring a ladder to break into London Zoo. A team of parkour enthusiasts could knock miles off the total distance. Building works currently underway suggest that the route will evolve at some point in the future, possibly bringing the walker closer to the True Circle, or further from it.

It is fascinating to observe what happens when an abstract geometrical shape is superimposed on an urban landscape, which is organized along lines that are partly rational, partly organic and partly chaotic. Different definitions of the word 'natural' come into conflict. Obviously, you are forced to think about cities in a different way, following a route that no one would normally take. As a walker, you are both bound by the constraints of the route (no deviation from the circle is permitted!) and liberated from those all-too-beaten paths that others have made. The route almost takes on a ritual quality. You cannot help but become aware of time and space, observing the linear passage of the sun across the sky as you yourself perform a symbolic tour of a cyclical universe encoded in microcosm.

In addition to this pretentious arty bollocks, the walk offers plenty of general inspiration. It offers a stark illustration of different social conditions along the way, passing both the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth and Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, for example. It includes a bus garage, a museum, a university, a giraffe enclosure, a hospital, a high-security police station and a theatre – a rich resource of material for any narrative or fiction that might aim to encompass a cross-section of London life. It is made up of concrete, water, grass, brick, glass, trees, steel and earth. It passes at least fifty pubs. And below street level lie generations of souls amid fields, streets and houses that have long vanished from view, not to mention an even more ancient geology and hydrology.

Tim is leading a group who will be setting off from Tower Bridge on Sunday 30th September at 10am sharp. Do feel free to join in. Contact him on squaregardener@gmail.com or on 07941 861806 for further details.

Friday 7 September 2012

Judge Dredd and the Laws of Spelling

Publicity for the new Judge Dredd film, Dredd 3D, features the strapline 'Judgment is Coming'.

On some of the billboard posters, however, this is written as 'Judgement is Coming'.

Which is correct? In fact, both spelling variants are common in UK and US English. There is, however, a convention in the UK that the word 'judgment' is used in a technical sense to denote a legal pronouncement made by a judge, whereas 'judgement' is the more general term, meaning a personal estimation – a judgement of distance or of worth, for example.

As a copy editor, it is best not to be pedantic, and few people appreciate this kind of quibbling. The laws of spelling are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. This is not to say that anything goes. Laws exist to formalize ordinary usage rather than to tickle the whims of elitist nit-pickers. Meanings change, language is in flux, and internal consistency is more important than the mindless application of a dusty orthodoxy. For the sake of elegance and comprehension, a balance needs to be struck.

But then it occurred to me that the inconsistency in the Dredd 3D publicity is probably deliberate. Of course! The difference in spellings undoubtedly signals an important and subtle narrative point. In the course of the film's story, Dredd himself will be forced to wrestle with an inconsistency between the judgment it is his duty to dish out as a law enforcer and the personal judgement his conscience demands. Like a copy editor, he must learn to reconcile the two. How clever.

Judge Dredd and I have a lot in common.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Mr Blobby and Nathan Barley

While some popular personalities have an evergreen appeal, others, after they have peaked and become unfashionable, make a comeback in more or less an ironic version of themselves. David Hasselhoff. William Shatner. Matt LeBlanc. (The excesses of the latter Elvis or Liberace represent another version of this phenomenon.)

What is becoming more common these days, however, is for the order to be reversed, and for the spoof to precede the "genuine" article. One of the earliest examples of this was Mr Blobby, a spoof TV children's character who was created in the 1990s for a series of pranks against gullible celebrities on Noel's House Party, but later exploited as a marketable character in his own right.

The deliberately awful Christmas singles, not to mention the toys and other merchandising, were duly churned out, and Mr Blobby was accused by some of being lowbrow. But these critics were easily silenced by being reminded that Blobby's original purpose was to mock those who took him seriously. The creators of Blobby, meanwhile, kept their investment safe behind a mask of irony, never openly declaring their creation a hoax so long as there was money to be made. Thus, Mr Blobby and his detractors were caught in a futile loop, neither wishing to declare openly that the emperor had no clothes (or rather that Mr Blobby was merely an outfit without any content).  

Chris Morris' single-series sitcom Nathan Barley was all about the madness that ensues from the inability to take anything seriously for fear of missing out on a presumed joke that no one had any authorship of. The mantra "shit is good" neatly summed up the shatterproof paradox that drives its unlikable hero Dan Ashcroft insane. Nathan Barley gets better on second and third viewings, because the quality of the acting gets lost the first time behind all the noise and visuals and ideas. Nicholas Burns brilliantly portrays Barley as a protean antihero, clearly terrified by his own ignorance, yet destined to win out in the end. All he knows is that any moral compass will be more a hinderance than a help in the creative tundra of Shoreditch.

If, like me, you are determined not to take yourself too seriously, and to eliminate stultifying po-faced earnestness from your creative endeavours, you will also want to avoid the opposite trap: wallowing in a Barley/Blobby swamp of lazy irony. It is crucial to appreciate that our authorial intentions are as flimsy and negotiable as the interpretations others may make of them. But the irony game of one-upmanship with our audience is an unworthy distraction, and it is only by sacrificing any claim to a privileged position as artist, and instead engaging in a collaborative co-creative process with the public, that anything of any value can be made. Selflessness is the key.

Both Mr Blobby and Nathan Barley represent the selfish implosion of creativity brought about by an ironic standpoint. The contrast between them is that Blobby cynically and knowingly exploits other people's weakness and gullibility, whereas Barley is a lazy and ignorant idiot, barely conscious of the content vacuum in which he operates. The fact that one is self-aware and the other is not makes no difference, however: they should both stand – as twin lighthouses – to warn us of the perils of sailing up our own arseholes.

Thursday 16 August 2012


I have had it in mind for some time to write on the subject of SHOUTING. But I’ve kept putting it off, partly because it’s not a pleasant topic (and we like to keep things nice here at Tingtinglongtingtingfala) and partly because I was not sure what tone to take to avoid the slightest dab of hypocrisy. The reason is this: I’ve been accused of SHOUTING on stage. Nerves, undoubtedly. And nerves also cause me to be inaudibly quiet on other occasions. This upsets me enough to want to train my voice, as there are few things I hate more than SHOUTING.

My boaphobia undoubtedly dates back to my childhood. The transition from the normal hurly burly of living in a house full of boys to my Dad’s aggressive, often drunk, SHOUTING was a subtle one. To this day, the SHOUT I fear the most is the one that seems to come from nowhere, that gets you in the back of the knee. It signals that communication has broken down. Listening has gone. As soon as that SHOUT is out, it cannot be put back in its box. From that point on, there is no hope.

There is never any need to SHOUT on stage, and this is especially true in improvisation. It is because I fear SHOUTING so much that I have such an exaggerated delight for voices that can be reassuringly big, that can fill great spaces without either force or amplification. (And it always surprises me that modern comedians inevitably rely on microphones to fill spaces that their music hall forebears filled unaided.)

In online communication, the use of CAPITALS often denotes SHOUTING, but here the distinction is even more subtle than that between SHOUTING, lively loudness and good projection, so care is needed. Increasingly, we use text in the same informal and conversational context that we once only used our voices. When we write a Tweet, or a comment on a Facebook post, our thoughts are instantaneously broadcast. Once published, they fill the space they are projected into, and we ourselves have the satisfaction of being the very first person to read them. The dialogue we are engaged in may idiomatically resemble a normal, friendly spoken one, but the same mechanisms of listening and attention that aid face-to-face communication are not yet fully developed in the virtual world. Even without the use of capital letters, the average Twitter feed often resembles a series of megaphone announcements, and a thread of Facebook comments a barrage of non sequiturs. It is possible to be engaged in numerous conversations all at once, to comment on everything that pops up, and to see your own voice (and an image of your own face) repeated endlessly in front of you. It is so easy to seek to generate a greater online presence at the expense of listening. I love social networking sites, but I try to remember that they have poor acoustics, and that all my words risk becoming noisy, SHOUTY echoes.

It is good to express your emotional and intellectual reactions to things in a spontaneous, uninhibited and courageous manner. But for exactly the same reasons that I need to train my voice so I don’t SHOUT when I’m on stage, it is necessary to be a sympathetic and sensitive microblogger.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

William Tell and Gay Marriage

Until last week, the only things I knew about William Tell were him shooting an arrow off his son's head and a catchy overture by Rossini, used for the theme tune to The Lone Ranger.

We were looking for card games to while away our evenings in our hut in Austria. I was lucky enough to come across a traditional Austrian card game for us to learn: Schnapsen, also known as Sixty Six.

The game of Schnapsen uses a reduced pack of twenty cards (Tens through Aces), and features the declaration of "marriages" between King and Queens. (These are worth 40 points for a trump marriage and 20 points for a marriage in any other suit.) For added authenticity, we bought a special pack of Schnapsen cards in a traditional design from the local shop.

However, when we opened up the pack, we found it contained cards of the Hungarian deck, which is very unlike the familiar Western deck. The first thing we noticed was that it uses the Southern German suits – with Acorns, Bells, Hearts and Leaves instead of Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts and Spades. But more surprisingly, we discovered that there are no Queens in the deck. Instead, each suit has two Jacks: an ober Knave and an under Knave. So with this deck, you declare a "marriage" between the King and the ober Knave. I could hardly believe it, at first, but I double-checked the rules: there was no mistake. 

Hungarian playing cards. The Aces depict the four seasons.

This deck was designed in 1837 by József Schneider, a painter from Pest. The ober and under Knaves feature characters from Friedrich Schiller's 1804 play, William Tell. Tell is a legendary fourteenth-century Swiss national hero. He uses his almost superhuman strength and skill with a crossbow to kill the oppressive local overlord Gessler; and he sets in motion the popular rebellion that will lead eventually to the establishment of modern Switzerland.

At the time this deck of cards was produced, Revolution was sweeping Europe, so the decision to depict characters from a drama about a freedom fighter assassinating a tyrant was undoubtedly a political one. It is thought that Schneider chose a Swiss hero, rather than a native Hungarian one, in order to evade the strict censorship laws of his day. The Revolution arrived in Hungary not long after, in the turbulent year of 1848.

While Robin Hood has become the patron of a series of bold new tax proposals, his cousin William Tell languishes in the shadows of public imagination. This seems such a pity. Surely the logical thing to do would be to revive and modernize him, to use him as a vehicle to overthrow oppressive legislature without, it is to be hoped, the violence of 1848. I propose that William Tell – through his association with the same-sex-marriage-endorsing game of Schnapsen – aim his arrows at the apple of conservative prejudice, and once again take up the role of a freedom fighter for the people. 

Schnapsen is a fast-moving game involving concentration, a good memory, tactics and a small degree of luck. We have become addicted. I invite you to learn it and to teach it to your children. By doing so, we will be celebrating the liberty-loving William Tell and supporting the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.