The title was taken from a graffito on an abandoned petrol station in Leicester. Who the author was and what they meant by it I never found out, but this was before anyone very much had heard of fracking.
The most obvious influence on this one is Radiohead’s Kid A, in its more tranquil moments.
There’s a difference between the kind of mental map you have of a new area of knowledge when you’re learning it quickly for your own use, and the kind of map that people make between them when trying to make new knowledge part of their shared practice. Neovores – people who consume novelty, who are early-adopters of the latest thing – throw together skeletal outlines of new knowledge that are just sufficient to orientate their pursuit of further newness. Their way of learning is optimised for moving quickly towards cool stuff that is just out of reach, new tricks which will afford them greater mastery. Consolidation and communication come later.
The great guitarist Shawn Lane referred to his own way of attacking seemingly-impossible high-speed licks as “transcendental technique”: you couldn’t reach it by learning the rudiments and then working up to the fancy stuff, you had to make a sort of leap into semi-competence at a new level and then consolidate from there. Lane wasn’t at all a sloppy player, but he was prepared to accept sloppiness and approximation on the path to technical mastery. His approach was in flagrant defiance of the classical teacher’s wisdom, which emphasises careful development and rigorous practice at each level of technique in order to avoid locking in bad habits. (For what it’s worth, I think you really do have to do it the classical teacher’s way if you want to play Bach; but maybe you have to do it Lane’s way if you want to play Lane).
Neovores can seem freakishly clever to more patient learners, partly because of their speed of advance and partly because when you ask them to explain what they’ve learned they often make it sound completely incomprehensible. But the reason why it sounds incomprehensible isn’t that it’s simply too difficult for ordinary mortals to understand; it’s that they’re trying to transmit verbally mental constructs that are almost completely devoid of the affordances that characterise social knowledge-artifacts. Social knowledge-artifacts are optimised for transmission and retention: they come adorned with metaphors and mnemonics, and have typically been “tried out” on many people. Having passed through multiple frames of reference, they may carry traces of many different standpoints and pragmatic/experiential settings. Such constructs aren’t terribly interesting to neovores, since they represent the already-tried, the crystallisation of experiment; but they’re often incredibly rich and many-faceted, and repay attention of a kind that the neovore’s brittle cognitive scaffolding is not built to withstand.
Educators are not only those who maintain and transmit the stock of social knowledge-artifacts, but equally importantly are those who socialise new knowledge, who find ways to get what the neovores have in their heads into the heads of everybody else. There’s a line in one of my Half Cocks poems about “Transcendental technique, now taught in magazines”, which refers to this process – an exemplary educator in the field of snazzy electric guitar-playing is the brilliant Guthrie Govan, whose encyclopaedic technical fluency comes from years of treating the work of Shawn Lane and countless others with patient respect and curiosity: learning how to do what they somehow figured out how to do, and teaching it to others. Educators proceed as if, in the words of the Codebar “effective teacher guide”, beginners – themselves included – have “no knowledge but infinite intelligence”. This doesn’t mean that we’re all unrealised super-geniuses, but that the barriers to understanding people first encounter on trying to learn something new are usually due to a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of cognitive capacity. The neovore often finds it frustrating that others don’t understand the things they do, but seem rather to lag behind gormlessly complaining that it’s all too unfamiliar and difficult. But it’s up to the educator to make something humanly and lastingly useful out of whatever’s at the end of that ladder into the clouds, and that requires a different sort of creativity and skill. The best learners are those who have learned to be both.
These are the first few bars of a short choral piece I’m writing for my daughter.
A landslide of hooves – first distant
and then up-close. The ear strains
after reminiscence or is punctured
by voices, snatches of uncouth song.
The inner life belongs to Genghis Khan.
Manners and love are things of circumstance –
not substance. The women melt away,
grow solid elsewhere, leave behind their names.
Cats come and go, frisking their way through poems.
Of the two parts of this, the second is I think the better. The poem’s quite old now, and I made a single change to it in posting it here: replacing “ichor” with “blood” (Geoffrey Hill uses “ichor” in a similar context in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and it seemed too direct a borrowing – although given that the whole thing’s a Geoffrey Hill Tribute Act number, I’m not sure whether this wasn’t a misplaced scruple).
The first part comes in equivocally: “the mythos is as you find it” could read any number of ways. One way of approaching the Arthurian mythos is to find it all a bit silly, as Monty Python and the Holy Grail certainly does. But there’s also the sense that the mythos is in some sense there, waiting to be found or rediscovered, and that its perennial availability for rediscovery is precisely its way of being there. It “is” “as you find it”, for each and every “you” that might come across it. Of course this notion is built into the mythos itself, with Arthur and his knights asleep in Avalon awaiting the moment of need when they must re-awaken. This is a bit of a late addition to the story (attributed to Geoffrey of Monmouth), a kind of self-mythologising appendix; but it feeds into all kinds of things from That Hideous Strength (which recalls Merlin from the grave to combat a particularly nasty rebel-Oyarsa infestation) to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. And of course it’s directly implied in the title (itself taken from Malory) of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a tremendous and, by the end, wrenchingly-sad meditation on war, power and governance. (I owe White, amongst other things, the observation that his Lancelot was “probably sadistic, or he would not have taken such frightful care to be gentle”).
For my children’s generation, their Arthur is probably the boneheaded crypto-homophobic jock portrayed in the BBC’s Merlin – an excellent series, but one which like so many contemporary “re-imaginings” plays subversively with material with which its intended audience cannot be presumed to be familiar (cf Sherlock). My Arthur, I think, is this one:
Re-watching it now, I’m very struck by how the tone of its closing minutes coincides with what I was envisaging and aiming for in the second part of Arthuriana: that late-70s BBC eerieness must have struck deep (although I would have been only 5 when this first aired – it must surely have been an early-80s repeat?). The shift across the two parts of the poem from bathos (“spurs snagging in damp bracken”) to pathos (“the barge drifts / with its burden”, an unconscious borrowing from Eliot’s The Waste Land – “The barges drift / With the turning tide”) accords with how I feel about the myth, I think: the Pythons made great fun of its chauvinistic brutality and face-saving nationalism, but even Monty Python And The Holy Grail can’t entirely withhold dignity from its subject.