Tuesday, June 30, 2009

1st of July 1916

If Gallipoli is the troubled centre of the foundation myths of Australia, the First Day of the Somme has a far darker place in British mythology. When I was at school we learnt the statistics: 60,00 casualties, 20, 00 of them dead. One morning, between 7.30am and “lunch time”. By the end of the battle, which got them nowhere, when the snows closed it down in November, British, Empire and allied troops had suffered over half a million casualties. So I once met a man who claimed that the history of Europe in the twentieth century could be read as that culture’s inability to come to terms with the first world war. And the first day on the Somme seems like a fault line, that makes it difficult to see across to the nineteenth century, with its values and assumptions. It’s trendy today to talk about “a patriarchal discourse” in terms of the terrible way the nineteenth century ideology of gender treated women. Or Homosexuals. But gender binaries crucify in both directions. We tend to forget the ideology that drilled it into young men that when the time came to step over a parapet and walk into machine gun fire, they should do it to prove their manhood. Historians rewrite history: it’s their job. They do it to be accurate, to reinterpret in the light of new material, because they see the past through the lenses of their own cultural assumptions and ideological bias. They do it, cynically, because it’s how to make a career as an historian. So Peter Hart (2005) gives the statistics as 57,470 of which 19,240 were killed which are repeated in Carlyon’s “the great war”. Carlyon states categorically: “The Somme didn’t ruin a generation”. Hart claims: “Yes, It is equally inane to adopt the morbid sentimentality of portraying the men who took part as helpless victims mere stooges in a titanic battle, that somehow engulfed them unawares.” They lined up and walked steadily into machine gun fire. They didn’t have a choice. Not even in the act of joining up. You can’t strip away the ideology of your upbringing for one moment of pure logical clarity. And a society where men signed up because war was preferable to their work in mill and mine, is irrevocably wrong. Blame is pointless. Was Haig an idiot? Should Rawlinson have stood his ground? Was the Somme necessary so the British army could learn how to fight “modern warfare”? These are Military questions. In human terms, a system that asks its young men to do this is intolerable. It’s not a class thing. The well-educated public school officers walked out first, because it was the done thing to lead from the front. They died. The rest of the army went after them; to prove itself “as warriors”; not to let its friends down, to be ”men”; to be there, to show willing to make the “ultimate sacrifice’ for King and country. They died. Fathers, Husbands, brothers, lovers, sons. The statistics are awful. But it’s the personal that still hurts. Lieutenant Noel Hodgson, 9th Battalion, Devonshire regiment: Before Action 30/6/1916 I that on my familiar hill Saw with uncomprehending eyes A hundred of thy sunsets spill Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice ‘Ere the sun sheathes his noonday sword Must say goodbye to all of this. By all delights that I shall miss Help me to die, O lord. (qtd in Hart, Peter The Somme cassell 2005)

what are the odds...

This story has been running in the local papers.
Man decides to murder wife so he can be with his mistress. [He hasn’t heard of divorce?] So he steps into a public phone booth, presumably not trusting his mobile, to tell the mistress that he is planning to take his wife for a walk along the beach, drown her, and make it look like an accident.
So far so Agatha Christy.
And then the unbelievable bit.
The police have bugged that particular phone box as part of an ongoing investigation in that area. So the officer listening to it hears the man telling the mistress the plan. They are arrested, tried and found guilty .
The wife is alive but what are the odds? Of all his options in communicating the plan, why did he choose that one? And of all the phone boxes he could have used, what made him step into that one? Chances are if he hadn’t made those choices, she’d be dead.

I don’t like the odds.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Old English Poetry: Seamus, Wulf, Eadwacer and me

In stepping stones, Heaney is asked why he was attracted to translating Beowulf: admiration for the poem or a love of Anglo-Saxon as a language?
“More the latter. I didn’t in truth have any special fondness for Beowulf before I started work on it.….The more elgaic poems “The Wanderer” “The Searfarer” were the ones that gave me a feel for the language , voices shaken by the North Sea wind, as it were, voices crying under the ness. I’m still not sure whether Anglo-Saxon was a heard melody for me or an unheard one, a music I imagined for myself.” (p436)

I’ve been wondering about this ever since I read it before Christmas. My feelings about Beowulf are damn near schizoid. But as sound system; as a spoken music Old English sings or it does in my head. I’ve never known if it’s an imagined music either. I’m sure some expert somewhere would haul me over the coals for the way I speak it.

But there are phrases that just sound good. Unweder sounds right in a way “bad weather” can’t and Byrthferth’s description of winter ”and he byð ceald and wæt” evokes a whole world of grey rain and people huddling by a smokey fire in a way "and it is cold and wet' doesn't. I think it's something to do with the vowel sounds.

But there are also individual poems that are part of the anthology that defines “poetry” in my head.
Wulf and Eadwacer is one of them. It’s often presented as an intellectual curiosity: it is. It’s notoriously difficult to translate. As is often pointed out the first two lines:

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.

could be translated:

Is to my people as if one might give them (a battle/sacrifice/gift/message/game)
Will they (receive/consume/oppress/relieve) him if he comes (with a host/in violence/in need).

The assumption is that if we only knew the back story; who the speaker is, who Wulf and Eadwacer are, it would make so much more sense and we'd know which choices to make in the brackets above. Most translations work on the circular argument of deciding what the back story is first, then translating to fit it.
But it's fun to play with the idea that the creator of this poem was not some hairy rugby player quaffing too much mead in between beating the billy be damned out of his neighbours, but a skilled artist who knew exactly Hwaet! he was doing.

Ambiguity is everywhere in Old English. In the first line of “The Wanderer”

Oft him ānhaga āre gebīdeð

the verb means to hope for but also to experience. The translator is forced to choose: does the speaker expect mercy or experience it? The original audience was under no such obligation: they could hold both options open. Yearning for it he experiences it?

So imagine the creator of Wulf and E enjoying the polysemic nature of the language and deciding to push it to the limit.
In one sense the speaker is saying in those first two lines, “who knows what they’ll do if he turn up, lots of things most of them bad”. Which sounds awful put like that but as

Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.

are a model of compressed meaning.

It's true the lines sing. All poetry is spoken music but Old English more so than others. Wolf, my wolf just doesn’t have the melody of: Wulf, mīn Wulf

wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð

spits its message, the first half running smoothly, the second tripping over itself as if she is retching at the memory..

So the music is important.

But it’s the sense of a voice speaking, the irony of the words, the meaning pulsing along the lines. The odd combination of the very physically real: she sits by the hearth in rainy weather, it is not the lack of food but his infrequent coming that makes her ill and the mythic vagueness of the situation. Like folk tales before Walt and Co got to them.

Graves, God bless’im, argued that the rhythm of Anglo-Saxon poetry grew out of the creak of the oarlocks. You couldn’t prove that if your life depended on it, but it’s a great image and the sense of the poem, pulsing and pausing along the fetch of the line like a rowed boat, works for me.
That terse epigrammatic ending:
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,
uncer giedd geador.
raising the specific into the general without becoming vague or wishy washy.

Not just a heard music then, but a love of the made thing.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Shake hands with the devil#1

I’ve known about Melmoth the Wanderer for what seems like centuries. I’m sure I bought a very old and yellow paperback copy in the second hand bookshop in Acock’s green. Bu I’m also sure I never read it.
So it’s strange to enter its world and feel that odd sense of familiarity. It’s the tug and wash of intertextuality at work. Orphan son travels to dilapidated house of rich but miserly uncle. Kidnapped. Change the gender: Uncle Silas. The old house with its mysteries; Wuthering heights or the Jonathon Harker journal opening of Dracula . The servants sitting round the fire, with their alien natures and elliptic talk that hints at mysteries and superstitions: paintings I’m unable to name, but the plays of Synge, Jane Eyre, etcetc. Mystery and secrets in an old house: the turn of the screw, Le Fanu’s stories.
So in a good book you get that odd feel that it’s both familiar but unknown. The references in your personal reading history ghost around the edges giving it a depth it would otherwise lack, which somehow allows it freedom to operate in its own particular way. Whether one could do that deliberately is a different matter.
The thing I had forgotten, having spent most of my time recently reading things I had to read, is how novels like this require a commitment on the part of the reader. Not just to play the game, to enter the story world and accept its rules, but to be willing to give up large chunks of time to reading it and to take it at its own pace.
The gothic fear is that those who should be morally beyond reproach aren’t. Those in power are corrupt, selfish, vicious and have the will and the ability to persecute those who are genuinely innocent for the pleasure of it. The innocent are helpless.
Odd that what we take for granted was seen as perverse and horrific.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Anti blurb wars part two

this was sent to me, it's a non Australian Press's blurb:

The press locates itself an as intellectual space where forms and intuitions make writing a process of risk and otherness—a space where the high stakes of creative inquiry make self-effacement impossible. @@@@ fosters work that investigates the dimensions of place, whether construed as location or situation. Such work is... able to survive in swamps and sandhills, to thrive in salt and heat, to occupy an imaginative landscape that is raw and abrasive and to expand its territory toward the interior. Neither cynical nor rhetorically meek, the work is concerned with but not limited by the map; its logic is global, written against the grain of history and biography.

what does that mean? The press locates itself an as intellectual space where forms and intuitions make writing a process of risk and otherness—a space where the high stakes of creative inquiry make self-effacement impossible.it could mean so many different things. If an over surplus of possible meanings results in meaninglessness, then this can mean whatever the writer wants it to mean on any given day depending on how hot the coffee is.

I expect waffle in art galleries. You've had the experience where you're standing there looking at a photo of a dead rat with two burnt twigs shoved up its arse and you need that a4 page "artists statement" beside it to tell you that (once you've waded through the inevitably turgid, tautological and almost hilarious swamp of perverted syntax and thesaurus spew) that this is actually a shattering indictment of the patriarchal discourses of post something capitalism. You need it because if you're stupid and visually illiterate like me without the 'artist's' statement you'd be thinking you were looking at a picture of the mutilated corpse of a dead rodent. You might even start thinking that the thing was indeed an indictment of the system; a system that allowed people to do that and think they were doing something worth your attention. You might even start thinking that it is indeed an indictment of capitalism that people can make money out of such bolloxs.

But isn't poetry supposed to be about the precise use of language? When we read yet again that poet x is "reinvigorating the language" or "exploring the possibilities" or "using the resources of language in a unique way" when the blurb hails yet another unique voice, I think we have every right to ask "How? Be explicit"
Post Joyce, Beckett, Eliott, Pound et al.. what hasn't already been tried?
Perhaps the one thing that doesn't get tried that often is the making of sense when talking about poetry.
Neither cynical nor rhetorically meek, the work is concerned with but not limited by the map

Monday, June 22, 2009

Coming down the mountain.

Though not wearing pink pajamas we were coming down the mountain in a downpour, going the long way round to avoid the rising creeks which were red brown and frothing at the bottom of the bridges on the way up the hill three hours earlier. The mist came down, the wipers twitching helplessly under the flood, the headlights smudged and useless.
Following the curve of the central white line, thanking someone for the indicators on the sharp bends.
"Where the creeks run dry or ten feet high/and it's either drought or plenty".

So this morning for the first time, driving to the offices of SURG. Odd not to walk in. So very un Bloom like.
Realising the question, as we follow Bloom in his search for lunch, though one of the best and ugliest descriptions of the uglyness of people eating, through my own memories of trying to feed the sea gulls on the bridge and eating in Davy Byrne's, how much of literature is about aberrations and marginal activity? How much of it is a willful playing with and pandering to the perverse?

How much of it is playing the game so that someone else can tell you how well you did it? (so you can do them the favour in return.)

Beyond the fog the road open outs into familiar landscapes. We have escaped the flooded roads, the possibility of swift water ruin the fog distorted views. The world is clean and cold and the pure view is clear from here to the coast.

A cleared head. A renewal of conviction. The destination suddenly obvious after a long time waiting for the view to clear.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Are you English?

Are you English?
I used to claim that nationality was an accident not a definition.
Yes, but are you English?
When I first came to Australia I was surprised by the culturally institutionalised racism an answer to that question invoked.
It’s there in the jokes I didn’t understand:
Where does an English man keep his money?
Under the soap?
How can you tell a plane has come from England?
The whining continues after the engines are shut off.
It’s there in the assumption that any criticism however well informed or essential is “whinging” and the product of being English rather than being concerned or frustrated with an obvious problem.
I never liked that: My country right or wrong. Love it or leave it alone.
One of the things I loved about home was the willingness to be critical, to scrutinise; what I probably romanticise as a European habit of talk, of willingness to indulge in argument as currency of friendship. The things you cared about were the things you talked about. As Heaney says: what use the held line that cannot be assailed for reassurance?
Yes, but Are you English?
It’s the baggage that comes with “yes” I don’t like. To be a Welsh or Scottish nationalist is cool, radical, acceptable. To be an English nationalist is to feel the terrifying drag of the black hole of the national front, skinheads, racist bigotry, mindless intolerance: To find oneself in the company of the brutal, the stupid and the braindead.
Are you English?
So do you want me to apologise for what some of my ancestors did to yours? Well, do you mind if I point out that the English half of the family were rural poor, or in service, and if they ever went abroad to fight it was because they were press ganged or fleeing from poverty or rejoicing in the choice between the gallows and the uniform. If my ancestors fought yours they were flogged to it, probably shitting themselves in a steamy red tunic.
Infact, it’s quite probable mum’s ancestors were taking pot shots of one sort or another at dad’s, who were doing their best to carve, cut, shoot or flay them, not realising of course that one day their genes would be combined in me.
Are you English?
I’m not proud of British Imperialism. The thought of men flogged into battle so some rich twerp could get richer doesn’t appeal to me at all. And for the dwellers in the slums, for the industrial poor, for the rural workers, I don’t see much to sing about. The arrogant assumption that there was some type of “civilising mission” involved is even less appealing.
But show me a country that didn’t try and expand its borders? Show me a tribe that didn’t fight for extra space? Do Dutch people have these problems?
Are you English?
My Mum would say yes. But when I addressed a letter to her and put West Midlands, England on the envelope the man in the post office said there was no such address. Every time I give him a package and say: England..he says Uk as he puts it on the scales. According to the Concise Britannica England does not exist as a political or administrative unit. There ain’t no such place.
We all know that’s what “Utopia” means so “England” is a Utopian ideal…a place of the mind…but who’s mind?
I like the idea of being Mercian. A people of the marches, of the borders, liminal interstitial. Penda’s folk. The middle kingdom. The middle ground. But that’s always been the most dangerous place to stand.
(And then I suppose I had better feel guilty about Haethfelth, but I am free to resent those imperialistic buggers from Wessex who conquered my country????)
Are you English?
No, like the badge says: Made in Coventry.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Who else but?

One of my favourite Joyce stories, well known but worth repeating with a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of red:

And what have you been doing all day, asks a friend.
Writing a sentence says Joyce.
Ah, says the friend, looking for the 'Mot juste'.
No says Joyce, the words I had. It was their order I was working on.

so many books:so little time

Saturday, June 13, 2009

set questions on poetry based on months 1-6

A) General:
1) How often do you recognise your own life in the fictive texts you use: the poetry, fiction or literary theory? (Ignore historical fiction and fantasy).

B) Poetry
2) In all the poetry you've read recently, putting aside your admiration for the occasional pyrotechnics: how many poems changed anything for you? How many would you have felt that had you not read them you would have missed out on something important? (Do not refer to dead poets or at least only those dead in recent years. We do not want another essay on Wulf and Eadwacer)

3) How many did you want to copy out in longhand to the anthology you keep of poems you admire?

4) How many said something to you other than:"Look at me, admire my cleverness", like a guitar player doing scales faster than anyone else? For how many did you feel that if you were to step outside the rules of the game and ask:"so what?" there would be no answer?

A tiny Australian chapbook, Carson's collected, The Midnight Court, much of the Herbert complete, Kairos, Troy town? Enough for six months?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I.M Martin Bochenek.

He deserves a better poem than this...and the end of it falls into banality.

Rambling Boy
I.M Martin Bochenek.

I remember why the full moon tastes of Pernod.
Birds on the Wire both, the day talked through,
and the long walk back to camp:
wine, stories, songs, so many stars.

My Rambling Boy, there’s always one more river.
One more wave. One more bend to turn
and then the long drive home, for talk and laughter.
If not for you or me, then for the ones who will inherit.

We are custodians of the song.
Apprenticed to this art of being

in a bar, Bourg St Moritz,
the full moon peering from behind the hill
to catch a juke box playing Leonard Cohen;

on a winter’s night in Birmingham
eating ice cream in the snow
drafting letters in my head

to match the ones you wrote;
on the long drive to Saint Anthony
while the thunder hammered bass lines for your truck.

It is my privilege and my pleasure
To have shared some time with you

I’ll take that with me, Rambling Boy.
And nothing, nothing, nothing
takes it away.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

the truth about the goblins

Goblins are hard working and happiest when working. They themselves would deny this because work and happiness are not terms goblins understand. To be happy you have to be able to unhappy, and to work you have to have a state of non work and goblins have neither. They derive immense personal satisfaction from doing things and doing things exactly. Their only experience of discomfort is when they discover their work has been nergled.

In humans Goblin attention to detail would require a word that combined “fastidious” with “anal retentive”, “exuberant” and “merry”. To them Olympic timing is unbearably inaccurate. Atomic clocks are worse than useless as for them the femtosecond is too crude to be useful.

Goblin work gangs sing while putting up and taking down the scenery. They sing “The world is what you make it” with the foreman singing the line and the crew doing the nah nah nahnahnahnah nah chorus as a shanty.

Goblin singers can sing 124 perfectly divided steps between A and Bflat and regard with a certain disdain the human inability to hear more then three or four shades in a chromatic step. It is a source of goblin work gang pride that if there are twenty four members in the crew the nah nah nah chorus will have twenty four perfectly adjusted harmonies.

Goblins of course don’t play guitar; they have a legend of their greatest singer trying to learn. But Goblin precision was driven crazy by its attempt to tune the thing to goblin standards of accuracy, so they have dispensed with the experiment.

Goblin work gangs are occasionally infiltrated by Nergles. If the goblins are the mathematicians of the universe, the Nergles are the equivalent of a verbal virus. Nergles float freely at the edges of connotations, where they are happiest exploring what a human might describe as outrageously tenuous links between words.

They are both noun and verb, and so you can be Nergled by a Nergle.

Hating goblin accuracy with passion, Nergles are born subversives, mischievous, delightful, but rarely malicious, who love nothing better than to subvert whatever paradigm they can identify. If you’ve ever had the odd feeling that the thing you’ve seen every day for the past week has suddenly changed colour, or that the crack on the pavement went from the bottom left to the upper right and not the other way round, you’ve been nergled.

On the other hand, you cannot blame Nergles for lost keys or glasses. That is your own doddery memory at fault.

(Of course, the conspiracy theorist says there are no Nergles. Merely rogue goblins who have been driven mad by the endless precision of their race. No one dare interview the Nergles for their opinion. Rumour has that once upon a time, a very long time ago, a human spoke to a nergle. He was last heard saying:

Yes, G O’logical, harmed with prick and stammers, is evacuating my fallacious period, hoping to find dinner saucers. Back then I was on the royal road to the sub-constable, running from the veryneesy, anal trickcyclist, Siggy, who was arrested for a fraudulent slit. G.O, I says, says I, while nostalgicating alcofrolickally over a few leers in the pubelick louse:
q) Cans’t shell me eggs acterly what eventumanated?
a) Whilst imprisonyated by the sub-constabule, under section fifty spew, parachute 3 sub selection hive of the indecency fact, inside the sub-vestibule he did endite a tome, height, in the vernacular, “The interpolation of creams” exonerating his fraudamunt slit. And fleeced us all for gold.
q) Ah G.O me dear, have some cold cheese, slurp your grin bionic and tell to me in words spain and dimple of the subconstabo hoo buouillion. Where id ego?
a) Whack his folderol he diddled his dildo on the rocky road to bubbling, from galway’s bay to the swine dark tea
q) You can’t pig snore ham, canoe? But doing what, tell me tell me. Give me the goss.
A) well, as I’ve heard it said, he was hunting burning hairs all the way.
q) That and that alone?
a) Nah, he wanted to arrestimacate a deviant old fish Herman, Aengus his mythical moniker. Clammed to have cast his line and caught a dish, a silvery stout! When he laid his crutch upon the tyre, it burned into a simmering churl, with apple blossom round her fair, who flashed her bits at him and ran, into the dark king’s lair. singing “maids, when you’re young, never bed a cold ham
q) Anne Heeded?
a) No no, that was not her nam. Some think she was a fig meant for his imagined nation. He Followed up the airy mountain and down the rushy glen, with his blackthorn stick on the gravel walk, along the mountain road, past dowd’s 1-9, with his fol derriddle dum de.
(Sly G.O made junior crehan saddle the pony to see that O’neills had the key but not to Cooley’s.)
Q) Your mystical musical jigging code leaves me reeling… but tell me, tell me…by the lord Harry Doodlums…the porpoise he proposed, to himself if to no other, not his father or his mother or his sister or his brother, assuming off coarse, his parents had frequently fornicated, for the purpose of reproducing soft things for the purpling of holy iron land? Holey brother of rod! Spray for our dinners now and the flowers on our breath. Hymen. The desired, to him, termination of his endless vagabondation, of his up goings and down comings, on his hay down treaders across ridges and cwms, his wadings through streams, his weddings through corn, his windings through sheds and beds and streets and sheets, his lookings and his lostings, his hopings and gropings , his endless leavings and arrivings?
a) Merely to osculate. Repeatedly, when he finally came to hour down..smearing his post prandial greasy south, after a dinner of the good roast beef, against her ruby slips, and to fondle her digitals with his phone.

Jay son I’d not walk all the way to fork for that I’d be interpolating creams to be sure eye wood I’d want to see her very dinner saucers at the very least and fondle her blooms day after day.
Time said the barmanminder, time to go.
Yes, To G.O says I, Yes.

so yo can see, talking to the Nergles is a dangerous enterprise.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Me and the letterbox designers

At home the mail arrived in an acoustic series: the gate, postie’s footsteps, then the flap, the fall, the soft sound of displaced air, the flap clicking shut again and the delightful sound of mail hitting the mat…

Here there is only the sound of the postie’s bike. For here we live in the land of the Mail Box.

Mail boxes fascinate me. Because once you get over the idea that there are some that are obviously home made, most are manufactured.

And that means there are people who not only make them for a living, but there must be, somewhere, someone who designs them. And probably runs customer surveys to test the waters about shape and colour and size.

Imagine; a science of mailbox design. A culture of designers. There must be famous mavericks, and outstanding practitioners talked about with hushed reverence or envy whenever two MBD gather. There must be radical designs and clichéd designs, designs that push the envelope so to speak: impractical ones, safe ones, offensive ones…a whole aesthetic of serious concerns wrapped in contingent values for a small group of dedicated professionals whose work and care might appear slightly lunatic to the outside world if it ever stopped to bother about them.

When was the last time you heard a mailbox designer interviewed about his or her views on politics, the economy, the state of the swine flu? Do they have conferences with key note speakers? Do they discuss the implications of new technologies and Globalization. Do they demonize their enemies; fear email and txt messages? Look with evil longing at the computer and imagine sticking one of their uprights though it’s smug shiney email carrying screen

When they go at home at night what do they talk about to their partners? How did they meet them in the first place, what strange opening lines were used to instigate conversations at parties?

Why I have never talked to one? Or met one? Where do they hide?

And what do they dream about? Letterboxes with no angles. No lines curved straight or otherwise…the impossible letter box with no entry and no exit which denies function but retains form? The letter box that creates its own mail? Do they dream of being post, mailed in a box, waiting for the hand of God to read their destinations and send them on their way?

I don’t ask these questions because sometimes Letterbox design seems far more mainstream than the things I do…..but because someone should speculate about them.

Random encounters with the arbitrary: #2 The Goblins, Brady and Last night's fun. Not forgetting the iced tea.

Centuries ago, in another life time, Marty Bochenek introduced me to the phrase “road stoned”. It’s that curious dislocation that occurs during travel; long night drives, twenty four hour car shuttles, plane travel, when sense as you normally understand it starts to unravel and strange connections manifest which make no sense later: travel without the t, your own surrealist text, what it must be like to exist as the first person pronoun in a Lorca poem.

“Green, I want you, Green”.

There’s always a point where it becomes obvious: I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when, three hours into waiting for the flight home in a terminally tedious terminal, I decide there has to be a limit on how much coffee I can drink and ask for the next random thing on the board: Iced tea…the young lady serving me said: Do you want that still or sparkling and I swear I hear the Goblins laughing. I’m looking at her, watching my dad pour the contents of the tea pot down the sink in the kitchen. I’ve just returned from America where the “River of No Return” had introduced me to multi day kayaking trips and Earl Grey Tea. I had literally searched Coventry for the stuff and had made some of my prized find for my tea addicted dad.

It went down the sink. Politely, good humouredly, but down the sink, and then he washed the tea pot out. Which reminds me that tea bags used to be a barbaric novelty for campers. Sparkling iced tea is an abomination. The girl is still waiting for my reply. Things are raveling. It’s one of the reasons for traveling.

But I’ve still got Paul Brady on the sound track. His version of Arthur McBride. I love this song. I like our Sunday afternoon version. I like Planxty’s versions. If memory serves there’s a decent enough Carthy/Swarbrick version though it’s not on the ipod. I do have a version of it in Polish. Least I think it’s Arthur McBride.

But the Brady version is special. That thin slightly nasal voice, which is having its own acrobatic affair with the tune, suits the measured way he relates the brutal events “we lathered them there like a pair of wet sacks” and the sardonic “We obligingly asked if they wanted recruits”. It reminds me of People’s fiddle on the Brady/People’s “High Part of the Road”. Somewhere, I read disparaging remarks about guitar players and traditional music. Often the accompaniment is out of time, out of tune, and intrusive. Like Zoo Man’s conversation mangling Heaney’s recital on the last plane. (see previous post)

Outside the plane they are showing a film of a very beautiful north Qld coast at sunset, and soon there is only the swirling dreamscape of thick cloud cover below us and the clear sky and the sun setting over in the west. It’s a Bach landscape, the solo Partitas, or maybe Bibier and the Rosary Sonatas, but there are states of mind where Bach is too dangerous. I might fall into the spaces between the notes and never resurface. The Goblins are friendly. Some of their associates aren’t.

Somewhere I’ve read disparaging remarks about guitar players attempting to play dance music, and since I’m traveling with “Last Night’s Fun” and it sounds like something Carson might have written I’m flicking though looking for the comment. Whoever said it had to have done so pre Tony McManus, and probably, if my memory is right, allowed Brady and Dick Gaughan as exceptions.

The tenses are dissolving. Two days ago I am looking at Renbourn’s arrangement of the Blarney Pilgrim thinking “this is pretty’. Renbourn is a superb guitar player but pretty the Blarney Pilgrim should not be. So I find my favourite version of said tune: the version on the Andy Irvine Paul Brady CD, and it really is beautiful. For the life of me I can’t remember who is playing fiddle (Kevin Burke). This is what Zoo man may never understand about sex: it’s a collaborative activity. For some reason this is giving me the giggles and making the staid lady in the seat beside me nervous. She too is reading a magazine which is full of pictures of women. They are no more clothed than Zoo man’s.

Brady’s guitar on the Brady People’s ‘The High Part of the Road’, was set up so that listeners who don’t like the guitar can shift the balance and exclude it. The liner notes are defensive about the presence. The first “stereo” unit we bought was huge, but it had a balance dial and you could make the Beatles split left to right, drums and bass on one side, voice and guitars on the other. Thismade lsitenign to the Beatles interesting. Though I never owned a Beatles’ record so it must have been my sister’s tape….but the ipod won’t let me split the channels. And anyway, I don’t want to. The assumption is that the guitar should be the supporting partner in the marriage. Like a 1950s housewife knowing her place.

In Derridian terms Brady’s guitar is a scandal. It dissolves the Rhythm/Lead binary. No one seems to have explained that rhythm is provided by playing the guitar as tuned percussion and Lead is ..well..playing the tune…Brady seems to be doing both and neither. He’s not really accompanying the fiddle in the sense of supporting it. This is Kristeva’s ideal of equal but different. Celebrate the unique qualities, strengths, virtues of the part, but without establishing a hierarchy…Equal but different… ….John Doyle playing with Liz Carroll…whose guitar playing is scandalous because he does what he does and let us be thankful for this without even bothering to work out what the hell it is he is doing or how. He reminds me of some of those fiendishly difficult medieval welsh metrical forms.

I can’t find the reference but I have wandered once again through last night’s fun. I’ve read some of this so many times it has a strange sense of déjà vu(or déjà lu) but as I reread “The Smokey House” it’s not quite how I remember it. I resort to cheating and listen to Ennis tell the story himself. His delivery is perfect. And I’m right. Carson’s version is subtly different . Which is how it should be, I think. Except the print version leaves out: “This is definitely a story based on historical fact….” that knowing wink to the listener that you can leave your skepticism at the door and go along for the ride. So I do. It has to be a candidate for “The Best Intro to a Tune”.

The goblins are obviously in good form because our “flight” is twenty minutes early. The airporter is waiting to shift me on to the next set and the conversation is so weird inside I seek refuge in Rosemary Lane…

Standing on the familiar pavement, checking the goblins put the cracks the right way round, waiting to cross the road, I can hear them scurrying off to their next job gleefully singing their anthem…The World is What You Make It…

Normal service may resume later. Please do not adjust your set.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Random encounters with the arbitrary. #1 The Goblins get to work

A long time ago, even further back than last Friday, one of the significant indicators that Christmas was on the way, along with darkening nights, cold, the smell of coke burning, and the compulsory memorising of carols, was the annual “Visit to Santa”.

One dutifully admired the elves and gnomes in the little yellow lit windows of the “grotto” and then sat on Santa’s knee and received the almost inevitable red double-decker bus.

The best option though was to go to the Co-op, a huge ugly building in the precinct.
They had a “ride”. Whichever parent was on duty paid the astonishing sum of sixpence and we entered a dark interior with benches. The door closed and after a compulsory Yo ho ho from the darkness, the floor lurched into life, the walls rattled and moved, with a sound I know realise was canvas on rollers and we rode Santa’s sleigh though the star spangled darkness. Stepping out, we had traveled continents and time zones to the Grotto, where after dutifully admiring the working models of elves at work, the inevitable red bus awaited.
(There was also a post box for letters to Santa but ours went up the chimney…)

So there is some very primitive part of my mind that remains convinced that what happens when you step on to an aeroplane is that "THEY" shut the doors, make a lot of noise, and what claims to be your window is in fact a projection screen on which runs a very pretty film while outside, on the tarmac, near the unmoving plane, the goblins are working frantically to rearrange the scenery so that when the ride stops, you have gone nowhere but the stage setting has completely changed. The time you spend in the plane is directly proportional to the amount of time the goblins need to change things.

So I’m not sure if I went to Townsville or just sat in a highly elaborate version of Santa’s sleigh ride on the tarmac at Brisbane airport. Which would also raise the question: does Brisbane airport exist of is just another stage set….or does it all mean that at some stage of my life I read far too many Harlan Ellison stories?

I do know that during the ride, instead of sitting by my mum or dad enjoying the silliness of the recorded Yo ho hos, I shared a row …(Not a row but a row of seats) with two guys whose shoulders were even bigger than mine, and while I was listening to Heaney recite Squarings on ye magical ipod, the guy beside me takes out a magazine called Zoo and thumbing though the pictures of women explains to his friend exactly what he would do to which body…and since the ipod wasn’t cranked to head bursting levels I have this strange aural experience of Heaney saying “what use the held line that cannot be assailed” etc mixed with some highly improbable discussions of sexual antics, or acrobatics…or aerobics… or even stunt flying…… his conversation interrupted by a hostess who managed to not look at his magazine in a way that made it obvious she wasn't looking at his magazine, but who looked more like a stick drawing than a human, which threw me back to Moscow and Olga saying ”Russian men are confused by the western stick woman; they say ”are we dogs to gnaw bones” but I was saved from terminal nostalgia when Zoo man managed to spill his third vodka mixer over both us..but he did it affably and with an endearing “I’m such a clutz” performance… so I switch to Paul Brady singing “The world is what you make it”…and hope the goblins have got the Townsville scenery sorted….

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Round the Wrekin

I’ve been struggling to write a paper for a conference.
It’s not that I don’t want to do it. I do. It’s not that I’m not interested in what I have to say. I am. The problem is that I know exactly what I am going to say. I could stand there and talk the thing without notes and nail it in forty five minutes. Writing it seems tedious.
A plod from point to point.

Dammit: I should have lived in an oral culture.

Writing is interesting when it starts to reveal things, slides down side alleys into weird little corners or suggests directions I hadn’t thought of. Can’t afford that here. Simply plodding; it’s just hard work.

Anyway that’ s my minor revelation and my excuse and I’m sticking to it until tomorrow, when I will have run out of time and will just have to write the damn thing.
A man walks into the pub. He has two guitars. Later, when we go out for a break he accepts an invitation to play. I hear the unmistakable sounds of “Blackwater Side’. I’ve never heard it done live and never worked out how to do it. I wander back in to listen.

I’m seventeen again, back home in my bedroom in Coventry, the window’s open and it’s a warm summer afternoon. I’m sitting with the Eko, the familiar smell of its dark fragrant interior, the slightly sick smell of steel strings, the relaxed feel of that slightly curved fretboard. I'm staring hard at a John Renbourne song book, trying to learn his version of Jansch’s “Reynadine”. (and failing)

Later, we talk. It’s a conversation consisting entirely of snatches of guitar music, verses of songs, titles, names. Shorthand. Things I didn’t know I had remembered.
I knew I should have lived in an oral society.

I come away feeling vindicated. Earthed. Driving home in the dark feeling as if I’ve just been gifted with the permission to touch something old and solid.

A gentle reminder of something valued, the suggestion that it can be taken out in public once in a blue moon. Not lost, or forgotten, just waiting around patiently.
Having knocked the new writing project into a mini shape to see what it looks like, I can have a break (when the conference paper is written, Liam, only when you’ve written the conference paper.) Since the project is a narrative, I read S/z, which is one of the most enjoyable books I can remember reading. Talk about reading as discovery. And Narrative Discourse, which doesn’t quite have the gleeful élan of s/z but which I thoroughly enjoyed. Applying these two now to Carmilla, to see how that story works, to see if I’ve got the ideas sorted in my head and to rediscover the story.

All this to cycle back to “For All We Know” in the hopes of it answering some questions for me which will then feed into the writing project. Round the wrekin, I'd admit, but that's often the best way to get anywhere.


Why can’t poeting be as social as traditional music. Set question for Mr. C. Carson.