Sunday 25 March 2012

How to read a book

On the bus, head leaning on the vibrating window.

On the late bus, hurtling over the Auckland Harbour Bridge on your way home from university.

Home sick from school, relishing the opportunity to lie in bed and read all day.

Sitting at the end of the wharf, legs dangling over water, seagulls squawking, the smell of dead fish.

On a plane, with your elbows carefully tucked inside the armrests.

Sprawled across the backseat of a stuffy car in a department store parking lot while your parents shop for furniture.

Early evening in deep summer, lying on a camp bed in a canvas tent, listening to rain saturate everything.

On your front in bed, chin supported by cupped hands, your hardback supported by a pillow

Beside a hospital bed, feet propped on another chair.

When you have turned down an invitation to be sociable, without a single regret.

In your father’s car on family holidays, the smell of peppermints and plastic.

On autumn mornings in the overgrown backyard of a Kingsland flat, sitting on a flimsy wooden chair, drinking tea and wearing your grandfather’s dressing gown.

On a chair you’ve dragged into the last of the summer sun coming through a window, with apples and honey sandwiches.

Overtly, in unexpected and provocative places (parties, conferences, street protests).

On a television set when you’re 17, dressed as a member of the town militia.

In waiting rooms, only half able to pay attention.

On an unmade bed, while you wait for the sheets to dry outside.

At the beach, sand between the pages, sunglasses in the car so you have to squint with one eye.

Under the table at extended family gatherings.

In the bath, listening to rain on the corrugated iron roof.

On blankets, in the boot of a station-wagon, in the carpark of the cattle yards in Hamilton, during a livestock auction.

On the stairs, when you should be doing housework.

On a hillside, near a monkey puzzle tree, within earshot of beehives, thinking about leaving home for university.

Over dinner by yourself, the first time you travel for work, with a deep sense of contentment.

Curled against the warmth of a sleeping body in the early morning.

On long and short car trips. As an adult, you will mourn losing the ability to read in a moving car.

On the sidelines of a cricket game, breaking your concentration in rhythm with the rounds of applause and choruses of groans.

Sitting in front of the sliding glass doors, waiting for holiday rain to stop.

Lying in front a fireplace, rolling around in quadrants (back, right side, front, left side) as you progressively overheat.

In a nest of hay bales, while your farmer-father tinkers in the shed.

By candlelight.

Huddled against an electric heater in a drafty flat. Close enough to feel the warmth, but distant enough not to burn your legs.

Under a tree, sitting on pine needles. You’ve been looking forward to doing this all day, and you have built this romantic notion of what it’s going to be like in your head. It turns out to be really fucking uncomfortable.

On a couch, sun behind you, feeling your hair heat up until stroking it is almost like petting an animal.

In airports, sticky and smelly – stickier and smellier than the floor, which is why you feel okay about lying on it right now – with your head cradled on your bag, only you can’t really say ‘cradled’, because it appears you only packed squares and rectangles for this trip.

When you should be paying attention to a lecture, but you’ve just discovered the wonders of the upstairs sales room at the Otago University book shop.

Drunkenly, too late at night, in hopes that returning to your routine now will make the morning gentler on you.

Hungover, seeking solace.

In a half-finished room in a house undergoing seemingly endless renovations, with the snuffly smell of old sawdust in your nostrils.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Teenage dreams

I spent a lot of last week thinking about the special hold teenagehood has upon our memories and imaginations.

This was triggered first by a New York Times article titled Why is that nice girl from Friday Night Lights fighting a bunch of ninjas?. The article asked why we find it so hard to let actors move on from the parts they play in programmes we are loyal to, and as the title indicates, 'Friday Night Lights' figures strongly in the piece (as do 'The Wire' and 'Freaks and Geeks'):

The main unifying trait of these shows is this feeling that they are underdogs whom you alone seem to understand. “Friday Night Lights” and “Arrested Development” are prime examples. “Lost” somehow works, because if you do truly believe you understand it, you might very well be the only person in the world who does. Even then, this attachment applies only to select beloved characters, namely Sawyer, Locke and Ben. Matthew Fox is free to take new parts, because he was always Charlie from “Party of Five” to me, anyway. 

The crown jewel, though, is “Freaks and Geeks,” which existed for just 18 perfect episodes and was, conveniently, not only an underdog show but also a show about underdogs. 

It interests me how many of these programmes (I would count 'My So-Called Life' in there too) are about or feature strong teenage characters.  This thought was further reinforced when I went to hear Kelly Link speak at the Readers and Writers festival. Link's most recent publication is a selection of her short stories specifically targeted at the YA audience (although her work is cross-over in age-appeal as well as genre). Asked to define YA fiction, Link cited Garth Nix (in a reference I didn't catch, but which may have been this) and then offered another explanation. It's not necessarily fiction aimed at teenagers. But it is fiction that draws on the teenage state: a few short, intense years when you experience many things - a growing awareness of how you do or do not fit into the world, love, betrayal, unfairness, life-altering decision - for the first time.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Passage, by Jason Rohrer - a naive review

A screenshot from Jason Rohrer's 'Passage'
The only instruction I will give you is, at the start, walk right until you meet the girl (should take a few seconds). After that you are on your own.

On my first play-through, I did as I was told. I chest-bumped my little man into the little woman, and pulled her into my gravitational field. We headed right: I ran after her. We headed left: she ran after me. We did this for a while, like running time trials in P.E - me after her, her after me.

Then I decided I owed it to the experiment to … experiment. First, we tried to run into the green ‘sea’ - no go. Then, we started tackling the obstacles: bumping into them, and then wending our way around them. The further south we went, the harder it was for us both to pass between the obstacles. We tracked, somewhat aimlessly, up and down, back and forth.

I noticed the time (or score? I wasn’t sure) ticking over in the top right. The spaces got smaller and smaller. I began to get frustrated with the woman: she was making this harder, she wasn’t helping. Suddenly, her hair turned grey. My brain telegraphed METAPHOR! METAPHOR! And then, quite suddenly, she crumpled, and turned into a little grey tombstone. I stood next to her for a while, unsure what to do next. A dog lingering by its master’s grave. Then I, too, crumpled and died.

The next game, I dodged around the girl, and sprinted as fast as I could to the right. I encountered no obstacles, just flight: just flight and colours and sound. I was unencumbered, free. The colours were beautiful. Solo life was both richer and less complicated than coupled life. I felt a fleeting regret for leaving the girl behind, and considered, briefly, turning back to see if she was still waiting for me. But the lure of the ever-changing colours won me over. I ran my heart out until the score reached 323, when I tombstoned once again.

My third and final play, I decided to take the girl on the journey I had just been on. I picked her up, and we ran, full tilt, through the colours. When the score reached 150, we were in a palette I liked: red background, black and white chequered foreground, a purple haze to the left. I took my hands off the keys. For the next few minutes, time slowed. We stood next to each other. Passage doesn’t allow stasis though. The game eased us into the future. We closed in on the horizon. We greyed together. We neared the right-hand edge. She crumpled and died. Before I met the horizon, I died too.


After I played, he asked me: How did you feel when the girl dies?

I was momentarily stumped. Then he helped me out:

Was it just, "Oh okay, now the girl dies"? 
Or did you experience an emotional reaction to it?

I realised, when asked, that the first time round, I didn’t feel anything. I was distracted by the sudden revelation of the metaphor; I had been catapulted from trying to play the game into getting the game. I didn’t feel sad - I felt fulfilled.

My second round, I didn’t see her die. And I didn’t mind, that much. I had that fleeting curiosity about her fate in my absence, but I was on my own path.

The third time, I felt it. I knew it was coming, and there was something beautiful in that expectation: a satisfaction in how neatly and poignantly it all wound up, her tombstone slipping slowly out of sight.

Our conversation gradually came round to the topic of melancholia.

I almost always pick up the girl and walk as far to the right as I can.
The girl always dies first. ... 
and I never know what to do. 
Sometimes I hang about her tombstone. Other times I keep walking. 
There is something in those last 20 seconds that make me really melancholy.

Melancholy for me is such a teenage feeling. Not an immature one - but one that when you experience it in adulthood, is almost a willed remembrance of the intensity of that earlier emotion. A wistfulness for wistfulness, if you like. It’s that pleasant pain, that intentional pressing of an emotional bruise. A yearning for how intensely you used to be able to feel about things.

This notion of melancholy and yearning sparked the memory of an artist friend of mine. He paints little, wistful paintings in thin, thin layers of acrylic that fade back into the paper.

Early in his career, he painted beautiful women and the men who wanted to love them. Then in the 1990s he went to teach at an art school, where he was told that these paintings of longed-after women (or, perhaps, painting these longed-after women) was somehow not appropriate. So he stopped painting beautiful, distant, unattainable women and started paintings cats instead, with the same shapely silhouettes and the same emotional intensity.

He’s gone back to women. But I still like that idea of him, painting women disguised in cats’ bodies, hiding his longing inside their skins.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Alice Oswald's 'Memorial'

I've read Oswald's slim, startling, epically beautiful re-writing of the Iliad twice already this weekend. You can read a long extract on Amazon, but here are a couple of my favourite passages:

DIORES son of Amarinceus
Struck by a flying flint
Died in a puddle of his own guts
Slammed down into the mud he lies
With his arms stretched out to his friends
And PIROUS the Thracian
You can tell him by his knotted hair
Lie alongside him
He killed him and was killed
There seem to be black flints
Everywhere a man steps

Like through the jointed grass
The long-stemmed deer
Almost vanishes
But a hound has already found her flattened tracks
And he's running through the fields towards her

Like through the jointed grass
The long-stemmed deer
Almost vanishes
But a hound has already found her flattened tracks
And he's running through the fields towards her


SCAMANDRIUS the hunter
Knew every deer in the woods
He used to hear the voice of Artemis
Calling out to him in the lunar
No man's land of the mountains
She taught him to track her animals
But impartial death has killed the killer
Now Artemis with all her arrows can't help him up
His accurate firing arm is useless
Menelaus stabbed him
One spear-thrust through the shoulders
And the point cam out through the ribs
His father was Strophius

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won't let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won't let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

Saturday 10 March 2012

The compliment currency

I was talking to a couple of friends recently about the concept of graciousness. They have both reached a certain level of maturity and fame - no longer up-starts, but instead people whom up-starts look up to.

They spoke about having to get used to having people ask and act upon their advice; and having people say flattering things about them. Being typical New Zealanders they find this uncomfortable, and both acknowledged a tendency to shrug off or downplay compliments - a behaviour they are trying to break in themselves.

As well they might. As Bryan Coldferry, the Irish-American author of The Compliment Currency: How a few well-chosen words can change the way the world responds to you, notes in his opening chapter:
Refusing a compliment is the same as refuting the complimenter's judgement. It is neither charming nor self-deprecating: it is saying I do not value what you think of me. Moreover, it demonstrates a lack of reciprocation. This person has gone out of their way to notice and comment upon something about you. You have thrown their goodwill back in their face. As much as we all could learn the benefits that accrue from delivering compliments, we could equally benefit from learning to take them.
Coldferry's core thesis is that compliments are the lowest cost form of influence available to us. They cost us nothing to give, and their returns can be completely out of scale to the effort we have invested in them.

Florid compliments used to be the norm: Coldferry, in the obligatory looking-back-through-history chapter, gives the example of dedications to patrons in the Renaissance, the oh-no-you-are letters that flew between the Romantic poets, and the ongoing vestiges of this practice in hyperbolic book blurbing activities. But, he argues, we have fallen out of the habit of making sincere compliments in the flesh. In fact, the contemporary world is almost cynical and suspicious of compliments, looking for the knife in the hand of the arm that's just been thrown around us in a congratulatory fashion.

At the same time, he observes, social networking sites have made complimenting easier in virtual relationships. Retweeting and Facebook likes are cost-free activities that have out-of-scale rewards (admit it: how good do you feel when you see six people have retweeted one of your pearls of wisdom?).  (The book was published in late 2011, otherwise Coldferry would presumably noted the complimentary opportunities of Google Plus and Pinterest.)

Coldferry argues that by taking this complimentary behaviour back into face-to-face relationships, we can harness the power of making people feel good about themselves. A casual 'You're looking well' can open up a warm conversation at a networking function; frequent verbal reinforcement in the workplace, preferably within the hearing of peers, is more motivating than annual pay increases (shades of Daniel Pink here).

The Compliment Currency, like so many of what I now refer to as 'colon books' (Snappy Verb: Longer description of how something very small actually explains/affects the whole world) takes a small point and stretches it over 180-odd generously white-spaced pages. Amid the padding lurk a few gems - for example, Coldferry's list of the most complimentary nationalities (as determined by the number of recommendations written on LinkedIn profiles, a rather ingenious use of this data). The top three:
  • USA [The home of the self-assured self-promoter, this is no surprise. Coldferry notes that Americans have truly learned to exploit the fact that giving good compliments makes the complimenter look like a knowledgeable, powerful person]
  • Brazil [Latin American cultures apparently are more open to compliments about physical appearance than Anglo-Saxon countries, but Coldferry does underline to aspiring complimenters that weight is an issue that should never, ever be broached in a compliment. For women, he recommends shoes; for men, ties and watches. Also, noticing that someone has had a haircut indicates that you pay attention to them over time, not just when they're immediately in front of you.]
  • Canada [This surprised me, given the stereotype of the chronically self-effacing Canadian, but Coldferry identifies a strain of compliments that sound like the phenomenon of the humble-brag - less bombastic than American compliments, but still reflecting well on the maker as well as the receiver.]
Perhaps unsurprisingly, England comes in low on the scale, but still ahead of the ultra-reserved Germans. Poor old New Zealand doesn't rate a mention, but if asked to venture a guess, I'd say we'd closely resemble the British - compliments are mildly suspect, and seldom graciously received. So next time one comes your way, try a 'simple thank you' (and then check out Coldferry's chapter on how to draw on a store of rehearsed compliments to make a 'spontaneous' return).*


Coldferry misses a trick here - Jane Austen's priceless description of the ingratiating Mr Collins explaining his pre-cooked compliments for his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh:
"[Lady Catherine's daughter's] indifferent state of health unhappily prevents her being in town; and by that means, as I told Lady Catherine myself one day, has deprived the British court of its brightest ornament. Her ladyship seemed pleased with the idea, and you may imagine that I am happy on every occasion to offer those little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies. I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine that her charming daughter seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving her consequence, would be adorned by her. -- These are the kind of little things which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself peculiarly bound to pay." 
"You judge very properly,'' said Mr. Bennet, "and it is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?'' 
"They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.''
Mr. Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Creating compelling collections

An interesting older article (via Mia Ridge) on 'Understanding Compelling Collections'. In it, John Coburn talks about the experiments the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums did in 2010 with sharing their collections online.

Coburn writes eloquently about facing the challenge of finding audiences and attention in social spaces. What will be compelling?
The short answer, in my view, is anything that How To Be a Retronaut would share.
The site defines itself as a time machine with ‘capsules’ of historic image collections uploaded every day. The capsules are carefully curated. They are era-specific, event-specific, moment-specific. Abandoned New York movie theatres. Mug shots of destitute Victorian criminals. 1920s Egypt in colour. Yugoslav war memorials. The last surviving witness of the Abraham Lincoln assassination.
It’s a popular site averaging 30,000 visitors a day, and over a million a month. Each capsule is generally shared a thousand times by viewers. The likely reach for each capsule is beyond calculation.
These images are the stuff museums and archives have in abundance. So neatly sidestepping the interminable question of copyright, why are many museums reaching only a fraction of this audience with our collections online.
Chris Wild of How To Be a Retronaut suggests the following “(Museums and archives should) forget about history and think about imagination. (Focus on) the images that tap into magic and the sublime. The images that disrupt people’s model of time, fracture it, break it apart. Looking at these images, viewers should encounter eternity and their own mortality”.
I agree with Coburn. I think digitisation should be promiscuous. I think people should be just flinging this stuff through the digitisers (by which I mean, whatever machine they're using) and bunging on the minimum amount of metadata, and then getting them up online. Stop agonising over the quality of your descriptions, over how to prioritise your programme, and just get the presses rolling. Digitise old stuff, so you don't have to worry about copyright so much. Take a risk and put stuff up; clearly post a take-down notice in case anyone objects. Allow people to add information to improve searchability - not squitty little tags, but proper big text fields. Even better, if you have the resource, do something like Brooklyn Museum's Posse and let QA'd contributions enter the metadata.

Making these collections compelling takes a lot of work though. When I was working at the National Library, getting our collections up on The Commons on Flickr was such a rush - so many barriers jumped in such a small amount of time. But the stuff we could share was so carefully vetted that we were (initially at least) restricted to innocuous landscapes and photos of ships - i.e., anything that didn't have people in it. We did the best with what we had, but it hurt knowing what great stuff - what magical and sublime things - we had in the collections.

Even now, I'm entranced on a regular basis. Photos of instructions for a wool-processing machine. Of awkward looking wanna-be models in the 1970s. Of a display of tire treads, or lightbulbs, or lampshades.

Or my recent obsession, photos of children from the 1870s and 1880s taken in the Whanganui studio of William James Harding. The children change, but the two rockinghorse props stay the same (I'm also beginning to suspect the beret and boater were studio props as well). And the children themselves, solemn, rarely cracking that cheeky, knowing grin of children who grew up with little cameras in the home. Often doughy, lumpen. Wearing these voluminous clothes, petticoats poking out, big black boots on their small feet. I've started a little board on Pinterest for my favourites, just to see if other people find them compelling too.

Monday 5 March 2012

Ladies' choice

I was recently passed the following story by a friend.

The Lady and the Tiger

The semi-barbaric king of an ancient land used an unusual form of punishment for offenders in his kingdom. The offender would be placed in an arena where his only way out would be to go through one of two doors. Behind one door was a beautiful woman hand-picked by the king and behind the other was a fierce tiger. The offender was then asked to pick one of the doors without knowing what was behind it. If he picked the door with the woman behind it, then he was declared innocent but was also required to marry the woman, regardless of previous marital status. If he picked the door with the tiger behind it, though, then he was deemed guilty and the tiger would rip him to pieces.

One day the king found that his daughter, the princess, had taken a lover far beneath her station. The king could not allow this and so he threw the offender in prison and set a date for his trial in the arena. On the day of his trial the suitor looked to the princess for some indication of which door to pick. The princess did, in fact, know which door concealed the woman and which one the tiger, but was faced with a conundrum —if she indicated the door with the tiger, then the man she loved would be killed on the spot; however, if she indicated the door with the lady, her lover would be forced to marry another woman, a woman that the princess deeply hated and believed her lover had flirted with. Finally she did indicate a door, which the suitor then opened.

At this point the question is posed to the reader, "Did the tiger come out of that door, or did the lady?" The question is not answered, and is left as a thought experiment.

The version I was sent also had the following explanation appended.

"The Lady, or the Tiger?" is a much-anthologized short story written by Frank R. Stockton for publication in the magazine The Century in 1882. "The Lady, or the Tiger?" has come into the English language as an allegorical expression, a shorthand indication or signifier for a problem that is unsolvable. The underlying allegory is parallel to the dilemmas often faced by participants in problems predicted by game theory.

Thought experiments have been a relatively new discovery for me. Looking back at high school, I can't ever remember a teacher posing one at my class (even covertly). In nearly six years of studying art history at university, I don't recall exercising this particular style of thinking. It's only as I've moved into the web world - and started catching up on physics on the side - that the term has become familiar to me.

I'm stumped by how this counts as a thought experiment. The princess has only one choice, as I can see it - swallow her pride. Dooming her lover is not a choice. That I found the answer so straightforward concerned me. Had I missed some crucial clue? Do I not know how to "play" thought experiments? So I sent this on to a smart friend, and explained my dilemma. What I just being slow-witted? Or was this story (sorry - thought experiment) mildly misogynistic? Would it have invoked game theory if it had been a prince and his unfortunate lover?

My friend wrote back

I agree. It is confusing to me. I guess the dilemma is supposed to arise from the condition that the woman behind the door is "a woman that the princess deeply hated and believed her lover had flirted with". But that just seems to turn it into an exercise of guessing the intensity of the princess's jealousy and her capacity for vengeance. "Guess the character's psychology" does not make for a particularly compelling story.

Then wrote back again

* and by "does not make for a particularly compelling story", I meant "thought experiment".

In the meantime, in response to "The Lady and the Tiger", I had been drawn to share back one of my one favourite parables - which I now saw could be described as a "thought experiment". It is an Arthurian fable called "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle", a version of the "loathly lady" theme that was popular in medieval England. An earlier version appears as Chaucer's "The wife of Bath's Tale"; I came across the story as a child, reading Roger Lancelyn-Green's retellings of the Arthur stories, and have never forgotten it.

I decided to share "Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnelle" with the people who had originally sent me "The Lady and the Tiger", and see if I could pose it as a thought experiment myself.

 Arthur, driven as always by his honour, winds up in a situation where he is charged by a mysterious knight to discover what "women truly desire". The knight gives Arthur a year to seek the answer and report back to him - if he does not find the correct answer, he will be killed.  Arthur rides the length and breadth of England, seeking out women and asking them the answer. Some tell him jewels, some youth, some beauty, some wealth. None give him the answer he needs.

One day, near the end of the year-long deadline, Arthur  goes hunting with some of his knights to relieve the pressure. While out riding, he comes upon the ugliest and most unpleasant women - one in front of whom even Arthur's legendary courtesy deserts him.

The loathsome Lady Ragnelle ("she who has never beguiled a man") reassures him she has the answer he needs, but will only give it to him if he agrees to wed her to his favourite Sir Gawain. Arthur is torn, but gallant Gawain  - the flower of the Round Table - forces him to accept the offer. Here's what Lady Ragnelle tells him:

“Sir, you will now know, without digression, what women of all degrees want most,” Dame Ragnell responded.  “Some men say we desire to be beautiful and that we want to consort with diverse strange men; also we love lust in bed and often wish to wed.  Thus men misunderstand women.  Another idea they have is that we want to be seen as young and fresh, not old, and that women can be won through flattery and clever ploys.  In truth, you act foolishly.  The one thing that we desire of men above all else is to have complete sovereignty, so that all is ours.  We use our skill to gain mastery over the most fierce, victorious and manly of knights.  So go on your way and tell this to the knight, who will be angry and curse the one who taught it to you, for his labour is lost.  I assure you that your life is now safe, and remember your promise.”

As the Lady said, Arthur's answer satisfies the knight. Now the wedding must go forward. The Loathsome Lady arrives at Arthur's court, and Gawain burns with shame and unhappiness at her ugliness, her untuneful voice, her horrific table manners, and the ill-concealed mockery of the court. At last, Gawain and the Loathsome Lady retire to their bedchamber, where the Lady requests Gawain that he perform his husbandly duties.

When Gawain screws his courage to the sticking place and turns to embrace her, to his great surprise he finds in his arms not the loathsome lady but a woman whose beauty eclipses that of every lady in Arthur's court. She reveals to him that like the knight who originally challenged Arthur with the riddle, she is under a curse: she must take her loathsome appearance for half of the day, and assume her true shape for the remaining twelve hours. Then she asks Gawain what he would choose for her. Should she shame him before all the court with her ugliness during the day, and save her true appearance for the night they are alone together? Or should she appear in her beautiful guise during the day, but have him endure her loathliness when they are alone?

It is less a thought experiment than a riddle, I suppose, but I'll leave it up to you all to decide what you as Gawain would have chosen; Wikipedia has the conclusion ...

I can remember the thrill I felt as a little girl when I read the conclusion: both the narrative neatness, and the satisfaction of the answer. Now, I realise that the sovereynté that Lady Ragnelle described was a joke at the time, and perhaps still a joke today.

And yet I retain a great fondness for this little tale. I am still pierced by a deep relief for Sir Gawain each time I recall the story - the pleasure in the magically correct outcome. The story of Arthur has always been one of great tragedy for me (a theme we'll return to); this small bright moment studded in his saga has always meant a lot to me.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Caveats all round

An article from The Economist details an English court case over a disputed antique chain of office,  valued first by Sotheby's as a Tudor copy, and later sold by Christie's as an actual Tudor piece:

Essentially, if a work of art or an antique is of personal or financial importance, it pays to get a second opinion if you don't much care for the first one. The job of an expert is to use acquired skills and natural gifts to narrow the gap between opinion and fact. The better the expert, the more narrow the gap—but it never disappears entirely. Experience teaches collectors, dealers and art historians that mistakes are unavoidable. Learning from them is often more beneficial and less expensive than going to court.

And in a timely coincidence, a piece from the New York Times on avoiding buying fakes. Endearingly, it's from a column titled 'Wealth matters', and includes this sentence in its preamble: "I know enough about the art world to know that is a secretive, clubby place with more than its fair share of eccentrics."