Where’s Home? (4)

What is he thinking?

Codes and Coding
Where’s Home? (4)
A continuing open letter to Jan Hull.

“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words on March 23, 2020, on the 22nd day of our Covid-19 lockdown. Why recall this article now? Because Jan Hull talks about Nova Scotian conversational language codes in her book Where’s Home? and her ideas rang a bell and tugged at my memories. CFA, for example, and CBC, and my own invention WAH. Then there are her coffee shop codes of Tim Horton’s and her Burger codes of MacDonald’s, and I mustn’t forget her other small town talking codes of former times and newly named places, must of which are bewildering to the outsider, aka CFA.

Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new Spanish pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers who are being served … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.

The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible, and it was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. Think Courtly Love. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, NeoPlatonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&bc. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, lbw, dec., RSP … and think of the hand gestures that accompany them! You would have to be an ardent follower of the mysterious game of cricket, as I am, to immediately understand all those letters and signs.

This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.

When I was in Moncton (2015), at the Auberge Msgr. Henri Cormier, I spoke French on a daily basis. Being an academic and a linguist, I was fascinated by the levels of French that were spoken in that small community. Here are the levels I identified: (1) LFI, Le francais international, the central French language that I spoke and everyone understood. (2) Acadian, a beautiful language with regional variations, a different accent and rhythm, and some very different words and phrases. (3) Chiac, the mixed English-French used by the citizens of Moncton, whose wonderful poets are trying to get it established as a literary language. (4) Community French, five families from Paquetville were there and when they spoke among themselves about their home town, references, history, culture were all barriers to those who did not come from Paquetville. (5) Family Groups, and this is easy to understand, for all families have their in-jokes, their coded speech, their conversations that keep the outsider outside of the family group.

It is a fascinating study, that of coded languages, and I thank you, Jan, for re- opening it and reminding me of it.

Where’s Home?

Where’s Home?
by
Jan Fancy Hull

An Open Letter to Jan Hull

Right from the address on the envelope where you gifted me a knighthood, calling me Sir Roger, I was captivated by this package.

I opened it at the Beaver Pond in Mactaquac and started to read as Clare did her daily walk, widdershins round the pond. Alas, I missed the great blue heron flying. Ditto, the osprey and the kingfisher. I heard all about them later.

Only you, Jan, only you. You are truly unique. Your words jump off the page, lean across the table to me, and offer me bread and wine. I do hope that this book is the first of many. Your words brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart.

So many themes that touched me deeply. The loss of language and culture: in this case, French and Gaelic, in my own case Welsh, a forbidden language when I was growing up. It is only now, at an advanced age, that I have started to learn it. What memories it brings back.

The sending of indigenous children to residential schools: in my own case, starting at age six, I was sent away to a series of boarding schools and never escaped until I was 18 years old. Good-bye family and culture: hello loneliness and solitude.

The enforcement of religion, top down, with the vicious punishments that accompanied doubt, unbelief, or non-acceptance. The brutal separation from family, with the whole experience of reintegration into a now-become-foreign world, relocation, loss of roots and culture, the difficulties of not belonging to the new communities.

There is a brighter side too, and I will get to that another day. Meanwhile, congratulations on this book, Jan. May it be the first of many and a delight and revelation to all.

Brân

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Brân

Golden in the starlight, moon carved mountains and valleys, taut the skin, treacherous to the touch.  Heavy he is, glowing. He and his children. We carry them to the dark beneath the trees. Locate the secret, sacred place. Dig deep, bury him with the hoard.
We all know the place. Have measured it with footsteps. None will reveal it. Not under torture. Rather our lives than darkness eternal.
My mother limps beside me. Back-bent and broken. A crone in the moonlight. She’s been here before. Much too often. That’s how she bore me. Caught by the heathen. Captured and taken and twenty times taken.
Me, the blond son. Son of sea-raiders. Not black like my brothers. But never forsaken.
Head of the household, her man rejected her. Called for the Druids with mistletoe and magic, herbs and fragrance, scourging their medicine.
She would not drink them. Said she would keep me. Her biggest baby. Blond. To take vengeance.
Behind us, the villa in flames, there in the distance. Smoke rises heavenwards. Blots out the stars. “We should have fought,” my brothers say. “You would be dead,” my mother replies.
Brân, the white crow. King Arthur revenant. I fly the land, my brothers behind me. Black-haired, black-feathered. Strong as the crow flies. We travel at night. Fast now and furious.
My long bow penetrates. Shatters oak shields. Kills at a distance. None can withstand it. Daylight finds us grouped in the forest. Close to the place where the dragon lies buried. Close to my mother, the place where she sleeps.
Oh yes, they hunt us. But they don’t dare find us. Swift is their fate if they come close. Frightened they are, feared by the finding, wordless and dumb at the swift ending.

Comment: It’s an ill-wind, they say, blows nobody any good. So, ipso facto, some good must come from even the worst of things. Maybe, like Charles Dickens, I should write: ‘These were the worst of times, these were the best of times.’ The worst, because we have been under lock down, first voluntary, then involuntary, and now voluntary again, for 83 days. The worst, because we know that many people are dying and that many, many more are suffering. The worst, because we see some people, who think they are above the law, flouting the law and getting away with it while putting other innocent people at risk. The best, because we have seen extraordinary sacrifices made by the humblest people, many of whom, shop clerks, garbage collectors, street cleaners, bus drivers, taxi drivers, nurses, care-workers, house cleaners, were seen, if they were seen at all, as cheap labor to be exploited. However, thanks to CV, we now see them for what they are: the keys to making our lives and our economies function. The best, because where precautions have been taken the death toll has dropped and so have the infections. The best, because once again, we are free to move around so much more. However, many of us, after so long, no longer want to.

For me, safely distanced among the trees in my ivory tower, these have also been the best of times. I have made many new friends online. I have restructured the ordering of my acquaintances. I have gone into my computer files and found things that I cannot even remember having written. One such is Brân, the white crow, who is said to be King Arthur, still alive, and flying everywhere, ready to protect his from the evils that beset them. I do not know when I wrote this piece. Nor do I remember where the ideas came from. In what secret fold of the mind were they born? I do not know. But I do know that I have seventeen manuscripts, many of them rediscovered during this Dickensian ‘best of times / worst of times’, and all of them awaiting publication. This one is from a 67 page manuscript called A Cambrian Chronicle. 67 pages … and I don’t remember writing any of them.

Applause

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Applause

All that I hear
around me:
the mixing and matching
of shingle and stone,
waves hissing,
grinding the beach down
as they move in and out.

Comment: We are surrounded by news, fake news, false news, and systematic deception. What can we now trust? I no longer know. But I do know that the above poem is not nihilistic. It expresses the reduction of applause and insubstantial glory to the minutiae of the daily doings of the natural world, in comparison to which we humans are nothing. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair” … hand gestures, smiles, thunderous applause from the chosen gathered to bear witness and paid to applaud, whatever the event. Alas, I cannot say it as well as Shelley. Here’s his Ozymandias (11 January 1818).

I met a traveler from an antique land
who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
tell that its sculptor well those passions read
which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

and on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 

 

 

 

With my angel

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… with my angel …

            … with my angel … face to face … the one I have carried within me since the day I was born … the black-one … winged like a crow … the one that hovers over me as I lie asleep … the one who wraps me in his feathered wings when I am alone and chilled by the world around me … the one who flaps with me on his back when I can walk no further … the one who creates the single set of footprints that plod their path through the badlands when I can walk no more …

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… ‘the truth’ my black angel says to me … I say ‘he’ but he is a powerful spirit, not sexed in anyway I know it … and yet I think of him as ‘he’ …awesome in the tiny reflection he sometimes allows me to glimpse of his power and glory … for, like Rilke, I could not bear meeting his whole angelic being face to face … as I cannot bear the sun, not by day, and not in eclipse … not even with smoked glass … when earthly values turn upside down and earth takes on a new reality … wild birds and bank swallows roosting at three in the afternoon … and that fierce heat draining from the summer sky … I remember it well … and the dog whimpering as a portion of the angel’s wing erased the sun until an umber midnight ruled … a simple phenomenon, the papers said … the moon coming between the earth and the sun …but magic … pure magic … to we who stood on the shore at Skinner’s Pond and sensed the majesty of the universe … more powerful than anything we could imagine … and the dog … taking no comfort from its human gods … whimpering at our feet …
… I saw a single feather floating down and knew my angel had placed himself between me and all that glory … to protect me … to save me from myself … and I saw that snowflake of an angel feather bleached from black to white by some small trick of the sunlight … and knowledge filled me … and for a moment I felt the glory … the magnificence … and there are no words for that slow filling up with want and desire as light filters from the sky and the body fills with darkness … and I was so afraid … afraid of myself … of where I had been … of where I was … of what I might return to … of my lost shadow … snipped from my heels …
… I don’t know how I heard my angel’s words … ‘the time of truth is upon you’ … ‘all you have ever been is behind you now’ … ‘naked you stand here on this shore … like the grains of sand on this beach … your days are numbered by the only one who counts’ … I heard the sound of roosting wings … but I heard and saw nothing more … I felt only midnight’s cold when the chill enters the body and the soul is sore afraid …
… ‘it is the law’ my angel said … I saw a second feather fall … ‘and the law says man must fail … his spirit must leave its mortal shell and fly back to the light’ … ‘blood will cease to flow … the heart will no longer beat … the spirit must accept and go’ … ‘do not assume… nobody knows what lies in wait’ … ‘blind acceptance … the only way … now …  in this twilight hour …  now when you are blind … only the blind shall receive the gift of sight’ … ‘all you have … your wife … your house … your car … your child … everything you think of as yours … I own … and on that day … I will claim it from you and take it for my own … now I can say no more’ …
… the sea-wind rose with a sigh and one by one night’s shadows fled … the moon’s brief circle sped from the sun … light returned, a drop at a time, sunshine flowing from a heavenly clepsydra filled with light …
… birds ceased to circle … a stray dog saw a sea-gull and chased it back to sea … and the sun … source of all goodness … was once again a golden coin floating in the sky …
… on my shoulder a feather perched … a whisper of warmth wrapped its protective cloak around my shoulders … for a moment, just a moment, I knew I was the apple of my angel’s eye … and I hoped and still hope that one day I might meet him again and understand …

Comment: An article on Marcus Aurelius in this morning’s paper made me think of this piece that I wrote, way back when, in the days when I was studying Francisco de Quevedo and the Neo-Stoic movement, courtesy of my good friend and colleague Henry Ettinghausen. “The day we were born we took our first steps on the road to death,” Quevedo wrote in one of his poems. With my angel is my own Neo-Neo-Stoic attempt to come face to face with that very personal reality, one which we all face, and to stare it down, eyeball to eyeball. Alas, in these troubled times, we must confront the knowledge that troubled times have been here before, that other generations have suffered them, and luckily, other generations have survived. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t. As another good friend, of mine Victor Hendricken, wrote on this blog just yesterday: “We continue to live on between inhale and exhale; we continue to live on between intake and exhaust, food and faeces. And in this time of self-isolation, we still abide by many of the same personal rules, including morning ablutions, setting and shutting off the alarm. Chin up, old boy. This too shall pass.” I found these words from Victor very comforting. With friendship, solid advice, and the ability to learn from those who have gone before us how to confront difficult times, this too shall pass.

Why?

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Why?

“Where are you going?” I ask again. “To see a man about a dog,” my father replies.  “Why?” I ask. “Hair of the dog,” his voice ghosts through the rapidly closing crack as the front door shuts behind him. “Why?” I cry out.

I recall the mud nest jammed tight against our garage roof. Tiny yellow beaks flap ceaselessly open. Parent birds sit on a vantage point of electric cable, their beaks moving in silent encouragement. A sudden rush, a clamour of wing and claw, a small body thudding down a ladder of air to crash beak first on the concrete.

“Why?” I ask.

The age-old answer comes back to me. “Wye is a river. It flows through Ross-on-Wye and marks the boundary between England and Wales.” The swallows perch on the rafters watching their fledgling as it struggles on the floor, the weakening wing flaps, the last slow kicks of the twitching legs.

“Why?” I ask.”

Y is a crooked letter invented by the Green Man of Wye,” my grandfather says.

“Why?” I repeat. “I want to know why.” Silence hangs a question mark over the unsatisfied spaces of my questing mind.

Comment: A golden oldie. We would all like to know why. But there are no answers. Just riddles cast, like two trunk-less legs of stone, on the sands of time. Nothing beside remains. Yet still we ask the age old question? Why? And still we get the age old answer from the ageing masters who rule our childhood lives and teach us everything they know: “Because.”

Day 23 CV-19

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Day 23 CV-19
Codes and Coding

“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words just yesterday [Day 22 CV-22]. The words are mine, but the idea belongs elsewhere. I have borrowed it and adopted it. I would willingly attribute it to a specific author, but I do not know who said it first. I offer my apologies to the to me unknown genius who first spoke these words.

Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.

The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of are common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&b,  c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, dec., rsp …

This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.

Dolphins

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Dolphins

Another life, another world, another dream …  dream of freedom perhaps. A great white shark, fifteen feet long, has broken into the peace of Passamaquoddy Bay. Yesterday, or was it the day before, he snagged a seal and devoured it before the eyes of tourists on a tourist boat. You can see the video on YouTube, but I won’t watch it. There’s too much violence in the world around me. Too much hate, illness, sickness, death, too many predators.

We have fallen in love with violence. Ketchup Violence I call it, because the victims get up after the shootings and appear next day on another eppy-sode, another video, another film. Except in real life, they really don’t. The shootings are real. The victims are really dead. And no, they don’t recover. Red blood is red blood and when we shed enough of it, and when the shock is violent enough, or the hit brutal enough, no, we don’t recover. Human blood is not ketchup spread on the french fries of old bones and recirculated later. It is ours, it is vital, and when it flows out, it does not flow back in.

Contrasts: the gentleness of the beginning, versus the harshness of the end. The hatred and tension that drives us on and on. Perhaps we should all join the army, for a year or two. “There’s no life like it.” We live in a bilingual country, at least, I do. “Pour ceux qui aiment la vie.” Or, as Socrates once said: “The unlived life is not worth examining.” So, join he armed forces: there’s no life like it. Pour ceux qui aiment la vie. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, Crimea, Yemen, Syria … where next, where ever next?

As Pink Floyd once said: Is there anybody out there?

Bullfight

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Bullfight

The above photo shows novillos, young bulls, on a bull farm in Salamanca, Spain, bred for the bull ring. They are tested in the farm’s private bull ring and the best and bravest are saved for the bull ring. A series of computer programs tests them at six month intervals to see if they are bull ring material.

Spain is divided on bull fighting with Catalonia banning the bullfight while Castilla and Andalusia are ardently in favor of the three, thousand year old tradition. The Spanish flag, in Castille, comes with a fighting bull, in the centre, replacing the coat of arms.

Many opinions exist abut bullfighting, bull running, and the whole tradition of blood sports. I will not state my position. But I will leave you with a piece of flash fiction, perhaps a short story. Each of you, if you wish, may play the game, click on the Bullfighting link, and decide for yourselves where you, and I, stand. Warning: not for the faint of heart … go on, be brave, remember the toros bravos who have perished in the ring.

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Los Toros de Guisando, mentioned in the Quixote, prehistoric stone bulls, verracos, Celtic carvings from the Province of Avila, Spain. The Roman legions carved their names into these stone bulls. Below, a modern bull, also from the province of Avila. I must, at this point, mention my friend Juanra, who took me to see these monuments and encouraged my interest in his wonderful province. Juanra, te lo agradezco, no sabes cuanto.

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Keys

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Keys

“Thirty-four doors and a key for each door,
sometimes two, and that’s only for the outside.
No master keys back then. A key for each lock,
if you please, and each door locked every night.
It’s still quite the task, a real responsibility. They
kept a turnkey, in those days, a full-time employee
whose job was to keep the keys and remember
which key fitted each door. Was it a double turn,
a single turn, a dead-bolt? The turnkey knew them
all. He also understood the interior doors and had
to wind the clocks, open and close cabinets, cloak
rooms, kitchens, desks, cupboards, drawers.

Others kept their own keys, and we often dismiss
them as lackeys, especially if they were black,
but they held the key to everything. Locksmiths
too, they could remove locks, take them apart,
cut keys, no job for a flunky. It took a smart man
to be a turnkey. He needed training, patience,
skills, knowledge, strength. Huge railway keys:
he knew how to look after them as well. Have you
seen the size of those old, brass carriage keys?”