latest addition to nzepc is ka mate ka ora : a new zealand journal of poetry and poetics ... check out the editorial by Rbt. Sullivan if you've ever wondered what that famous haka is really about ...


I learned to swim at the Blue Baths in the odoriferous spa town of Rotorua one summer holiday back at the end of the 1950s or the beginning of the sixties - not sure, exactly. But the memory is precise, right down to the part of the pool we were in as I struck out and splashed across the few yards of water between where I was and where my father stood. One of those luminous moments that stay with you life-long.

Was never a very good swimmer, just adequate. When my sister discovered a real talent for it and became a record breaker and title holder, the rest of the family used to troop along to the Tuesday evening carnivals to watch her perform and even occasionally to enter a race. I recall flailing a few times from one end of the pool to the other in the Thirty-three and one third, an also-swam among also-swams. I didn't care about this at all, I was content with my level of competence. I just loved being in the water, especially the river swimming that was mostly what we did. We'd get on our our bikes and ride off into the country to a swimming hole we knew and spend the afternoon there, coming home smelling faintly weedy and with our hair and skin all soft.

It wasn't until I came to Sydney that I learned to swim properly. It was towards the end of my twenties and I'd just realised the physical costs of a lifestyle spent in clubs and pubs with actors and musicians, of incessant drug-taking, cigarette smoking and the almost unconscious drinking of alcohol on just about every occasion. A friend, though not a student, had somehow got a badge that gave him entry to the Sydney University pool and he suggested I might do the same. I had a casual job as a stagehand at the Seymour Centre on the edge of the campus in those days and I think it was this connection that allowed me a badge as well.

At that pool, which was indoors and heated and heavily chlorinated I gradually, very gradually, taught myself how to swim again ... to breath on alternate sides, to keep my feet horizontal and together, to brush my ear with my upper arm on the way into a stroke, to brush my thigh with my thumb as I came out of it, to cup my hands as they drove through the water ... and so on. Again this was not a competitive urge, just a desire to accomplish the activity as well as I was able.

During that period when I was re-learning freestyle, as we always called it, or Australian Crawl as it is sometimes known here, I was also re-teaching myself to type. I found a 1960s Secretary's Manual in a second hand shop, a big green hardback that was wider than it was tall - landscape format - and worked my way through it until I reached the point where the lessons on the pure mechanics of typing gave way to more sophisticated excercises designed to inculcate a budding secretary with the degree of servility proper to good business practice ... until then I had been a two finger peck-pecker, whereas now I actually use all ten digits.

However I was never quite disciplined enough - or perhaps I needed supervision - because although I can type without looking at the keys, mostly I don't. I glance constantly from keyboard to screen, checking my fingers are where they're meant to be, even though the results, if they are not, inevitably appear instantly on the screen. With the Secretary's Manual, of course, what you had to learn was to look neither at the page in the carriage of the typewriter, nor at the keyboard, but at whatever it was you were being asked to make a copy of ... a sure way to get a crick in your neck.

It's the back and shoulder and neck problems that may be consequent upon long periods of time spent at a keyboard which regular swimming so wonderfully corrects. I've suffered from these over the years but now seem to have broken through into a pain free zone ... when I look back to how I was then, confused, unhappy, full of inchoate ambition I had no means, no idea, of fulfilling, I am amazed I had the good sense to learn two skills which, unrelated as they seem, have probably been more useful to me over the years than anything else I can think of.


an australia day tale

One summer some years ago (four? five?) when I was still living at Pearl Beach, word went around the Village that there was a koala in the Arboretum. It was known a group lived in the hills behind the Village, certain intrepid individuals had gone into the bush and observed them, I had been shown claw marks on a tree by one of these and had also, one night, heard the truly extraordinary sound koalas make mating (like brutally passionate humans at 127 decibels) up the slope behind our house in Onyx Road ... but a koala in the Arboretum was unprecedented.

I went, with friends, to see it on my birthday: it was high up in the feathery top branches of a gum tree, snug in a fork, from which, while swaying alarmingly in the strong hot wind blowing that day, it peered curiously down upon us gazing curiously up at it. Opinion differed among the Old Ones as to whether it was a pregnant female looking for a quiet spot in which to gestate or a young male ejected from the group because of his insoucience. No matter. One of the Old Ones appointed herself the koala's guardian, she refilled the metal dish of water under the tree on a daily basis and then stood back and watched while the animal climbed down to drink. It knew and trusted her, the Old One said, and who would deny it?

All went well until Australia Day weekend, about ten days after my birthday. It was hotter by then, and out-of-towners had gathered to mingle with the locals for the annual jazz concert in the Arboretum. Some of these were nouveau riche who had recently bought into the Village during the on-going real estate boom, others were holiday makers, others day-trippers. I don't know who the woman who found the koala was, but imagine her to have been a wealthy and discontented day tripper from somewhere on Sydney's leafy North Shore. The Old One who was caring for the koala came across her anxious at the foot of the tree and reassured her everything was under control, the koala was being watered daily, was drinking, was fine. No, said the woman, the koala is stressed.

This was on Saturday of the Long Weekend. Sometime during the afternoon, the woman rang one of the two voluntary organisations that care for animals in distress and told them about the koala. Two people from Woy Woy came to the Arboretum later on that day, presumably after the concert was over, or perhaps while it was still going on - I don't know - and managed somehow to capture the koala - did they use a net? - and remove it from its tree. They took it in their car back to their house in Woy Woy. It was still very hot, in their car and and also at their house where there were no proper facilities to care for a koala. They soon realised the koala was very stressed.

Next day, Sunday, was even hotter. The two people from the animal rescue organisation knew that they couldn't keep the koala at their house and so decided to take it to Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney. They drove down the F5 motorway in 35 degree heat, a journey of about an hour and a half's duration in a car that lacked air conditioning. I don't know where the koala was, in a cage? in the boot? sitting in the back seat with an ice cream and a drink?

On that day at the Zoo those among the keepers who know about koalas were not at work. The koala was put in a cage to await their return. It was thought by now to be extremely stressed. So it proved; when the experts came next morning to check on the koala, they realised immediately that its stress levels were so high that it was not going to survive much longer, so they decided instead to put it down, which they did, as an act of mercy. She turned out to be a young pregnant female.

The Old Ones were very angry but what could they do? Talk to the people from the animal rescue organisation? Yes, they did that; but nobody knew who the woman was, she was unreachable, unimpeachable in her certitudes. She may still imagine she saved a poor stressed animal. As has been said: it's the people who think they're alright who do the most damage.


the discipline of indiscipline

There's some kind of trade-off operating when you (= I) write extended (prose) works. The attention given to the instant, the words surfacing moment by moment on the floating world of the screen, is obsessive if not total; that which is given to the big picture, the larger work, the whole thing is ... not negligible so much as occluded. You (= I) can't afford to look at it because, although it does have a notional existence, it isn't actual until the sentences (= words surfacing moment by moment) add up to make it so. It is the shadow stalking the substance unfolding in that dull and repetitive labour, which is nevertheless relieved by glimpses and intimations. When (= if) the whole exists, it will be made up of these glimpses, those intimations, this labour, that substance, yet it will continue to be, beyond all particulars, the shadow that loomed above the absurdities and heroics of your (= my) attempt. I have bracketed (you) and (I) not simply for rhetorical purposes but also because whatever may be said of a writer is also said of a reader, although (time) (reading) (and) (writing) (is) usually scaled differently.


the Indian Ocean always felt yellow to me

... so I'm back in my regular writing routine. Which reminds me somehow of my swimming routine, which I am also back into. A few times a week I drive to the Ashfield Pool, a blue rectangle amidst acres of concrete, full of kids and parents this time of year; but the central lanes in the main pool (there are four or five others if you count the polo pool up the back, only used for the sport) are reserved for lap monsters like me. I wet my googles, put them over my eyes, press them a few times until suction is complete then slide into the water at the shallow end and begin ... up and down, up and down, breathing every three strokes on alternate sides, until I've covered twenty lengths. At 50 metres each length, that equals 1 kilometre. Takes about twenty minutes. I don't hang around afterwards, I wander off in a pleasant trance, an endorphin haze and go about the rest of my day. The writing routine is similar, I make various preparations, trivial but essential, before sitting down at the keyboard, opening the document, scrolling to where I broke off yesterday ... and begin, going from one side of the screen to the other then back, the lines like laps although I generally do more lines than I do laps, maybe a hundred, I don't know, I don't count ... sometimes I lose my rhythm and my stroke, sometimes I choke, sometimes water gets under my goggles and I have to stop and make adjustments. Some days it is so hard I wonder why I bother, other days I swim like a dolphin, my style achieves that beautiful up and down forward undulating wave motion that is the ideal of all swimmers ... but there is always resistance, always a kind of dullness I recognize as duty - to what? Health? Fitness? The mere accomplishment of a distance I've decided to cover? It doesn't do to dwell on this feeling, this boredom of resistance, because it is always there and will only get worse if I think too much about it. Some days I have no idea what I am going to write, or perhaps I will have a word or two to go on with, perhaps a whole sentence. Most of the time I'm not satisfied with what I come up with (though later I might be) and though sometimes on a quick go through when I've finished I'll find ways of improving, or adding to it, more often I chop things out ... then I just leave it. Time was I used to make a point of re-reading every word of the day's work later on but I don't do that any more or at least not early in the process ... too (potentially) destructive ... if I feel like it I might but not as a rule. Sometimes half way through my swim, which always takes place after I've done my writing, the way forward, the next bit, or something completely serendipitous will drift into my head on the endorphin tide and then I might turn it over and over until the next day's stint begins ... or alternatively I might forget all about it only to find it mysteriously surfaces when I sit down to write ... the other day in a book I read that the root of the word trance is fear but that isn't borne out by my dictionary, it says it comes from marrying the Latin trans, across, with Latin ire, to go, giving us departure, leaving behind, crossing over, going away somewhere, you might not even know where ... with the laps I always end up in the same place, with the lines, somewhere else.


Almost as soon as the concert began, I felt tears start in my eyes. It wasn't fado or saudade, I realised later, it was that it was so long since I'd heard live, as opposed to recorded, music. Time was when I listened to live music three or four nights a week. Sometimes, every night. Now, hardly ever. Made me think: when did we start replacing the experience with the record of the experience? Would have to be in pictures, a very long time ago, wouldn't it? Though that wasn't necessarily how pictures were understood, as replacements, they may have been thought as different from or more than the so-called real thing. Then there's an immense hiatus, millenia long, before writing arrives. Then, I guess, after the Book it's what? The photograph? & the phonograph ... 19th century is the age of Mechanical Reproduction of the Work of Art. And now ... we scarcely know what Originals are any more. I say scarcely without much conviction because actually I think we know the difference very well indeed; just that we encounter it less and, when we do, it is often only through an act of will.



I've been looking at Pessoa again (he's never far from my thoughts) because Wednesday night I went to a concert by fado singer Mariza, during which she sang a song which is a setting of a Pessoa lyric: Há uma música do povo or There is a Music of the People, from a collection, which I don't know, called Unknown Poetries. Mariza's concert was extraordinary in every way: wonderful voice, magnificent presence, excellent songs, an impeccable band ... seven men in black, the core was the traditional three acoustic guitars - Portuguese, Spanish, bass - plus violin, viola and cello, plus a percussionist. And then there was the audience who were equal to the occasion as well. It was out at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, where I've been just once before, years ago, to see a production of King Lear. Mariza is tall and slender, with very long legs and arms, brown skin and silver hair, cut short; she is part African, born in Mozambique, but raised in the port district of Lisbon, her parents ran a taverna there where fado singers performed and she learned how to sing as a small child. I went to the concert by myself because my friend had to cancel but I needn't have worried about that - I was surrounded by Portuguese who were so hospitable, delighted that someone who wasn't, would come to hear their music. My seat was in what the theatre calls a box, at one end of the circle, almost right above the stage; as a consequence I couldn't see the percussionist unless I leaned forward but the compensation was a remarkable addition to the performance. They used a lot of side light and as a consequence Mariza's shadow appeared, elongated, distorted, on the black drapes at the other side of the stage. In herself she is magnetic; in shadow, like an antique figure out of a Gallantee Show: something about the way the shadows fell turned her into an ancient or perhaps immemorial figure of grief, of sorrow, of passion, of joy. Those dimensions or emotions are there in her voice and her live performance anyway but, in shadow, they translated into something else, something more, something I've never quite seen before and can't really describe. It would be like trying to describe the quality of the silence she was able to conjure up, not between songs, but in the middle of them. When she sang Há uma música do povo she came downstage and sank into a crouch for the first verses, which were delivered in a hushed, intimate voice, before rising and going upstage and full-throat into the reprise. If her silences were electric her loudnesses were galvanic. Anyway, no more superlatives, you had to be there ... here's an English version of Há uma música do povo as translated by Morgana le Fay:

There is a music of the people,
I cannot say whether it is a Fado
But hearing it has added to myself
A new rhythm that stayed...

Hearing it I am who I would be
If I could be what I wish...
It is a simple melody
Like those that teach you to live...

And I hear it swaying and alone...
And this is even what I wanted...
I lost my faith and my way...
And have been far from happy.

But it is so soothing
This vague and sad song...
That my soul is no longer weeping
Nor do I have a heart...

I am a foreign emotion,
An error of a dream that is gone...
Somehow I sing
And end up with a feeling!

(NB: the version on Mariza's album Transparente, as well as the live version I heard, omit verse three of the poem.)

first you find it strange ...

In that same year (1928), Pessoa goes into advertising. Coca-Cola has just entered the Portuguese market and the poet is charged with the task of creating a slogan for the product: First, you find it strange; then you can’t change. The product sells like hotcakes, but later the authorities prohibit its sale in Portugal. The very slogan, argue the authorities, recognizes the harmful effects of the soft drink.

Full text here: http://www.vidaslusofonas.pt/fernando_pessoa2.htm



Some memories come unbidden ... was thinking yesterday of the first writing I ever did that was just ... writing. Had no (other) purpose. It was this time of year, many years ago. I'd just turned 18. 401 Ferguson Drive, Heretaunga. That's Upper Hutt, a satellite of the capital, Wellington. We lived in a pluty neighbourhood then, surrounded by bankers and doctors and diplomats and so forth. My father was principal of one of the two local colleges, he was not yet, though soon to be, consumed by alcoholism. My mother was embarking on an independent existence, a literary life, she was having affairs. I had left school but was not yet enrolled at University. So it was my last summer at home and I half knew the turmoil that was around us, me and my sisters, but not in any way I could have explained. I had a job that summer, I worked at General Motors in Trentham, on the assembly line. First I used to buff up the weld spots where the car bodies were stuck together, using a motorised wire brush. Later I tested petrol tanks, filling them with compressed air and dunking them in a pool of water to look for bubbles along the seams where top and bottom had been heat sealed together. It was shift work, with compulsory overtime three nights a week. Maybe I'd finished the job at the time I did the writing? Or maybe I was on a break? Can't remember. What I do recall is lying full length, face down on the white shag-pile carpet in the sitting room, pencil in hand, filling pages and pages of blank typing paper with words. What about? Well, I'd been reading Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in a Penguin paperback and the writing was directly influenced by that book (which I read all of, with great enthusiasm, and have never been able to look at since.) But what, exactly? Don't know ... I suspect it was all about my own becoming, that it was dreams of power, some kind of word flow that was barely coherent even to me, perhaps a sort of automatic writing. I seem to remember images, green mountains, white rivers ... I don't know what happened to those pages. I certainly never showed them to anyone and don't recall taking them with me to Auckland not so very long afterwards ... nor do I remember destroying them. They just seem to disappear, unlamented, almost unread, since I don't think I ever looked back over them after they were written. It was, perhaps, one of those rare times when the writing itself is enough and, once accomplished, is finished. The other memory that is associated with this one is an argument I had with my mother around the same time. She was concerned at my idleness and took me to task for it. She said I never did anything and it was time I started to occupy myself fruitfully. I was outraged and told her I was doing something, I was thinking and that thinking was an activity. She said it wasn't, it was just ... a cover for idleness I guess. It's strange that I didn't say I'd been writing for, if I had, she would instantly have forgiven my indolence. But the truth is, for me, then, thinking and writing were more or less the same thing, or perhaps one was a random and not particularly significant product of the other. I wonder now about those pages ... what they said ... how they said it ... where they went ...

This is an image of the so-called Liu Gang map unveiled, as they say, in a Beijing cafe/bookshop on 16th January ... although they did not exhibit the real map but a copy, the original remaining in a bank vault. It was bought by Lui Gang, a lawyer and map collector, in a Shanghai dealer's store in 2001 for $US500.00 - a relatively small amount of money if it turns out to be what Lui Gang thinks it is. That is, a copy of a 1418 world map drawn as a result of Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He's voyages and showing both the Americas, Australia and even New Zealand. The copy is supposed to have been made by one Mo Yi Tong in 1763 and given to the then Emperor of China. Forensic testing of parchment and ink is being done at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, to determine the authenticity of the object, although clearly they will only be able to establish its 18th century provenance, not the accuracy of its links to 1418. It's a pity that the image above - from the Economist - is so poor, because the map is very beautiful. There was a much better picture, a close-up of the Pacific section, in the Sydney Morning Herald, in which the land is coloured a pale yellow and the sea, translucent blue, inscribed with concentric semi-circular wave forms. Unfortunately, too, Lui Gang has allied himself with Gavin Menzies, the author of 1421 : The Year the Chinese Discovered the World. I bought the hardback of Menzies' book when it came out and began reading with some enthusiasm, but gave up in exasperation about halfway through, after reading the New Zealand and Australian sections. Menzies is a monomaniac who accepts any dubious proposition whatsoever so long as he can make it support his case, as well as wildly distorting known facts to the same end. He ruins a good subject by his uncritical devotion to the cause, alleging that Zheng He not only discovered America but also circumnavigated both the poles and the rest of the globe as well. And yet ... it is probable, if not likely, that Ming Dynasty Chinese sailors did cross the Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean; that they visited at least northern Australia seems almost certain; that they reached New Zealand, a possibility ... it is a shame that we don't have a more scholarly, popular account of this remarkable period of Chinese voyaging, one that would allow a reasonable assessment of what may or may not have been accomplished. Perhaps this map, whatever it turns out to be, might lead to such a book? Hope so ...


towards extinction

Creti seemed to intercept Montoris's thought. "We are animals on the way to extinction," he said. And took a long swallow of beer.

This from p. 387 of Guiseppe Genna's very fine thriller, In the Name of Ishmael. Creti is the cover name of a high up member of an intelligence organisation known only as the Service; he is attempting to recruit Montoris, a member of Milan's Detective Squad, to the Service. In the aftermath of the murder, by Ishmael, of Montoris's wife Maura, who was pregnant with a baby that may or may not have been her husband's. He does not know, and will never know, that there was doubt about the paternity of the child: one of the massive ironies of a book full of them is that Montoris joins the Service in order to avenge his wife & out of devotion to her memory, in ignorance of the fact that she betrayed him.

The book runs two times concurrently. The 1962 thread, of which Detective Montoris is the protaganist, and the second thread from 2001, again with a cop, Guido Lopez, as the main actor. Both threads are woven around assassination. In 1962 the plane carrying oil magnate Enrico Mattei crashed near Milan, killing the man known in some circles as the King of Italy; the 2001 sequence turns around a plot to assassinate Henry Kissinger who is, it turns out, not unimplicated himself in the mysterious Ishamel network. The way these two threads are eventually tied together towards the end is masterly.

Ishmael is an American invention, a quasi-religious cult whose aims are as much political as they are spiritual. Cultic rites, involving child sacrifice, are bound up with broader, semi-clandestine, sado-masochistic practices. The ultimate aim of Ishmael is to own Europe - for America to own Europe.

It's one of those books that deals with a number of real world events which are more or less mysterious, and sets out to string them together by occult means, or rather, through the evocation of occult forces. Leaving you genuinely confused as to where (or if) the fiction begins. It is also beautifully written: its descriptions of modern ruins in and around Milan, now and then, are superb. And it includes passages like that quoted above, seamlessly embedded in the text, never insisted upon, never really revisited, just ... a part of the show, I guess.

In The Name of Ishmael is published by Atlantic Books (2005) in a translation by Ann Goldstein


Voynich ... last

Maybe ... we should appreciate the Voynich manuscript for what it truly is: a beautiful object, an enigmatic, alluring and enduring mystery that is, in the final reckoning, perhaps better left unsolved?

So ends Kennedy and Churchill's book (op. cit.), in a conclusion I entertained myself about halfway through their fair-minded, witty and elegant account of the story. On the other hand, it's impossible not to speculate, otherwise why read about it? Of all the possible interpretations canvassed in the book, these are the ones I like and might possibly believe:

1. that the Voynich Manuscript is a work of what we now call Outsider Art, an attempt by a schizophrenic (monk or nun?) to reproduce something like the 15th and 16th century herbals and healing texts s/he might perhaps have seen somewhere. If this is so it will never be deciphered because it is not, strictly speaking, a cipher at all, but a work of art whose key was lost with the death of the artist. It is thus analogous to the work of Adolf Wölfli or Henry Darger.

2. that, in the words of William Friedman: The Voynich MSS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type. (Esperanto is an example of the posterior type of artificial language; an a priori type is made like a thesaurus, by dividing human experience into categories and then selecting terms to describe these categories, sub-categories, etc.)

3. that the Voynich MSS is a hoax book put together in the late 16th century, perhaps by Edward Kelley, in an attempt to bolster his reputation as a magus with various Central European patrons, including Rudolph II of Bohemia. It may be that several hands contributed; one variant of this theory says the drawings are bone fide, done by Dr. Dee, but the text, added later by Kelley and a rogue Papal Nuncio called Pucci, spurious. However, it might also be based upon texts of the speech of angels Kelley channeled for Dr. Dee to write down.

4. that the Voynich MSS is a complete or partial forgery perpetrated by Wilfrid Voynich himself.

One curious fact: the Beinecke Library at Yale, where the MSS has been since the early 1970s, has never allowed forensic testing of the materials from which it is made. It looks as if they too would prefer it to remain an enigma.


arrivée d’un départ

Today it is yesterday in America. The wine we drank is all run away into the channels of the flesh. An ashtray of butts with gold writing on them, under the Christmas tree, for just a moment longer. Then they'll be gone too. Which indefatigable graffitist inscribed the black line down the centre of each lane at the pool with cock and balls? Three round strokes with a texta, then the slit for the glans, over and over. Why no vulva? A shimmer of amazement when the sun comes out, filling the blue water with gold spangles. I don't know where you are, just somewhere in America. I don't know when you are. The day after tomorrow feels too long ago for wonder; yesterday like a future lost forever. Now is only a breath after all. The wine … the smoke that drifted up from cigarettes … smell of pine mingled with nightsweet, with frangi-pani … dumb shouts in the street … health that is like an affliction, affliction that is like memory, memory like a stone, stone like water, water like … nothing. Sometimes at night, when the small brown stars wheel overhead, I rise above all this and see the brightdark line of sun shadow fleeing towards us, gold spangled, across the blue Pacific, leaving America with all its yesterdays and tomorrows dark and bright behind it. Then day arrives, an absence enclosing a presence, waiting to be called.


Voynich Again

hmmm ... just picked up, at the Ashfield library, a recent book on the Voynich MS. Wilfrid Voynich (= Michal Wojnics) was not, as I thought, an American, but a Pole from Telschi, Kovno Province, Lithuania who graduated in chemistry from Moscow University and became a pharmacist. He got caught up in the late 19th century Polish Nationalist movement, trying to free his country from Tsarist Russian rule. He was two years without trial in a tiny cell in the Warsaw Citadel, during which he saw, from the window one day, his future wife, all dressed in black (she was mourning the death of Italian revolutionary Mazzini). Ethel Boole was the youngest of five daughters of mathematician George Boole, inventor of Boolean logic, and was studying music in Berlin when she read the writings of Sergei 'Stepniak' Kravchinsky and became a revolutionary herself. She met Stepniak in London, learned Russian, and was on her way to St. Petersburg to connect with one of his relatives when she paused in Warsaw in Easter, 1887. Before Voynich's scheduled exile to Siberia, he was given Ethel's name and Stepniak's London address. He escaped prior to being transported and, five months later, having sold his glasses and waistcoat, hitched a ride on a fruit boat from Hamburg to England, surviving shipwreck off the Scandinavian coast along the way. The day after his arrival he was out on the London streets, selling the Society of the Friends of Russian Freedom's publication, Free Russia. The Society's patrons included William Morris and Eleanor Marx. Voynich became the business manager of a bookshop selling revolutionary works to the British public and, later, calling himself Ivan Klecevski, a member of the League of Book Carriers, smuggling works by Mark, Lenin, Plekhanov and others into Russia. After Stepniak, in 1895, was knocked down and killed by a train at a level crossing, both Ethel and Wilfrid withdrew from revolutionary politics and he became instead an antiquarian book dealer. He was immediately successful, with a shop in Piccadilly and offices in Paris, Florence and Warsaw. He continued, when and if he could, to assist Polish refugees who turned up at the London shop and made many business trips to the Continent. It was during one of these, in 1912, that he came across the manuscript which now bears his name. In November, 1914, Wilfrid and Ethel Voynich, together with their most valuable books and manuscripts, sailed for New York on the SS Lusitania.

[This account from The Voynich Manuscript by Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, Orion Books, London, 2004. Kennedy is a descendent of George Boole's brother, William.]


dangerous questions

Copernicus upset the moral order, by dissolving the strict distinction between heaven and earth. Darwin did the same, by dissolving the strict distinction between humans and other animals. Could the next step be the dissolution of the strict distinction between reality and fiction?

For this to be shocking, it has to come in a scientifically respectable way, as a very precise and inescapable conclusion — it should have the technical strength of a body of knowledge like quantum mechanics, as opposed to collections of opinions on the level of cultural relativism.

Perhaps a radical reevaluation of the character of time will do it. In everyday experience, time flows, and we flow with it. In classical physics, time is frozen as part of a frozen spacetime picture. And there is, as yet, no agreed-upon interpretation of time in quantum mechanics.

What if a future scientific understanding of time would show all previous pictures to be wrong, and demonstrate that past and future and even the present do not exist? That stories woven around our individual personal history and future are all just wrong? Now that would be a dangerous idea.

Piet Hut, Professor of Astrophysics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, at The World Question Centre.


vagaries in transmission of the word of god

Whether the Koran was written down in full during Mohammed's lifetime is a question on which there are conflicting traditions. The generally received account describes its first compilation a few years after his death from scraps of parchment and leather, tablets of stone, ribs of palm trees, camels' shoulder-blades and ribs, pieces of board and the breasts of men. To this, probably, is to be ascribed much of the unevenness and rough jointing which characterize the present composition of the longer suras. It is certain that, alongside these written materials, several of the Companions of the Prophet preserved by heart and transmitted versions with numerous small variants, and that the third Caliph, Othman, had an authoritative text prepared at Medina, copies of which were sent to the chief cities.

These copies, however, were written in the very defective early Arabian script, which needed to be supplemented by the trained memories of the thousands of reciters. To meet this difficulty, improvements and refinements of orthography were gradually introduced into the old manuscripts. By the end of the first [Muslim] century the text as we now have it had been stabilized in all but a few details ...

Yet so many minor variations in reading and punctuation still survived that ultimately the problem had to be met by a characteristic Muslim compromise ... first ten and then seven famous reciters were recognized as authoritative teachers and all their readings were accepted as orthodox. Although the learned claimed the right to accept the readings of other teachers, for all public purposes readings according to the text of one or other of the Seven only were adopted. In course of time several of these also dropped out of use, but it is only in the present century [i.e. the 20th] (as a result of the dissemination of printed and lithographed copies of the Koran from Constantinople and Cairo) that a single reading has acquired almost universal currency in the Muslim world.

from: Mohammedanism, An Historical Survey, by H.A.R. Gibb, OUP, 1969