Entry 52: My Good Friend Joe- Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,/Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome/Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some/Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?
This portrait of a blacksmith from the late 19th Century written in 1880 by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was the inspiration of a song I wrote 120 years later. I did not replicate the Italian sonnet structure or rhyme scheme, I did not replicate the tender pastor/parishioner relationship obtaining in the poem, I did not replicate the subtle theology of the original- I did not even replicate the fact that the subject of the poem had ceased to be! To be frank- all I did was steal a feeling, sense of mortality, a realisation that we are all leaves trembling on the tree of life.
False pretences you may shriek. False? No! Pretences- now that is a different matter! All that I know is that the song’s first line blossomed in my head one night in 2000. Oh is he gone, my good friend Joe, we played in a band… The latest band I had helped to form was in abeyance and I was hungry for an outlet for…what? Let’s use the word, energy instead of creativity– which sounds way too wanky. I guess I was reflecting on my journey as a musician over the past thirty- odd years.
When I first arrived in Australia, I sought out familiar faces and accents, as all migrants do. In 1973 I was invited to a St Patrick’s do at Collegians club in Wollongong. By that time I had had a few months to find my feet and I made a few contacts among the Irish contingent on the South Coast. We climbed the stairs to the upper room where trestle tables covered with crepe paper were laid out. The entertainment was…puzzling; an Italian chap with a nice big shiny accordion picked out a few anodyne tunes, among which were a few ersatz Oirish songs written for Hollywood B-movies.
I was not happy. Now, I don’t blame the accordion player- he was just gigging. But that anyone would think that this was a celebration of Irish culture just made me gag. So I decided to make sure that the next St Paddy’s day would be more…what? Irish, that’s what I decided. The result was the formation of Seanachie which started to play in a local hotel, as well as cafes and art galleries in the Illawarra- and eventually even played as far afield as Sydney and the Snowy Mountains.
We were OK, thanks, in part, to Joe who had played guitar in various bands in and about Strabane, Northern Ireland. Along with him was his mate Bertie who was a wiz on the mandolin as well as a whistle player, Johnny. The main singer was a Londoner of Irish descent called Tony. I was a bit of a Jack of all trades, playing a bit of guitar, banjo, mandolin, bodhran and whistle which I was struggling to learn that year.
We weren’t quite ready for a full concert in ’74 and our first appearance at Collegians was, shall we say, a limited success- limited, that is, to our loved ones who were determined not to rub too much salt into the wounds. We did get better, but who wants to hear about success. You know, nothing is really ever old. In 1990, I was appalled on St Patrick’s Day, in a club in north Queensland, to hear the wife of a big car dealer in the Burdekin making mockery of the Irish accent as she performed what can only be described as a “blackface” rendition of The Spinning Wheel.
She meant well, of course. And I classify her as a kindred spirit of Ruby Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Revelation. We may talk about sickness in the soul or the spirit but nothing concentrates the mind so much as imminent and grave threats to the body. Illness struck down Felix Randal, the hulking blacksmith, who had gloried in his physical size and strength. The diminutive Jesuit priest, Hopkins, provided pastoral and sacramental care for the dying man, Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended/Being anointed and all…/Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!
Interestingly, the final images of the poem are not of decay, darkness and death but show Felix Randal in his glory days or, as Hopkins puts it,…all thy more boisterous years,/When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,/Didst fettle for the great grey dray horse his bright and battering sandal!
As I said at the outset, my song does not try to emulate the linguistic and sonic adventures of the sonnet. Indeed, it is a funeral song without a corpse. Joe is still living, as far as I am aware. It may come to pass that we will again have time to meet somewhere far down the coast, near Eden, where we will fish from the beach and watch the waves roll in from the South Pacific and later, with fortune providing us with a couple of flathead, we will drink and chat about old times over a fish barbecue as the sun goes down.