Friday, 21 March 2008

Checking the facts

It has been suggested to me that there are too many classical, literary and art references in my blog to appeal to a modern audience. Well that’s fine by me.

As far as I’m concerned the only good audience is a dead audience. If my remarks are to be understood only by Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, St Augustine of Hippo, Piero della Francesca, and Dante Alighieri that’s fine. They can read my blog, I can read theirs.

Although being accused of not having learning or of having pretensions to learning might be bad, the key accusation here is of actually having some learning. Obviously, this is a charge from which we all recoil with loathing. It is second only to being called a paediatrician.

You will recall how a howling mob burned down the premises of a paediatrician in Portsmouth, mistaking it, apparently, for the premises of a paedophile. Presumably they reasoned that all paedophiles put up a brass plaque proudly advertising their proclivities.

But something about the story made me doubt its veracity. Only a little digging has revealed the truth.

Yvette Cloete, a paediatrician in Newport, Gwent, returned from work to find ‘paedo’ sprayed on her front door. This was in August 2000 at the time of a campaign by the News of the World to name and shame paedophiles in the community. She said, “It looks as though it was just a question of confusing the job title for something else – I suppose I’m really a victim of ignorance.” The distressed Ms Cloete moved home shortly afterwards.

So by exercising that old journalists’ trick, unknown to the modern audience, of checking the facts, I had discovered that nothing was true in this story apart from the one thing I had thought might be wrong. The incident had taken place in Gwent, not Portsmouth, there were no burning firebrands, nor was there an enraged mob baying for blood.

The element I had doubted, was the word the perpetrators had daubed: ‘paedo’. Although presumed by police to be the work of teenagers, the culprits seem to have spelled the diphthong correctly, so that can’t be right. It is obvious to me that the police should have been tracking down a classics scholar. I have been thinking about this, and I feel I can save them some time. The finger of suspicion points unerringly at Plato.

Although being dead for two thousand years may seem like a corker of an alibi, it should be remembered that this is the sort of thing you can expect from classicists: general sneakiness and rank duplicity. Take a look at this photofit of the man (remember they were pretty backward in those days, it is actually, can you believe it, chiselled out of marble!) and read the guilt written in every feature. And then there’s the matter of the smoking gun: he wrote a book called The Phaedo!

He can run but he cannot hide. I vote we go to Athens and spray something on his door. What’s the Greek for paedophile?

A bust of Plato who was born in Athens c434-424 BC. He died in the same city in c348–347BC. In the Phaedo, Plato gives us Socrates’s final conversation. Socrates, who has been condemned to death and must drink hemlock, deploys four arguments for the soul’s immortality. Obviously a wrongun.

© Roger Murphy 2008

The Lep'rous distilment

The papers in Britain were much occupied in the early months of the year by two strange cases of disappearance. The first concerned the records of all those who received a government allowance, which included their bank details, addresses and national insurance numbers – in short all the things you need for a spot of identity theft and the swift and silent voiding of bank accounts.

It turns out that two disks containing all this information were thrust into an envelope and stuffed in an out-tray with nary a thought for their secure delivery. They disappeared and have not been seen since despite everywhere being searched including all the dustbins.

A senior civil servant resigned. Things looked grim for the government. At this precise moment, a quite different case of disappearance eclipsed this story in the headlines.

A man who disappeared five years ago, presumed dead when his empty canoe washed ashore, nipped into a police station and said, ‘It’s me. You know. The bloke you haven’t been looking for, for the last five years. The canoe bloke. I’m not dead, I’ve just been hiding in the house next door. Sorry about that.’

His wife, the press suggested, had connived at this and spent her holidays with her husband in Panama, enjoying the life insurance. The kids were excluded from the deal.

This is a clear case of Atalanta’s golden apples. The Panama story is a distraction, a diversionary tactic. The searchlight of embarrassing enquiry was beginning to focus on a shortcoming in Government circles, so a story is dreamed up of such bizarrerie that the tabloids cannot resist it and go off yapping in that direction. Sherlock Holmes, I recall, used a steak to toss to slavering guard dogs, while he nipped across a lawn to retrieve the Ruritanian Emerald, or was it the Balkan Treaty, from the small casket secreted within the chinoiserie cabinet. Anyway, it’s largely the same idea. For Panama read steak. For steak read misdirection.

It is clear that a whole department in Whitehall is devoted to fabricating unlikely stories and giving them semblance and verisimilitude with the aim of distracting the press from the government’s woes. These stories are called Downing Street press releases. They are fed through to Fleet Street whose ears are ever open. Shakespeare was for a time a parliamentary reporter on the old News Chronicle (which replaced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which some of my older readers will remember with fondness), and in his memoirs he recalls how he was tipped the wink by the Prime Minister’s spokesman:

“Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard, my custom always of the afternoon, upon my secure hour thy tipster stole, with juice of cursed hebenon in a vial, and in the porches of my ears did pour the lep’rous distilment; whose effect holds such an enmity with blood of man that swift as quicksilver it courses through the natural gates and alleys of the body, and with a sudden vigour doth posset and curd, like eager droppings into milk, the thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine; and a most instant tetter bark'd about, most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust, all my smooth body.”

Ah. The old News Chronicle.

However…. little has changed it seems in the corridors of power. You mark my words. The next time there’s a bit of a problem for the government, just watch the unlikely story that removes it from the front pages. But what I was getting at was that I think I would be rather good at coming up with unlikely stories for these Government Johnnies, and so I would like to apply for a post in Downing Street doing just that. But here’s the problem: search though I might, I have never seen a job advertised in this department.

So I am casting the net wide. If you have seen such a job advertised, please get in touch. I would be happy to pay for the information. Perhaps by swapping it for a couple of disks I have recently come across.

© Roger Murphy 2008

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Interlude – Concerto for Black Hole

It was Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday or the eve of Quadragesima (Lent) as I more frequently call it to annoy the children, and I had slipped into a doze in front of the post-prandial television, surrounded by a loving fire, warm relatives, and a fine old bottle of crusted.

‘Although a black hole cannot be seen, it can be heard,’ the TV documentary distantly burbled. I cocked open an eye.

‘The note emitted by a black hole,’ continued the respectful and awed commentary, ‘can be described as a B flat fifty-seven octaves below Middle C, a note so low that it is beyond the limits of human hearing.’ I was wide awake.

The lowest B flat on the piano is three octaves below Middle C. The limits of human hearing are only about two octaves lower than that. A piano that could play the B flat of a black hole would have to have a keyboard about 35 feet long. I could see contrary motion scales being a bit of a problem but otherwise a magnificent idea. On the other hand you could play with about twenty people at one time. Just imagine the fun.

I began to wonder why no-one had written music using only notes out of the range of human hearing. How exciting it would be to attend a performance of Concerto for Black Hole that could only really be appreciated by dogs, whales, teenagers and perhaps black holes themselves. You’d have to build an auditorium the size of the universe to get them in. The badly behaved ones would obviously go for the cheap seats at the back. I was instantly filled with a wild ambition to write and design the programme notes, perhaps in invisible ink on a wonderful hand-laid paper cut to the shape of a breve, that rarely seen note-length.

And what would the music itself look like? Think of the leger lines! Fifty-seven octaves below Middle C – you’d need broadsheet pages at least. Double elephant if you can still get it.

It was at this point that the bottle slipped from my twitching fingers as I essayed a quick scale played on a keyboard 35 feet long. The warm family suddenly became cold and agitated and I passed the rest of the evening banished to the office sofa to construct premieres of black hole symphonies that were heard only in the infinite space of my head. My last thought was about Pythagoras. How would he feel, I wondered, about attending the very first concert utilising the music of the spheres?

© Roger Murphy 2008