Analects III: From Medieval Histories to Music’s Mysteries

Auctores Varii 21 May 2019
Image Credit: English Heritage

‘Analects’ is a new TCS column consisting of short pieces about any topic of recent personal interest to the author. The series aims to encourage the readership to think broadly about a diverse range of topics, and encourage writers to condense their thoughts into a concise and engaging paragraph. 

 

On Brilliance in Anecdotes

Medieval history is diverse, exciting, dramatic, and, at times, utterly hilarious. Take Edward II, the tragic and incompetent fourteenth century English monarch, whose reign was plagued by the legacy of his brutal father, the shadow of his favourite, confidante, and, perhaps, lover, Piers Gaveston (murdered in 1312 by his own magnates), and disastrous wars with Scotland and France, and came to a dramatic crescendo with his deposition in 1327 – the first in post-Conquest English history. Consider the final centuries of the Byzantium, a tale rich with pathos, of a declining dynasty slowly enveloped by the rapidly-expanding Ottoman Empire. You need look no further for evidence of the drama and tragedy that medieval history can offer – it is no surprise that shows like Game of Thrones hold such appeal to the modern audience.

For a slightly different flavour of medieval history, turn to Peter the Hermit, the humble preacher who led the ill-fated People’s Crusade of 1096- and who, according to Guibert de Nogent (in what is surely one of the finest quotations of the last millennium), “hardly ever, if not never, ate bread”. Perhaps you have to be a certain type of idiot to revel in such bathos, such mundane hilarity, but, for me, this is where the genius and pleasure of medieval history lies: not just in the epic tales of dynastic warfare and courtly politicking, but in the brilliance of an anecdote or a story. That we can discover so much of how people thought, and of who people were, hundreds, in some cases more than a thousand, years after their time, must fascinate anyone with an interest in the activities of man.

 


On Beauty in Precipitation

Grumbling is usually easier than sticking your head above the parapet. That’s why the English are so used to doing it. Being positive about something risks upsetting the person you’re talking to, who, after all, may not share the same view. That could lead to awkwardness, the Englishman’s kryptonite. ‘How’s work?’, for example, almost always receives the same muted response: ‘busy’. ‘How was the film?’ gets a simple: ‘alright’. Yet nothing comes close to how we react to the weather, and, in particular, the rain. ‘Shit’ is the usual descriptor.

I pity the faux haters. I really do. I pity them for their lack of courage in not saying what they really believe, and I pity them for denying the truth. Rain is marvellous. Nothing is more relaxing than the sound of rain hitting my bedroom window as I lie in. It turns our sports fields green and makes our plants grow. Without the rain we would live in a world of brown. How quickly our glorious summer last year turned into a stultifying eternity without it, how delighting and refreshing it was when rain ended it. And if the wind is right and your luck is in, you may catch that heavenly scent: petrichor – the smell of creation. The old adage is true: God is in the rain.

 


On Humility in Thinking

It has occurred to me that perhaps the greatest threat to my freedoms of thought and speech is easily escapable. The tyrant that limits what ideas I am exposed to, binds me to opinions that I do not truly believe and, worst of all, forces me to proclaim and defend these opinions in public. This tyrant is, of course, me.

It is perhaps a natural human instinct to attach oneself to an ideology that resonates with some part of the lived experience, and it is easy to systematise and square away everything else one observes in the world under this same ideology. To foster it, defend it from attack, brush dissenting empirical evidence under the carpet, hide away ugly moral and ethical implications. For what do we sacrifice so much: a set of ideas that are not even ours, acquired from some individual or book or school of thought that has nothing to do with us; an artificial neatness that forces us to twist empirical facts and moral convictions to fit a flawed framework; a spiteful and stubborn mindset that refuses to bow in front of the truth? Perhaps now more than ever, we that consider ourselves rational and intelligent must gain the honesty and humility needed to learn from the world as it is, not the world as we wish it to be.

 


On Mystery in Music

I do not know why music has such a profound effect on me. The visual arts may stun me, poetry may move me, drama may rivet me, but music is the art form that I can truly feel, often in a way I cannot control. And it is the whole range (though I will limit my examples to more accessible Western genres): I have felt the deep melancholy of Schubert’s ‘Fantasy in F Minor’; sat in awe of the glory and majesty of Handel’s ‘Messiah’; I have furrowed my brows and exhaled in appreciation at the power of the beat and the raw masculinity of BB King’s singing in ‘How Blue Can You Get?’; I have involuntarily swayed to NSG’s ‘Yo Darlin’ countless times; and, perhaps most intense of all, my reaction to the BBK X General Levy takeover at Radio 1Xtra’s 60 minutes live can be summed up in the words of an inspired YouTube comment on the video – “this makes me wanna dropkick my nan out the window”.

Why this reaction? Reflecting on this a few days ago whilst listening to Chase and Status’ ‘Program’, I concluded it must be the power of rhythm. The intense satisfaction of when the delayed bass drop finally hits must surely be some sort of biological reaction. That is, of course, near the top of the scale of heavy beats, but I am equally convinced that the underlying rhythms in blues or classical music must force our body to tune in on a subconscious level that grips our focus; enrapturing melodies can then deliver the second half of the combination to knock us clean out. Perhaps we do not absorb music with our thinking mind, as we do with art or literature, but with our unthinking souls. How else can I explain the depth of the reaction I have to my favourite pieces?

 


On Football in Madrid

If one thing is keeping me sane and optimistic as the sun shines in beautiful Cambridge whilst I am stuck behind Langland’s “Piers Plowman”, it is the glorious thought that, in less than two short weeks, I will be in Madrid for a Champions League final with my beloved Tottenham Hotspur (alas, with no means of entry into the stadium – I have a Trinity/Peterhouse/’2J May Ball’ ticket to swap if anyone is interested). As a newcomer to the concept of football-travel-abroad, I simply cannot wait to be confronted with the spectacle of chairs flying around in the Plaza Mayor as locals look on in horror, or to have a Spanish policeman teargas me as I innocently sip my pint of Estrella (or my ‘half a litre’, or whatever units they use out there). The promise of watching Spurs in an actual Champions League final, before stumbling back, hopefully in glee and certainly in inebriation, through mountains of passed-out-sunburnt Englishmen, slowly drowning in pools of their own sick and sweat in the backstreets of Madrid, is enough to get anybody through the tedium of exam season.

If you wish to share a thought on any topic you are interested in, please email in a short paragraph (~200 words) to psk32@cam.ac.uk. The only restriction is the word limit, and the only rule that your piece ought to get people thinking about the ideas you raise.