Archive for the Literature Category

The Most Ancient Heavens

Posted in Art, Biographical, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am, in that London, getting ready for the start of a two-day conference at the Royal Astronomical Society on cosmology, large-scale structure, and weak gravitational lensing, to celebrate the work of Professor Alan Heavens, on (or near) the occasion of his 60th birthday. Yes, it is a great name for an astronomer.

I was honoured to be invited to give a talk at this meeting, though my immediate reaction when I was told about was `But he can’t be sixty! He’s only a few years older than me…oh.’ I gather I’m supposed to say something funny after the conference dinner tomorrow night too.

Courtesy of alphabetical order it looks like I’m top of the bill!

Anyway, I’ve known Alan since I was a research student, i.e. over thirty years, and we’re co-authors on 13 papers (all of them since 2011).

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the HeavensFest not only for the scientific programme (which looks excellent) but also for the purpose of celebrating an old friend and colleague.

Just to clear up a couple of artistic points.

First, the title of the meeting, The Most Ancient Heavens, is taken from Ode to Duty by William Wordsworth.

Second, the image on the conference programme shown above is a pastiche of The Creation of Alan Adam which is part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, waswhich painted by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known to his friends as Michelangelo. Apparently he worked flat out painting this enormous fresco. It was agony but the ecstasy kept him going. I’ve often wondered (a) who did the floor of the Sistine Chapel and (b) how could Michelangelo create such great art when it was so clearly extremely cold? Anyway, I think that is a picture of Alan at high redshift on the far right, next to the man with beard who at least had the good sense to wear a nightie to spare his embarrassment.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I must be going. Time for a stroll down to Piccadilly.

Update: you can find a bunch of pictures of this conference here.


They – by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on March 14, 2019 by telescoper

The new explorers don’t go
anywhere and what they discover
we can’t see. But they change our lives.

They interpret absence
as presence, measuring it by the movement
of its neighbours. Their world is

an immense place: deep down is as distant
as far out, but is arrived at
in no time. These are the new

linguists, exchanging acrosss closed
borders the currency of their symbols.
Have I been too long on my knees

worrying over the obscurity
of a message? These have their way, too,
other than a prayer of breaking that abstruse code.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

To Like and to Like not

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , on March 8, 2019 by telescoper

Travelling today, I was reminded that exactly a week ago, WordPress sent me this notification:

I was a bit surprised, to be honest, as that I posted a St David’s Day poem and usually when I post poetry the traffic goes down. Last Friday however it seems all my St David’s Day poetry posts going back years attracted traffic (and ‘likes’), so I was quite pleased.

Some time ago a senior astronomer emailed me to say that he thought that, for a science blog, there was far to much other stuff for his liking. Other stuff presumably including poetry, music, sport and the rest.

Anyway my response was that this isn’t really a science blog. It’s just a personal blog written by someone who happens to be a scientist. I post about science fairly often but I wouldn’t enjoy blogging half as much if I only covered that.

Some people have asked me why I post poetry and music and the rest. The answer is simple: to share things I enjoy. If just one person were to discover a poem they like by reading it here then it makes it all worthwhile!

A Poem for St David’s Day

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 1, 2019 by telescoper

It’s St David’s Day today, and a lovely spring morning it is, so I wish you all a big

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!


Gratuitous Picture of some Daffodils near the Maynooth University Library.

It has become a bit of a St David’s Day tradition on this this blog to post a piece of verse by the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. An Anglican clergyman, Thomas was vicar at St Hywyn’s Church (which was built 1137) in Aberdaron at the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. In this, one of his most famous poems, he speaks eloquently and movingly of the frustrations of his calling.

I was vicar of large things
in a small parish. Small-minded
I will not say, there were depths
in some of them I shrank back
from, wells that the word “God”
fell into and died away,
and for all I know is still
falling. Who goes for water
to such must prepare for a long
wait. Their eyes looked at me
and were the remains of flowers
on an old grave. I was there,
I felt, to blow on ashes
that were too long cold. Often,
when I thought they were about
to unbar to me, the draught
out of their empty places
came whistling so that I wrapped
myself in the heavier clothing
of my calling, speaking of light and love
in the thickening shadows of their kitchens

Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

Posted in Literature, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , on February 21, 2019 by telescoper

Before Christmas I attended a very enjoyable event here in Maynooth featuring journalist, historian and literary critic Fintan O’Toole talking his book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. I bought the book and had it signed by the author. Sadly, as I do far too often these days, I put the book on my shelf and promptly forgot about it as I got distracted by a myriad of other things.

This week I finally got round to reading it and very enjoyable it is too, though I expect people who voted Leave won’t like it, as it is probably a bit close to the bone for them.

The book deals with the Brexit referendum, the chaos it unleashed in British politics and the challenges posed to the island of Ireland by a ‘No Deal Brexit’. In particular the book examines how a country that once had colonies is redefining itself as an oppressed nation requiring liberation; the dreams of revolutionary deregulation and privatization that drive Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg; and the silent rise of English nationalism, the force that dare not speak its name. He also discusses the fatal attraction of heroic failure, once a self-deprecating cult in a hugely successful empire that could well afford the occasional disaster: the Charge of the Light Brigade, or Franklin lost in the Arctic. Now failure is no longer heroic – it is just failure, and its terrible costs will be paid by the most vulnerable of Brexit’s supporters, and by those who may suffer the consequences of a hard border in Ireland and the breakdown of a fragile peace.

It’s a very witty book which is at its best picking apart some of the some-contradictory rhetoric deployed by Leave campaigners, such as how the UK can be both grandiosely jingoistic and bullied by the EU at the same time, pulling in references from historical events and literature as well as contemporary culture (including Fifty Shades of Grey, the references to which were lost on me because I haven’t read it). It’s also very perceptive in its observation of how strongly the legacy of World War 2 pervades attitudes towards Brexit, especially the silly references to `Dunkirk Spirit’ and the rest that are the stock-in-trade of many Leavers.

Anyway, I heartily recommend this book to both Leavers and Remainers but it might induce a sense of humour failure in the former.


The Arrival of the Bee Box

Posted in Literature with tags , , , on January 9, 2019 by telescoper

I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary.

by Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)


The Book Cover Challenge

Posted in Biographical, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2019 by telescoper

Over the past week I’ve been participating in the Book Cover Challenge on Twitter, in which you are invited to post every day for a week an image of the cover of a book you love without any further comment or explanation. I’ve now finished the challenge and I thought I’d put the seven books I selected up here.

Since the challenge is over I am absolved of the requirement not to add comments, so I’ll make a few brief observations here. One is that I found it very hard to select just seven books. I love far too many books to do this in any systematic way. The seven picked are just meant to be vaguely representative of the sort of books I read, but they are not really the seven I definitely consider the best. On a different day I could easily have picked a completely different seven.

Anyway, here are some comment on my selections.


Book 1 is A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White. I read this as a teenager, and it had a profound effect on me. It’s the story of an adolescent boy coming to terms with his sexuality in the American mid-West during the 1950s. It is as frank about the description of gay sex as it is truthful about the confusion that goes with being a teenager. When I bought it I didn’t realize it was going to be so sexually explicit or so unflinching in its description of the selfishness of the central character.

Book 2 is a collection of poems by R.S. Thomas. I had to include at least one book of poetry and found it hard to select which. I feel a bit ashamed to have omitted T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, but there you go. I only discovered R.S. Thomas when I moved to Wales in 2007, and still cannot understand why his poetry is not appreciated more widely, and I included this collection to encourage more people to explore his verse.

Book 3 is A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I bought this soon after it came out in 1993 and although it is almost 1500 pages long I devoured it very quickly. The novel follows the story of four families over a period of 18 months, and centres on Mrs. Rupa Mehra’s efforts to arrange the marriage of her younger daughter, Lata, to the `suitable boy’ of the title.  Lata is a 19-year-old university student who refuses to be influenced by her domineering mother or opinionated brother, Arun. It’s beautifully written, weaving together the protagonists stories against a vividly painted backdrop of post-Partition India.

Books 4 & 5 are both from the Golden Age of detective fiction, but from either side of the Atlantic.  I’ve cheated a bit with Book 4, as it is actually 4 novels in one book but I had to have something by the greatest American writer of the period, Dashiell Hammett. By contrast I have also included a fine example of the English detective novel, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers. Both Hammett and Sayers managed to transcend the genre of crime fiction and produce genuine works of literature. The Nine Tailors, has an extraordinary sense of detail and atmosphere and a wonderfully imaginative ending. Among the many ingenious features of this novel is the very prominent central theme of bell-ringing (campanology).


Book 6 is The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. This book describes the scientific discoveries of the polymaths of the late eighteenth century, and describes how this period formed the basis for modern scientific discoveries. It focuses particularly on the lives and works of such characters as Sir Joseph Banks, the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, and chemist Humphry Davy and also explores the interaction between science and the art and literature of the period, especially poetry. It covers a lot of ground but it’s very wittily done and never gets bogged down.

Book 7, my last choice, is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. You would probably describe this as True Crime, a genre that is generally typified by crudely sensationalistic works of very little literary (or other) merit. This one is in a very different league, and some regard it as the first ever non-Fiction novel. Based on the real-life murders of four members of a family in rural Kansas in 1959 by Richard Hickock and Perry Smith (for which they were later executed), In Cold Blood has been lauded for its eloquent prose, extensive detail, and simultaneous triple narrative, which describes the lives of the murderers, the victims, and other members of the rural community in alternating sequences. The psychologies and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith are given special attention, as well as the complex relationship that existed between them during and after the murders. Not a comfortable read by any means, but a masterpiece by any standards.