Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 73 A World of Pain

Entry 73: A World of PainWritten early in 2002. You know, it took me about six months toa-twin-tower-image even believe in the events of September 11, 2001. I mean it. For half a year, almost, I could not totally credit what had taken place. I had read and viewed years before the news of those Mickey Mouse attacks on the World Trade Centre, where some losers were trying to situate cars with explosives next to pillars in the underground carpark in the nineties to bring the towers down. Let’s face it. Those guys with towels around their heads were as laughable as the guys in black pyjamas in what the winners now call the American War and what we persist in calling the Vietnam War.

a-paradigm-shift-imageHow could those murderous buffoons deliver such massive blows to the jaw and gut of the premier power on earth? I admit that I got it wrong; first, in Vietnam, and later in NYC. And believe me, it won’t be the last time I get it wrong. It got me thinking about real paradigm shifts, when the lens through which we view the world is revealed to be flawed; where we need a new set of spectacles to see our way- until, that is, the next revelation shakes the core of our being.

For me, the Bali bombings of October 2002 sealed thea-bali-2002-image deal. 202 innocents perished in that awful conflagration. By the end of the year I knew that, indeed, the world had changed and that there would be no going back. But I stand by the imaginative recreation of a possible dystopian future for people like me that I wrote in February 2002. It is as likely to happen as any of the prognostications of the experts I pay a dollar or two to read in the daily newspapers. (Not that the papers will last too much longer, if the pundits have got it right, even accidentally.)

a-tent-imageThe song posits a post-apocalyptic world in which small groups of Westerners, clinging to remnants of their culture and past, wander through a desolate landscape, harried by bands of fanatics (the successors of the Taliban and Islamic State, perhaps) who periodically force them to uproot and keep moving. And they have kept moving, across a virtual, frozen plain for a decade and a half while the real world spins out its revelations- some dire, some dream-laden, some disastrous and some desirous.

Tonight, my son made a point of coming in to tell me the news that David Bowie had dieda-black-star-image of cancer. My first thought, after registering the info and feeling the existential hit that another of my contemporaneous heroes was gone, was that I had been in JB Hi-Fi just an hour previously and had toyed with the idea of buying Black Star, Bowie’s, as it now seems, last musical CD. But, I had decided to stream it instead.

Yet I had obsessed over Heroes in the seventies, after singing along in the sixties about Major Tom, the Space Oddity, and reprising it again in the eighties to the strains of Ashes to Ashes. Now I am streaming the CD Black Star. Remembering that Bowie had gone to a-carinda-image to make Let’s Dance and throw his considerable celebrity weight behind the cause of Aboriginal rights and recognition reminds me that so much goodness resides beneath the dirt that journalists seek to heap- sometimes justifiably- on those, such as David Bowie, who have attracted the limelight.

Vale, David. And still the world spins crazily: my daughter dances frenetically in her room, I can feel the vibrations through the floor, my wife watches the Golden Globes on the flat-screen TV in another room, my son trawls through footage from forty -one seasons of Saturday Night Live for material that he will use in his radio show next Sunday.

Me? I try to get stuff together: I am supposed to be organising a one-week break in Newa-bws-image Zealand, all the while, consuming the three main food groups of my diet- beer, wine and spirits. The perspicacious among you will know that I will be hanging out for a fragment of a poem by this stage- if not the thing whole. And, yet, I am without a clue.

At the moment I am listening, for the first time, to the final song streaming from Bowie’s last album, I Can’t Give Everything Away and I know I will be listening to the whole album again and again, to the accompaniment of my three favourite food groups and memories stretching back to the sixties will take me somewhere that I hope will reveal a poem to mark the entry appropriately- even though I hate the word appropriately.

a-earthshakingAnd so my daughter dances to Maroon 5, my wife watches Ricky Gervais sneering at the glitterati at the Golden Globes while my son channels John Belushi or, perhaps, perves on Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And me? I just tip another glass of Cab Sav and reflect that my Christmas stash has just about run dry. So, too, my poetry search. I’ll end with a part of a prayer: as several poets have noted- prayers are poems and poems prayers:

Kyrie Elison, (Lord have mercy).

 

A World of Pain
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ74 Another Mother’s Day

Entry 74: Another Mother’s Day– Know any saints? Perhaps you’re related to one or yearn fora-missionary-nun-image that crown yourself. Me? Not one or likely to be one but I can claim kinship to one- if I am to believe my aunt Maggie who was a missionary nun in Africa and who later became the mother superior of a convent in Ireland.

She wrote to me in the late 80s, when I had returned to Australia and she had retired from active life to a convent at Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, that she was pretty sure that we were connected to the founder of the Brown Joeys, more formally known as the sisters of a-mary-imageSt Joseph of the Sacred Heart- one Mary MacKillop. She thought that I might be interested in the connection.

At the time, I thought little of it but my interest in the matter has revived sporadically over the years since: in 1995 with Mary MacKillop’s beatification by Pope John Paul II and in 2010 with her subsequent canonisation by Pope Benedict XVI. If I cared more for genealogy I might now be able to confirm the supposed connection, but I am happy enough with just the possibility of falling within the penumbra of a saint (if one should use such a lightless metaphor in reference to nuns).

Sometimes, lightless is right, though- the Magdalene laundries have a spotted reputation.a-ml-laundry These institutions were run by various orders of nuns, among others, where young women: those pregnant, those dispossessed and those distressed, were put to work in harsh conditions where love was often hidden behind the billowing vapour, clanking rollers and shouted orders in places as far afield as Australia, America, Britain and Ireland.

It’s only in the past 10 years or so that the last one closed. The truth of what happened in a-ml-imagethese places is probably as complex and as various as the times, the places and the people involved: but not likely to be, as the most vociferous critics aver, comparable to a Nazi concentration camp, nor were they merely a soothing refuge for unfortunate girls and women as the defenders of the laundries would have it.

Our family experience of nuns has been generally positive: my wife, though remembering with ire rulers across the hand as a child because she had mispronounced an Irish word, nevertheless waited for nearly a year until Sistera-good-sam-image2 Margaret of the Good Samaritans was able to baptise our younger daughter rather than allow the time-serving priests of the parish we were living in at the time to perform the rite.

I still laugh at an anecdote about my aunt, with bottles of illicit poteen she was bringing back for the nuns in her convent in Cork secreted in the voluminous folds of her religious garments making a a-train-st-imageclinking, clacking racket as she ran for her train through the Dublin station attracting the stares of bemused onlookers.

In 1971, as a wedding gift, she gave us a set of paintings by Nigerian artists which has adorned the walls of our residences for 45 years now. Nuns, generally, are more connected to the communities they serve than their male counter-parts, they have a better sense of humour and, if the church is to survive in thea-nun-image long run it will be down to these redoubtable women rather than the popes, cardinals, bishops and priests who cling desperately to their outmoded privileges.

And so to the nun that this entry’s song is all about- Mother Teresa. She has been the subject of hagiography and vilification as one might expect concerning one of the true icons of this age. The song looks at one part of her interior life- the dark night of the soul. David Van Biena in an article for “Time” magazine (August 23, 2007) wrote in fascinating detail about the contradictions at the heart of her life and ministry revealed through her letters to her confessors,

a-mt-imagemany of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church). They reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever.

This woman could have provided a template for characters in existentialist angst-ridden dramas from Ibsen to Beckett where all that can be seen is “an arid landscape from which the deity has disappeared.”

She wrote in 1962, If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven–to be the light of those in darkness on earth.

I will end with the words of an unfashionable writer but one I have used before in thisa-longfellow-image journal, and may have recourse to in future: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in stanzas two and three of his poem Loss and Gain wrote with clarity and wisdom,

I am aware/How many days have been idly spent;/How like an arrow the good intent/Has fallen short or been turned aside.//But who shall dare/To measure loss and gain in this wise?/Defeat may be victory in disguise;/The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.

 

Another Mother’s Day
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 75 Another Saturday in Limbo

Entry 75: Another Saturday in Limbo It’s simple for the atheists among us. There’s nothing.a-limbo-image Believers of one sort or another, on the other hand, postulate one or more states of post-mortem being such as the eastern concept of Nirvana or the five abodes of Thomas Aquinas: heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo of children and limbo of the Patriarchs.

 To this I would add those empty hours when everything worthwhile seems to be in abeyance. It is particularly a-boredom-imagesharp on Saturdays when the drudgery of the work-a-day week is over and the promises of the day telegraphed so alluringly in the days prior begin to wither under the gravity of listlessness and inertia that so often descends on the blank-eyed denizens of the dragging eons that seem to stretch out before them on what should be the best day of the week.

As I write this, though, I wonder if the capacity to be so intensely bored is a passing phenomenon- today’s netizen has only to glance at aa-netizen-image smart phone or watch and give a curt command to the digital assistant to be instantly diverted by whatever whim is within reach. But when I wrote this song, in 1982, no such diversions were available. Reading books was always- and still, though to a lesser extent, alas-an antidote to the poisonous ennui that I seem to absorb through the pores.

a-adams-imageI first read The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1979 and later devoured the BBC Radio Four adaptation when it was broadcast. Then the 1981 TV series eventuated and I looked down with superior disdain upon those who had only just discovered the wonderful creations of Douglas Adams. One of my favourites was Marvin, the Paranoid Android. In him, I found a template for my own angst. Here, he speaks,

I didn’t ask to be made: no one consulted me or considered my feelings in the matter. I don’t think it even occurred to them that I might have feelings.” Wikipedia supplies the true horror of his situation.  As the menial labourer on the Heart of Gold spaceship, he grew immensely resentful of the insistence of his…masters… that he open doors, check airlocks and pick up pieces of paper. He reserved a particular contempt for the sentient doors, despising their blissful satisfaction with existence.

 It is, of course, my practice to include bits of poems in these journal entries. So, here’s a stanza from a lullaby composed by Marvin which has the title How I Hate the Night,a-android-image

Now I lay me down to sleep/Try to count electric sheep/Sweet dream wishes you can keep/How I hate the night.

 And how I hate the night. When you snap awake at three in the morning and start to remember lines from Aubade by Phillip Larkin. I work all day and get half-drunk at night. That was me for over forty years. Taking refuge in prayer does not overwhelm that dry voice referring to that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade created a-larkin-imageto pretend we never die. In fifty lines, taking little over three minutes to recite, you can listen to the poet explicating our deepest existential fear on YouTube.

Well, back then it was Saturday morning and I was, as they say, at a loose end. My wife and kids were visiting her mother and I was alone with a guitar and feeling trapped. An Australian friend, visiting the year before had envied the setting in which I lived: in the heart of the Glens of Antrim, looking across Red Bay to Garron Point. My response? Yeah, it’s great-if you like living in a postcard.

So I stared out the kitchen window from the flatness of my postcard and made myself a cup of instant coffee. I looked out on the turned soil of the front yard, not much largera-garron-point than a bedsheet. I was preparing the ground for…? Who knows? But it seemed a good idea at the time. I sat down and started strumming chords on the guitar, a fairly usual ploy to break the boredom. Searching in the fridge for something to snack on, I saw a block of processed cheese on which rested my younger son’s half-chewed teething rusk.

And I was bored no more. I had been reading in a recent Sunday supplement a-val-imageabout the pop images of Mel Ramos and one, in particular, had stuck in my mind- his image of a nude pin-up poised on a giant block of Velveeta processed cheese, raised on one arm, her head turned over her shoulder towards the viewer, her elaborate, coiffed hairstyle proudly on show. You probably know it- he first drew this in 1965 and reprised it as recently as 2004. An example of pop-art sensibility at its best.

If Andy or Roy appeal to you, then Mel is worth checking out. His nudes adorn bottle tops, cocktail glasses, cigars as well asa-mel-image3 emerging from peeled bananas and lurking behind sauce bottles. I sat down at the table and started writing this song. I finished it just before my wife returned with the kids. And what are you looking so pleased about?, she demanded, as she manoeuvred the pram in through the door.

 

Another Saturday in Limbo
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 76 It’s Been Taken Away

Entry 76: It’s Been Taken Away–  It’s Australia Day. I’ve been tasked with learning how toa-australia-day-imageth cook the perfect leg of lamb on the Weber by consulting the experts online, but I’m not going to do that just yet. Procrastination’s at work, yes, but there’s something else.

My awareness of aboriginal Australia started almost as soon as I arrived here in Sydney. In September, 1972, I attended an orientation session organised by the NSW Department of Education in Bridge Street. There, one of the presenters recited a litany of Aboriginal place-names: probably a party piece, and, I suspect, plagiarised from the Geoff Mack lyrics to a-everywhere-imageI’ve Been Everywhere, Man.  Among the mellifluous recitation were such exotic locations as Adelong Boggabilla Coolongatta Dandenong Ettalong Mooloolaba Murwillimbah Kirribilli Wollondilly Cabramatta Goondiwindi Parramatta Unandera Wnagaratta Mullimbimby Narrabeen Kurrajong Narromine Mittagong Billabong and Wollongong.

Not that I remember the list, of course- except for the last in the series, Wollongong, for the next day I found myself on a train to that South Coast city that was to be my home for the next six years.

At Warrawong High School in 1973 there was one black face in my Year 8 class. A quiet and withdrawn boy, whose name eludes me now- but it was an anglicised name and not aboriginal. I later realised that he was part of the stolen generations, but at the time I had no idea.a-sg-image

A couple of years later the group I was playing in were part of a support concert for the victims of Pinochet in Chile. Memories of that event are vague, but two incidents stand out: First, I remember a heated exchange between some of the concert organisers and a belligerent aboriginal elder from Nowra who was indignant that we had the time and inclination to support victims of injustice in South America but remained blind to what was going on in Australia to the original Australians.

The truth stung, and my wife, who was working as a secretary in the Department of a-bomb-threat-imageCommunity Services, reminded me of the endemic racism she witnessed regularly when matters pertaining to Aboriginal Australians were dealt with. Second, there was a phoned bomb threat and I remarked to my wife as I bundled her into the car with the kids that it would be ironic to be blown up in Wollongong after surviving Belfast.

Returning to Australia in 1988, little had changed, The Royal Commission into Black a-frontier-war-imageDeaths in Custody basically said, nothing to see here, folks. But, little by little, the truth is getting out. I read Henry Reynolds when I was teaching up near Townsville. He had established the Australian History department at the university there and was documenting the history of the frontier clashes between white settlers and indigenous tribes.

Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech was the catalyst for my getting off my arse and taking out a-keating-imageAustralian citizenship, which I did, somewhat belatedly, at the beginning of January 1995, with the rest of the family. He optimistically ended, We cannot imagine that the descendants of people whose genius and resilience maintained a culture here through fifty thousand years or more, through cataclysmic changes to the climate and environment, and who then survived two centuries of dispossession and abuse, will be denied their place in the modern Australian nation… I am confident that we will succeed in this decade. Dec 10 1992.

 Everything hunky-dory then? Twenty-four year later, Stan Grant gained viral reach justa-grant-image2 this week when the Ethics Centre re-broadcast his 2015 IQ2 off-the cuff speech, where, among other things, he said, starting with a reference to the shameful booing of Adam Goodes, aboriginal sportsman and, ironically, Australian of the Year in 2014,

When we heard those boos, we heard a sound that was very familiar to us … we heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival. We heard the howl of the Australian dream, and it said to us again, you’re not welcome. Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free. My people die young in this country We die 10 years younger than the average Australian, and we are far from free. We are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population and yet we are 25 per cent — a quarter of those Australians locked up in our prisons. And if you’re a juvenile it is worse, it is 50 per cent. An Indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school. 

 a-oogeroo-imageI’ll finish with lines from one of aboriginal Australia’s greatest poets, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, whom I first knew as Kath Walker when I taught poetry to my Year 8 class as the face of that sad boy lives on in my memory, The best of every race/should here find welcome place;/ The colour of his face/ Is no man’s test of worth

 

It’s Been Taken Away
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 77 The Silver Frame

Entry 77: The Silver Frame– Photographs. I mean, here, the older sort- printed on speciala-ansel-image paper and placed in albums or behind frames or in glossy magazines, not the digital imposters that feature grinning, gesticulating loons having such a hell of a good time all of the time that they can barely maintain continence- or so it seems to me when my daughter shows me the latest trove from her Facebook page.

Susan Sontag, in 1977, wrote that the proliferation of photographic images had created in people a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world around them; and this, mind you, thirty years before the iPhone amplified that to include a-sontag-imagean overwhelming, self-absorbed narcissism. My initial dyspeptic comments notwithstanding, I love photographs: LIFE magazine was a feature of our household along with National Geographic when I was growing up and I spent hours with these magazines, imagining the lives and places behind the images.

The Yosemite studies of Ansel Adams, Hubble telescope revelations of distant galaxies and underwater vistas of coral reefs and deep-sea creatures are balm for the soul, certainly, but the human condition is revealed more clearly in images involving people sucha-american-civil-war-image as those from the early years of photography featuring the battlegrounds from the American Civil War and other sepia records from the 19th Century.

In the 20th Century, the two epochal collections curated by Edward Steichen at New York City’s MoMA entitled The Family of Man and The Bitter Years inspired one of my favourite poets, Carl Sandburg, to write,

People! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers. Here are a-family-of-man-imageironworkers, bridge men, musicians, sandhogs, miners, builders of huts and skyscrapers, jungle hunters, landlords, and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate — one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being. If the human face is “the masterpiece of God” it is here, then in a thousand fateful registrations. Faces in crowds, laughing and windblown leaf faces, profiles in an instant of agony, mouths in a dumb-show mockery lacking speech, faces of music in gay song or a twist of pain, a hate ready to kill, or calm and ready-for-death faces. Some of them are worth a long look now and deep contemplation later.

These collections have found a permanent home at Chateau Clervaux in Luxembourg anda-lange-image this is one of the destinations on my bucket list. You’re so tragic, I hear the adrenaline junkies among you sneer- so be it. There are, of course, countless portraits in black and white and colour where a human moment in time is trapped for our perusal and, perhaps, deep contemplation later.

In the 21st Century, the appalling image of the planes striking the World Trade Centre has, for me, and many others, I expect, maintained premier position, so far, in the photographic history of this century. Just how sensitive the use of this iconography proved to be is exemplified by the reaction to the initial album a-reich-imagecover of Steve Reichs’ WTC 9/11, written for the Kronos Quartet on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity.

The cover shows the twin towers just after the first plane has struck and just before the second is to strike. Phil Kline, a fellow composer, called the original “the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen. “It stirred up an enormous controversy that I was absolutely amazed to see,” Reich said. Others were surprised too. “This is a kind of image we were inundated with for weeks, months, even years after the event,” Anne Midgette wrote in The Washington Post. “Newspapers and magazines and television screens and the covers of books were flooded with pictures of towers being hit, towers burning, towers falling, rescue workers with red-rimmed eyes standing numbly amid the rubble of the towers.” So why, 10 years later, is this cover any different?

A good question, and I’m not sure there is any easy answer other than to suggest that ina-wedding-image the age of instant indignation fuelled and amplified by Twitter and other social media sites, artists have to be very careful about their choices, remain au fait with the technology and be adroit at turning on a dime to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous bloggers.

 For some, a photograph is more precious than any material treasure. In bushfires, the family photo album is taken ahead of the silverware. Although, I must admit that technology enabling images to be saved to the cloud may consign future albums to the flames. This song is about a photograph that is the only artefact remaining of a loving relationship uncovered after twenty years: precious, irreplaceable, unrepeatable.

 

The Silver Frame
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 78 I Can’t Sleep at Night

Entry 78: I Can’t Sleep at Night– Up to about ten years ago, I would occasionally boast abouta-clear-conscience the cleanliness of my soul and the tranquillity of my conscience, and, as evidence, proudly point out that I had never taken a sleeping pill in my life.

No, but many a sleeping draught, my wife’s look would wearily whisper: no doubt, caused by my longstanding habit of having a few soothing libations of an evening.

Then things changed. Future shock arrived, at last.

a-infobesity-imageIn 1971 I had read the Alvin Toffler best-selling book and was fascinated by the concepts he presented. Chief among them was the phrase information overload. The concept has also become known as infobesity, data smog and infoxication. Too much information renders the understanding of issues and, consequently, the making of decisions, difficult.

According to Wikipedia, Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a systema-spam-image exceeds its processing capacity. E-mail remains a major source of information overload, as people struggle to keep up with the rate of incoming messages. As well as filtering out unsolicited commercial messages (spam), users also have to contend with the growing use of email attachments in the form of lengthy reports, presentations and media files.

 To say nothing of petty bureaucratic regulations about having to respond to these excrescences within an absurdly short period of time. It a-clerk-imageseemed to me that the introduction of individual laptops to teachers’ desks produced a work-environment not unlike those of Dickensian clerks chained to their desks in serried rows.

According to Lucy Kellaway, One clerk, Benjamin Orchard, wrote the following bitter account of his existence in 1871: We aren’t real men. We don’t do men’s work. Pen-drivers – miserable little pen-drivers – fellows in black coats, with inky fingers and shiny seats on their trousers – that’s what we are. Think of crossing T’s and dotting I’s all day long. No wonder bricklayers and omnibus drivers have contempt for us. We haven’t even health.

The idea that I was little more than a 21st Century version of Benjamin Orchard, lodged ina-call-centre-image my brain and grew year on year, as micro-managerial strategies replaced previously relaxed and human ways of doing things. And these strategies strangled creativity as teaching became more like painting by numbers than producing the real thing. And I began to sleep less and worry more about…nothing. Generalised anxiety, perhaps. But it irked me. I wasn’t a monster who deserved to lose the peaceful repose of a good night’s sleep: a bit cranky, of course, but no Macbeth!

a-insomnia-imageMethought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!/ Macbeth does murder sleep,” the innocent sleep,/ Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,/ The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,/ Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,/ Chief nourisher in life’s feast. (Macbeth: 2: 2: 32-37)

 According to the online Shakespeare Navigator site, a “ravell’d sleave” is a tangled skein of thread or yarn. Macbeth uses it as a metaphor for the kind ofa-tangled-skein frustration we experience when we have so many problems that we can’t see the end to any of them. And we can understand why the Scottish nobleman has such perturbation of spirit- he’d just murdered his kinsman and king who was a guest under the sacred protection of the laws of hospitality. When the knocking at the gates echoes in the courtyard, he starts,

How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?/ What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes./  Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/ Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/ The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one a-sea-imagered.  (Macbeth: 2: 2: 55-60)

 Don’t you just weep over the beauty of such language. It’s hard to believe the info-babble spewing from managerial mouths and clacking keyboards is produced by members of the same species as the Bard. I refer you to the catalogue of dogs, found later in the play. The ignoble curs and mongrels outnumber the noble hounds, I fear.

When sleep fails me now, I read poetry of the lighter sort such as this by Eugene Field,

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night/Sailed off in a wooden shoe,/Sailed on a river of crystal light/Into a sea of dew/“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”/The old moon asked thea-wynken-image three./“We have come to fish for the herring-fish/ That live in this beautiful sea;/ Nets of silver and gold have we,”/ Said Wynken,/Blynken,/And Nod./…All night long their nets they threw/To the stars in the twinkling foam,/Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe, /Bringing the fishermen home:/‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed/As if it could not be;/And some folk thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed/ Of sailing that beautiful sea/;But I shall name you the fishermen three:/Wynken,/Blynken,/ And Nod.

 

I Can’t Sleep At Night
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 79 Deadhead

Entry 79: DeadheadThe song for this entry is an imagined account of a fan following thea-gd-image career of The Grateful Dead from the San Francisco event of March 3rd 1968,  I remember getting off the bus on Haight Street that Spring day, pushing my way through the crowds to see what all the excitement was about (I didn’t know- did anyone? -that the Dead were parking a flatbed truck across Haight Street to play a free gig!)

…to the last appearance of Jerry Garcia, singer and lead guitarist, at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1995.

a-gd3-imagePeople ask me what my favourite show was, and I always say the next one. But this is actually one of my favourites. The mood before, during, and after the show seemed to be one of unity and healing…The masterpiece for me was “So Many Roads” I remember leaving the show on a high that lasted for days. It would have been nice to see where we could have taken that. In the end, though, how do you rate a miracle.

These are real fans’ recollections which I have appropriated for the persona in the song.

 Here’s David Paumgarten, writing in The New Yorker of November 26, 2012: The Deada-gd4-image inspired many lamentable bumper stickers, but one good one captured how it felt, and feels, to be under their sway: “Who are the Grateful Dead, and why do they keep following me?”

Why do they keep following me around? I’ve never been to San Francisco, don’t much rate the hippie lifestyle and generally value brevity above prolixity. But slip on a pair of good earphones and stream one of the great concerts, such as the one at Fox Theatre in Atlanta, on November 30, 1980, and there might be a glimmer of an answer to the question: who are The Grateful Dead?

For me, a guitarist and mandolin player, the answer was Gerry Garcia. As a writer, though, I knew about the non-playing member of the band, Robert Hunter, whose collaborations with Garcia have a-gd5-imageproduced some of the most memorable songs: I’ll mention a trio of greats:  Scarlet Begonias, which is usually linked in concert to Fire on the Mountain and which fans usually refer to as Scarlet Fire. Begonias has the memorable lines It seldom turns out the way it does in the song, but my favourites are the final lines, Strangers stopping strangers/ Just to shake their hand, Everybody is playing/ In the Heart of Gold Band/The Heart of Gold Band.

 1987’s, A Touch of Grey, gains more relevance for me year after year. The verses are non-sequential litanies of largely negative images such as, Cows giving kerosene/Kid can’t read at seventeen/ The words he knows are all obscene, but the images of the verses are redeemed by the chorus, I will get by/I will survive, which morphs into We will get by/We will survive.

 The last of the trio is Terrapin Station, which I will not attempt to explicate other than toa-gd6-image say it’s a sixteen-minute long, sprawling, rococo, musical- and here I’ll use a technical term- mess! The lyrics are derivative, obscure and somewhat pretentious, and yet…yet, I do not skip past it on a playlist and I will often seek it out as I search for sleep on many a night. Go figure.

But I can’t end without mentioning, by name, some members of the group who have been there for years, Bob Weir- singer, guitarist, writer and vocalist; Phil Lesh, bass player extraordinaire, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, drummers of excellence, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Keith and Donna Godchaux, keyboards/vocalist, Brent Myland, Tom a-gd7-imageConstanten and Vince Welnick, keyboards. I must mention the other writer associated with the band, John Perry Barlow, who wrote memorable songs with Bob Weir such as Estimated Prophet and Throwing Stones.

Barlow wrote 25 Principles of Adult Behaviour in 1977, just before his 30th birthday, and I’ll give some of them here, in place of my usual verse, to end this entry:

1 Be patient. No matter what. 2 Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing ofa-barlow-and-hunter-image another you wouldn’t say to him. 3 Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you. 5 Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change. 6 Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself. 7 Tolerate ambiguity. 8 Laugh at yourself frequently. 9 Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right. 10 Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong. 12 Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously. 13 Never lie to anyone for any reason. 14 Learn the needs of those around you and respect them. 15 Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that. 16 Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun. 17 Praise at least as often as you disparage. 18 Admit your errors freely and soon. 19 Become less suspicious of joy. 20 Understand humility. 21 Remember that love forgives everything. 22 Foster dignity. 23 Live memorably. 24 Love yourself. 

 And finally, my personal touchstone, number 25– Endure.

 

Deadhead
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 80 Any Old Song/Dancing House

Entry 80: Any Old Song/Dancing House I’ll let the following adaptation from an article bya-french-quarter-image one of my correspondents speak for itself:

Records show that The Dancing House was established on the banks of the Mississippi in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1816 by an Irish associate of the pirate Jean Lafitte. His name is lost in the mists of time but one source of dubious provenance names him as Ian Chell, an adventurer who fled Ireland after the failed rising of 1798.

 The same source indicates that he fought in the a-battle-of-no-imageBattle of New Orleans and, as a reward for services rendered, was given a goodly sum of money with which he established a New World version of the old Irish ‘shebeen”.

The structure overlooked the river and its original name was written in green paint and in Gaelic. It had a notorious reputation and was shut down on several occasions. It passed through several hands in the century that it was in existence. Its use has been variously described as a brothel, a dance venue, a haunt for smugglers and bootleggers, a safea-n-o-image house for the underground railway during the slave years, and a social club for immigrants from various parts of Europe.

 Pre-eminent among its accomplishments was the quality of the music, which is a continuous motif in all its history and incarnations. The end of the fabled Dancing House came in the late summer of 1916. At this time, it was owned by a rogue of the first water; one “Colonel” James Ponsonby, a veteran of the Boer War who won it in a crooked poker game from its syphilitic previous owner.

a-fire-sceneA fracas erupted between Ponsonby (with his henchmen) and a group of Irish navvies- who were fired up by the events of Easter 1916 in Dublin and its aftermath. A blaze broke out and the structure burned to the ground. The glare of the inferno was seen for miles that fateful night. There is a curious epilogue to this incident that has kept the legend green (in more than one sense).

 The facade overlooking the Mississippi detached from the rest of the building and fell into the river where it floated downstream. Clinging to the wreckage was an Irish navvy called, Charlie Brymit, a native of the Antrim glens. How he got the facade to land, or where, is a matter for conjecture. What is important is that he did: for the facade preserved the original name in faded green paint (and all its other names in English and other languages.)

 An interesting fact is that Dancing House remained its name in every language- except under itsa-southern-mansion2-image last owner. Ponsonby had renamed it The Britannia Arms in a vindictive attempt to expunge its origins. Loosie May, a young Southern lass, the spirited heiress of one of the large landowners of the Lake Ponchchantrain area takes up the story in a diary entry dated September 23, 1916: “A most curious sight- a waggon drawn by four mules pulled in in front of the coach-house today. A bedraggled Irishman, half delirious was with a carter I know of vaguely. He asked for assistance to unload what looked to be a large pile of waterlogged planks. I gave orders to have it done. He begged for payment in advance saying he had promised the men ten dollars. I cannot fathom why, but I did! More on this curious transaction tomorrow.” Alas, we cannot know more, for the diary pages from this date on are missing.

The following notes from the diary of an anonymous folklorist may shed further light on the matter “Shrevesport 2/2/22. Home of Handly Moore. Negro music- guitar very primitive. a-share-cropper-imageStories of share-cropping. Love. Nothing new. Odd anecdote about a ritual burning. Mad Irishman of Moore’s acquaintance. Owner of illicit house with drink. Bizarre opening ceremony. Nailed up a plank written in a foreign language at front entrance. Gathered friends (Moore among them) outside at midnight. Another plank placed in oil-drum. Burned to ashes which are buried at crossroads!” Every business, vocation, occupation- what you will- has its myths.

 One of the most elusive yet persistent among establishments which are more than mere drinking dens, concerns the original signage of The Dancing House. In locations as scattered as Valparaiso, Rotterdam, Chicago, Durban, Skopje, Kalgoorlie and Belfast I have come across stories about The Dancing House. It is a modern version of splinters from the One True Cross! The owners swear that they have one of the sections of the original facade. They confide that the “real” artefact is concealed behind the visible name- embedded in the fabric of the building, for instance.

 In no case have I been favoured with a glimpse of the “relic”. Although, in several cases, the namea-dancing-house-image has been emblazoned in cheap glitter or garish neon or a pathetic attempt at a “weathered” sign- obvious fakes! The ambience of such places is such that no one could seriously imagine that they are true offspring of the original. Still, I have been in a few establishments where it would be churlish to believe otherwise than what has been claimed. Maybe you’ve been there too. Such places are welcoming, tolerant, musical and magical.

 And I may have been in one or two myself, over the years, the decades!

 

Any Old Song Will Do/Dancing House
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 81 The Holy Ground

Entry 81: The Holy Ground– It is 1816, a sailing ship limps past Roche’s Point, its rigging alla-storm-image torn. Exhausted mariners, returning after months at sea, perform their duties in desultory fashion but begin to perk up as they round Spike Island and spot the rows of terraces rising above the quay in Cove.

They swarm ashore and make for the places of entertainment for lonely and thirsty sailors in the section of town known as The Holy Ground. a-holy-ground-imageSoon they make the rafters roar with their shouts and songs, calling for strong ale and porter as the serving girls move among them, sometimes tumbling into the willing lap of a lusty tar.

Meanwhile, further to the north a popular young graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, called Charles Wolfe, is putting the finishing touches to his manuscript of a poem destined to become one of the most memorised throughout the English-speaking world.

I refer, of course, to The Burial of Sir Thomas Moore, after Corruna,  and give the opening anda-burial-image closing verses here,

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,/As his corse to the rampart we hurried;/Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot/O’er the grave where our hero we buried./We buried him darkly at dead of night,/The sods with our bayonets turning;/By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light/And the lantern dimly burning.//No useless coffin enclosed his breast,/Nor in sheet nor in shroud we wound him,/But he lay like a warrior taking his rest/With his martial cloak around him./…But half of our heavy task was done/When the clock struck the hour for retiring;/And we heard the distant and random gun/That the foe was sullenly firing./Slowly and sadly we laid him down,/From the field of his fame fresh and gory;/We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,/But left him alone with his glory.

a-cemetery-imageLittle did the poet know what an impact his poem would have throughout the world, and little did he know that just seven years later, he would find his rest in Old Church Cemetery outside Cobh, at age 31, having died of consumption.

In due course, he would be joined by Sir James Roche Verling, personal physician to Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile on St Helena, also, Fredrick Daniel Parslow, VC, the first member of the Mercantile Marine to receive the award and the remains of 193 victims of RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German torpedo in 1915 with a loss of over 1,100 lives.

This town was the first and last port of call of RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912.a-cobh-image This port also served to transport prisoners to the penal colonies of Australia. Robert Hume, writing in The Irish Examiner of March 10, 2015, explained the circumstances surrounding the first transport:

In March 1791, Henry Browne Hayes, Sherriff of Cork City, was put in charge of arranging the first transportation of Irish convicts to New South Wales. For the trip, he chose the Queen – a small, three-masted square-rigged vessel… For the next five months, prisoners and soldiers alike had to endure rancid food, and the stench of foul water and excrement. Each convict had only 18 inches of space to sleep in… within eight months, only 50 of a-coffin-ship-imagethe 122 male convicts were still alive… An enquiry into what had gone wrong unearthed scandal upon scandal. Captain Owen had purchased from Cork merchants the cheapest possible food for the crossing, but charged the Navy as much as he thought he could get away with… In April 1801, exactly 10 years after the Queen had sailed from Cork, the organizer of this monumental cock-up, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, was brought to trial for abducting a wealthy heiress. He was found guilty, but instead of the death penalty, the judge showed “mercy” – by transporting him, appropriately enough, to Botany Bay.

The Holy Ground is a powerful trope. In Exodus 3:5, the episode of the burning bush, Goda-holy-image tells Moses to take off his sandals as he is standing on holy ground.  In my mind, and in the lyrics of songs I have written, it represents a place of power, of belonging and of solace.

Variously, it has been the Glens of Antrim or Aruba, that small island in the Caribbean, but, for a long time now, almost half my life, it’s been Australia. I think, too, parents seek to “ground” their children in wisdom, sometimes by offering advice prefaced by statements such as, when I was your age.

Older children, often adults, will ask parents for insights such as, what was it like when you were a kid? When my first-born son died in 1989, aged 15, in a motorbike accident,

a-celtic-love-symbolI hadn’t had the time to offer too much in the way of sage advice and he didn’t live long enough to seek information about a long-distant past.

The phrase, when I was older than you, tells of all the years he will never experience, all the sights he will never see, all the sounds he will never hear, and alas, all the love he will never give or receive.

 

The Holy Ground
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 82 Saturday Night

Entry 82: Saturday Night– Want a cushy pop culture question? OK- name three songs witha-sn-image the words Saturday Night in the title? Too easy! Saturday Night at the Movies by the Drifters; Saturday Night’s Alright (for fighting) by Elton John and Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees.

The ever-informative Wikipedia tells me that Saturday, the name, was selected as a calque of the god Saturn, after whom the planet was named. What is a calque? Well, wouldn’t you know: there was a hyperlink which I clicked to discover, In linguistics, a “calque” or “loan translation” is a word or phrase borrowed from another language byliteral, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.

a-skyscraper-image One of the most common examples of a calque is the English word skyscraper. In Armenian it’s yerk-n-a-ker, or “sky-scratcher”; in German, Wolkenkratzer or “clouds-scraper”; while in Vietnam such a structure is referred to as nha choc troi  or “sky-poking building”.

But, back to Saturday: it gets its name from the Roman god, Saturn and the planet of the same name. In Roman mythology, Saturn is the god of agriculture, leader of the titans, founder of civilisations, social order, and conformity. But, before the Saturnists among you get too big a head over this, listen to what Marcus Manilius, a 1st Century poet has to say, Saturn is sad, morose, and cold, and is the greater malefic. (For those who have forgotten the basics from Astrology 101, the greater malefic is a reference to one of the twoa-saturn-image planets which bring bad luck, namely, Saturn, which, of course, leaves Mars, as the lesser malefic.)

Not to be out-done for weirdness, Claudius Ptolemy, a 2nd Century writer asserts, Saturn is lord of the right ear, the spleen, the bladder, the phlegm, and the bones. But beating them all for the Wacko Cup is a work called Sefer Yetzirah, a Jewish document dating, perhaps, from as early as the 2nd Century BC, He made the letter Resh king over Peace And He bound a crown to it And He combined one with another And with them He formed Saturn in the Universe Friday in the Year The left nostril in the Soul, male and female.

a-saturnalia-imageIn a manuscript in the British Museum, the Sefer Yetzirah is declared to be esoteric lore not accessible to anyone but the really pious. Which probably explains why I can’t make head nor tale of it. Like most, I revel in the obvious, and what’s really obvious about Saturday night is its relationship to the Roman festival which was held on December 17th – Saturnalia.

The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slavesThe poet Catullusa-cattulus-image called it “the best of days”.

 Which he had too few of, alas, dying at about 30 years of age, like so many poets. Not much survives, apart from 116 poems. We don’t know a whole lot about his life but there are at least a couple of poems, the fame of which, live down the millennia. One, addressed to his mistress, Lesbia, tells of their relationship. It starts with a brief and startling statement, Odi et amo- I hate and I love.

It continues, Perhaps you ask why I do this? I do not know but I feel it happening to me and I am burning up. Another famous three-word statement, ave atque vale, hail and farewell, provides the ending of a famous elegiac poem written when Catullus travelled to the grave of his brother, near the site of Troy.

Carried through many nations and many seas,/I arrive, Brother, at these miserable funeral rites,/So that I might bestow you with the final gift of death/And might speak in vain to the silent ash/…And forever, Brother, hail and farewell.

 a-sn2-imageSaturday night continues to embody aspects of Saturnalia: the shackles of the week are thrown off and the first day of the weekend culminates in festive darkness where possibilities proliferate. Or not! In any case, the prospect of a lie-in on Sunday before resuming the work-a-day drudgery of employment or school, will assuage, one hopes, the disappointments that are more likely than not to have been the outcome of the lottery of Saturday night.

The song recalls my early teen years in Aruba where risk-taking was de rigueur. I ran with a bunch of older kids who loved to show-off their new cars, bought by indulgent parents for their 16th. Just going to the movies, Mum! As if the celluloid facsimile could ever compare to the invitation of Saturday night itself.

As Langston Hughes put it, Play it once./O, play some more./Charlie is a gambler/An’ Sadie is a whore./A glass o’ whiskey/An’ a glass o’ gin:/Strut, Mr. Charlie,/Till de dawn comes in. Hey! Hey!/Ho, Hum!/Do it, Mr. Charlie,/Till de red dawn come.a-juke-joint-image

 Saturday night was such a good time, Saturday nights when I was young.

 

Saturday Night
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 83 Hiroshima

Entry 83: Hiroshima– What links Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, mystic and writer with ana-link-image international reputation; Stephen Fry, writer, TV presenter and quizmaster of the popular show QI and Jacob Beser, radar specialist on the aircraft Enola Gay and Bockscar?

They all impacted or commented upon the life and experience of , a modest Japanese engineer who avoided publicity for decades, choosing instead to raise his family away from the glare of the limelight, which he a-atomic-imagecould have claimed early, had he so chosen.

Mr Yamaguchi who died in 2010 aged 93, survived both atomic blasts; first, in Hiroshima, then, three days later, in Nagasaki. They had a big laugh about it on QI in December 2010, commenting that the bomb just bounced off his head while the host speculated about whether he was the luckiest or unluckiest man alive.

Not that any offence was intended, of course, but sometimes, with the best of intentions (see info about the road to hell, etc.), misunderstandings do arise. One of these concerns the work, Original Child Bomb, by Thomas Merton- a supposed poem (although it comprises a series of prose statements about the context, development and use of the bomb.)a-merton2-image

Here is the first statement, or stanza, if you wish, 1. In the year 1945 an Original Child was born. The name Original Child was given to it by the Japanese people, who recognized that it was the first of its kind. Except, it wasn’t: according to Wikipedia, the phrase “original child bomb” was derived from the Japanese term for the atom bomb, genshi bakudan. Genshi, which means “atom,” contains root characters which, when rendered individually, can be taken to mean “original” and “child.” Merton’s poem claims that the Japanese called the weapon the “original child bomb” because the bomb was the first of its kind. It is unlikely, however, that native Japanese speakers would have translated genshi as such, or that the phrase “original child bomb” was ever used by the Japanese.

 a-beser-imageStill, there’s a 2004 English-language documentary with that name, so it must be true. And so, to the third person mentioned in opening- Jacob Beser. He was the person of the trio mentioned who probably had the most profound effect on Tsutoma Yamaguchi.

As the on-board specialist responsible for ensuring that the electronic conditions for detonation of the bombs were optimal, Jacob Beser can claim total success. Both Little Boy and Fat Man (the names given to the devices of mass destruction) exploded over their assigned targets- Hiroshima and Nagasaki at shortly after eight fifteen and eleven o’clock in the morning respectively.

As a life-long employee working for the military-industrial complex of the United States, Mr Beser never expresseda-pearl-harbour-image any regret for his part in these historic events: I feel no sorrow or remorse for whatever small role I played… I remember Pearl Harbor and all of the Japanese atrocities…I don’t want to hear any discussion of morality. War, by its very nature, is immoral. Are you any more dead from an atomic bomb than from a conventional bomb?

 But let’s leave the last words to the survivor of both blasts, Tsutomu Yamaguchi. As mentioned previously, this unassuming employee of the Mitsubishi corporation shunned publicity for decades. In his daughter Toshiko’s words, he was so healthy, he thought it would have been unfair to people who were really sick.

a-atomic2-imageHowever, he did endure the cancer-related deaths of his wife, Hisako, and son, Katsutoshi, as well as the life-long illnesses of both his daughters before succumbing to stomach cancer himself. Gradually, he began to realise that he had a responsibility to future generations and he became engaged in anti-nuclear weapons activities.

In the documentary Nijuuhibaku (Twice Bombed, Twice Survived), screened at the United Nationsa-atomic3-image in 2006 he’s finally able to weep, in his 80s, as he recalls watching bloated corpses floating in the city’s rivers and encountering the walking dead of Hiroshima, whose melting flesh hung like ‘giant gloves.’  He resorted to poetry over the years to try to encompass his experience usually tanka, 31-syllable poems.

In 1969 he wrote, Thinking of myself as a phoenix,/I cling on until now,/But how painful they have been/ the years past. According to The Economist obituary of January 14, 2010, He wrote hundreds, each one an ordeal. When he composed them, he would dream of the dead lying on the ground. One by one, they would get up and walk past him. Carbonised bodies face-down in the nuclear wasteland/all the a-atomic4-imageBuddhas died,/and never heard what killed them.

 At 90, on his first trip abroad…in front of the UN, he pleaded for a non-nuclear world, If there exists a God who protects/nuclear-free eternal peace/the blue earth won’t perish.

 Amen, to that.

 

Hiroshima
Categories
Script for audio journal Volume 7 A World of Pain

SQ 84 …Your 32nd Birthday

Entry 84: (on what would have been) Your 32nd BirthdayPawn yo’ gold watch/An’ diamonda-juke-joint2-image ring./Git a quart o’ licker,/Let’s shake dat thing!/Skee-de-dad! De-dad!/Doo-doo-doo!/Won’t be nothin’ left/When de worms git through/An’ you’s a long time Dead/When you is/Dead, too./So beat dat drum, boy!/Shout dat song:/Shake ’em up an’ shake ’em up/All night long.

This is the middle section of Langston Hughes’ poem Saturday Night. I used the opening and conclusion of the poem to close Entry 82. The exuberant shout against mortality is one response, and one I admire. Here’s another take a-shel-imageon the matter from the song Still Gonna Die by Shel Silverstein,

Drink ginseng tonics, you’re still gonna die./Try high colonics, you’re still gonna die./You can have yourself  frozen and suspended in time,/But when they do thaw you out, you’re still gonna die.

 For a more solemn view, you may wish to visit or re-visit the great elegy by Thomas Gray, Written in a Countrya-elegy-image Graveyard, which opens, The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,/The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea/The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,/And leaves the world to darkness and to me. There are so many memorable lines in this justly famous poem, but these four lines will serve to illustrate the quality of the whole,

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,/And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,/Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,/The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

a-donne-imageJohn Donne, in his own inimitable way, defies the grim reaper, DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so. In the sestet of his sonnet, he scorns the power of death and affirms his own adamantine faith,

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,/And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?/ One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.  

 Ah, the power of poetry, the wonder of words.a-breugel-image

Brueghel the Elder’s contemporaneous The Triumph of Death must give one pause, though. Stand, if you will, before this panorama of desolation, painted on panel measuring 117cm x 162 cm and read it from left to right, top to bottom. Two skeletons toll the death of humanity as fires pour out palls of smoke from hills and ships burning in a bay while ashore skeletal figures ride famished horses as they hunt down peasants fleeing in despair.

a-b3-imageBodies hang from trees and gallows while carrion birds wheel above. Skeleton armies swarm in the middle-ground, herding the masses into a false sanctuary marked with a cross as a pair of skeletons frame this section- one on a wagon filled with skulls, plays the hurdy-gurdy while the other beats triumphantly on a pair of timpani.

Along the bottom of the painting a king vainly tries to prevent the looting of his treasury; in the centre a hound chews on the face of a child and a skeletal assassin cuts the throat of a supine man. The feast on the right has been interrupted by the forces of desolation: the stools upended, the cards scattered, the cup overturned.

A fool tries to crawl under the table as a demon empties the flasks of wine; a skeletona-b4-image grapples with a young woman in a parody of an amorous embrace as, in the lower right corner of the painting, a pair of young lovers, oblivious, sing from a musical manuscript to the accompaniment of a lute. At last! A sign of hope, you gasp…sorry, see that death’s head reading the music over her shoulder?

The dance of death is also depicted in the woodcuts of Hans Holbein and in the music of Saint-Saens whose Danse Macabre, a tone poem written in 1874 in the key of G minor, which, despite initial critical rejection, lives on in the repertoire and in adaptations such as the theme for the TV series Jonathan Creek.

On a more personal level, people give and acquire memorabilia associated with death. In Shakespeare’s time it was not unusual to have memorial rings made to be given to the favoured few- a pity it is not still a widespread custom. We, ourselves, have a score or more memorial cards of those family members and friends we have lost over the years.

a-solstice-imageOver the past 27 years I have written nine songs specifically in remembrance of my son who died at age 15 years. They take different forms but are all part of an ongoing engagement on my part with him. If we can’t go to the pub or sit out on the back veranda and shoot the breeze, then, at least, I can let him know how things are going, as in this 2005 song where I bring him up to date on what has been happening within the family group.

I started writing it on 19th December of that year and finished it two days later on the summer solstice, his birthday. And, no, I will never get over his death.

 

(on what would have been) Your 32nd Birthday