Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Coffee-Table Inanities

Angus Calder (1942-2008), "Iam pauca aratro iugera regiae," Horace in Tollcross: eftir some odes of Q.H. Flaccus (Kingskettle: Kettilonia, 2000), p. ? (line numbers added):
Soon, I foresee, all the cornershops will go under
crushed by the chains fastened by megamoney.
      With sparrowhead sales staff lounging bored,
      book superstores will outglare city lights.

Once scholarly codgers yarned about their shelves        5
where editions published decades before still peeked
      — ignorance, now, is insouciant about prices
      which then provided small dealers canny margins

when little lefty presses stood some kind of chance
and a slightly-nicked cover could get you a nifty discount.        10
      Johnson would have detested these glitzy mazes
      of glib fiction and coffee-table inanities.

In my far youth, we valued public ownership,
and private wealth conducted itself discreetly.
      Now it's consume! in yer face, consume!        15
      Entrepreneurs ettle to bottle the rain.

No one back then dared dispraise engine drivers — mighty
those gods who commanded our trains: and public libraries
      were cherished like Pallas Athene's temples,
      which, for us, in effect, they were.        20
As the title indicates, Calder's poem is an imitation of Horace's ode on unrestrained real-estate development (2.15), here translated by W.G. Shepherd:
Now regal villas will leave few acres
for ploughing; on all sides ornamental ponds
will appear as extensive
as Lake Lucrinus; bachelor plane-trees

usurp the elm; beds of violets        5
and myrtles and all olfactory crops
scatter their scents in olive-groves
which previous owners farmed;

dense laurels exclude the burning strokes
of the sun. This is not the norm        10
our ancestors divined, that Romulus
and rough-bearded Cato prescribed.

For them private wealth was small,
the commonweal great: no private
north-facing shady porches        15
were laid out with ten-foot rules:

the law forbade abuse of the common turf
and enjoined the adornment at public expense
of towns and temples
with fresh-hewn marble.        20
The Latin:
Iam pauca aratro iugera regiae
moles relinquent, undique latius
    extenta visentur Lucrino
        stagna lacu, platanusque caelebs

evincet ulmos; tum violaria et        5
myrtus et omnis copia narium
    spargent olivetis odorem
        fertilibus domino priori;

tum spissa ramis laurea fervidos
excludet ictus. non ita Romuli        10
    praescriptum et intonsi Catonis
        auspiciis veterumque norma.

privatus illis census erat brevis,
commune magnum: nulla decempedis
    metata privatis opacam        15
        porticus excipiebat Arcton,

nec fortuitum spernere caespitem
leges sinebant, oppida publico
    sumptu iubentes et deorum
        templa novo decorare saxo.        20
Eric Thomson writes in an email about Calder's poem:
I like the poem partly because I share his dismay at the demise of the corner-shop (supermarket chains are man-forged manacles of woe) and the aesthetic and cultural degeneration of the bookshop into a 'glitzy maze of glib fiction and coffee-table inanities' and partly because Ramsay gave Horace the keys to the city of Edinburgh two hundred years ago and there he is always welcome and at home. C.H. Sisson transposed the same ode to London; someone needs to do the same for the Spanish Costa del Sol, where the golf courses, lego-built hotels and gaudy villas encroach on the old groves of the hinterland.

'Once scholarly codgers yarned about their shelves...': I suspect that 'yarned' is partly Scots 'to yarn' – 'yearn' (for the books they couldn't afford to buy), but there is tweed yarn there too. I remember attending a Classics association meeting at Edinburgh University and amusing myself by counting how many of those attending were wearing (Harris) tweed jackets with or without elbow patches — virtually the lot as far as I could see.

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