SQ 89 Woman in Blue

Entry 89: Woman in Blue What is it with uniforms? Women are said to be partial… What red-blooded boy had not dreamt of being a dashing Hussara-cuirasser-image, resplendent in shining breastplate, astride a warhorse decked out in regimental colours charging the enemy line? The empires of Europe with their Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars provided ample material for dreams of glory as young men yearned for their place in the Imperial sun.

Their’s not to reason why,/ Theirs’s but to do and die:/ Into the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred./ Cannon to right of them,/ Cannon to left of them,/ Cannon in front of them/ Volley’d and thunder’d;/Storm’d at with shot and shell,/ Boldly they rode and well,/ Into the jaws of Death,/ Into the mouth of Hell/ Rode the six hundred.

a-brigade-imageTennyson has immortalised those Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars that made up the Light Brigade as they charged the Russian cannon at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War on October 25, 1854. In a wax cylinder recording of 1890, you can hear trumpeter Martin Landfried, who saw action in the battle as part of the 17th Lancers, play the charge on the bugle used on the day (and which, incidentally, had also been sounded at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815).

The recording was made, not for commercial release, but to aid the Light Brigade Reliefa-bardolf-image Fund as, by this time, many of the heroes had fallen on hard times. Not an unusual story. Shakespeare created these sorts of characters in the persons of Nym, Pistol and Bardolf who were friends of Henry V in his youth.

Let’s listen to their noble friend rally the troops before Agincourt,

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,/Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,/And rouse him at the name of Crispian./He that shall live this day, and see old age,/Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,/And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”/Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,/And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”/Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,/But he’ll remember, with advantages,/What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,/Familiar in his a-henv-imagemouth as household words—/Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,/Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—/Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red./This story shall the good man teach his son;/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,/From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be remembered-/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition;/And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 But they got scant reward for their service in his war- indeed, Bardolph is hanged on Henry’s order for stealing from a church, Nym also reported as executed for looting and Pistol vows to desert and return to England as a thief and pimp.

I read somewhere that Rudyard Kipling missed out on Imperial honours because hea-atkins-image referred to Queen Victoria as the widow of Windsor as a reference to all the men killed in her service. Nevertheless, his depiction of Tommy Atkins as the quintessential British squaddie who is despised in peace time but feted when the war drums begin to beat, steers a course between the romantic square-jawed young grenadier of propaganda posters and the syphilitic scoundrel who enlists to escape imprisonment or worse,

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;/But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,/ The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play/Oh it’s “thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

a-cardigan-imageAnd the band, indeed, plays different tunes for different dancers. Lord Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, survived. He didn’t take time out, though, to succour the wounded heroes of the charge nor did he seek to rally and affirm those who had, somehow, survived unscathed.

No, this is what he did: he left the field of battle, boarded his yacht- which was moored in Balaclava harbour- and had a champagne dinner. No doubt, he changed into full-dress regimental uniform as he entertained a select few amidst the clinking crystal-ware and silver service.

I wrote this song in the mid-1980s when Cagney and Lacey shed their uniforms to becomea-cagney-lacey-image kick-ass detectives. I remember speculating how it would be to be the significant other of a patrol-woman of action. The uniform here adorns the female rather than the male. In the decades since lots of women, on screen and off, have taken up the burden of protecting society from the ne’er do wells who lurk in the shadows.


Woman In Blue

SQ 90 Where Henry Lawson Can Be Found

Entry 90: Where Henry Lawson Can Be Found– An invitation to make some music- eithera-medieval-music-image literally or figuratively- is a lot more pleasant than having to face it, don’t you agree? I have had the pleasure with reference to the former- both literally and figuratively- and have had to endure the pain of the latter, too.

The power of music transcends death, if one is to believe the Orpheus myth. You know the one, where the uber-musician charms the Lord and a-orpheus-imageLady of the Netherworld to release his wife Eurydice from the grip of death. All is well until, anxious to check that she is following him upwards to life and light and love, he turns and breaks the injunction not to look back, thereby hurtling her back into darkness.

Was this why he turned from his patron-god Dionysus who is associated with things chthonic? Was this why he spurned all other gods but the sun-god Apollo? Was this why he forswore the company of women and transferred his affections to boys?

Wherever the truth may lie, he met a sticky end: Orpheus ascended Mount Pangaion to the oracle of Dionysus to greet the dawn and pay homage to the sun-god. A band of Maenads, enrageda-maenad-image that he had abandoned their god, Dionysus, threw sticks and stones at him to break his bones and end his life.

However, so sweet was his playing, not only were animals tamed by his music-making but also the missiles deployed by the incensed women. In a frenzy now and possessed of preternatural strength, the Maenads a-head-imagelay hands on him and tear him limb from limb. His head and his lyre, still singing and playing, float away into legend.

His killers attempt to wash the blood off their dripping hands but the River Helicon, recoiling from the task of cleansing the murderers of their deed, sinks underground in horror. If you gaze at the stars above you will find his lyre set in the heavens; if you listen to the Infernal Galop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, you will hear the exuberant strains of the can-can as you envisage the high-kicking invitation of the dancers from the Moulin Rouge.

And you are under the spell of Orpheus with the rest of Western civilisation from classicala-oberon-image times onwards. Shakespeare’s recognition of the power of music is scattered throughout his plays: Oberon, King of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream recalls to Puck an instance where they,

sat upon a promontory And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back/ Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,/ That the rude sea grew civil at her song,/ And certain stars shot madly from their spheres/ To hear the sea-maid’s music.

Lorenzo in the Merchant of Venice, tells Jessica, daughter of the music-loathing Shylock,

The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord a-shylock-imageof sweet sounds,/Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;/The motions of his spirit are dull as night/And his affections dark as Erebus:/Let no such man be trusted.

In what is said to be his first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare writes:

Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,/ Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,/Make tigers tame and huge leviathans/ Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.

The Orpheus myth lives on confidently in the literature of the 21st Century with the novel Orfeo by Richard Powers. One hears expressions of love for music in phrases such as, it’s in my DNA! Well,a-orfeo-image Powers audaciously has his protagonist, a 70-year-old composer, attempt to manipulate the genome of a human pathogen (the bacterium, Serratia marcescens, which causes hospital-acquired infections) by splicing musical patterns into its living cells.

Having reached his allotted span, Peter Els, the aged composer, has to flee from Homeland Security and in that fugue re-lives his encounters with significant others and music from a-messein-imageMozart to Messiaen. I was drawn to listen to the music described in this novel. To encounter such sonic revelations as The Quartet for the End of Time, written in a Nazi Concentration Camp or Harry Partch’s Barstow with its strange instrumentation and musical structure made the week I was reading the novel and listening to its music the richest period of my life since the half-a-decade playing with the group in pubs and clubs at the end of the 90s.

I also identified with the anguish Els felt upon learning that his diminished joy when listening to music was probably caused by micro-strokes in thea-music-image area of the brain where sounds are processed. And here I was thinking that with me it was just the effect of listening to compressed formats. There is a magical fusion that, from time to time, arises between musicians and audience which makes me believe in the Orpheus myth and I can almost resurrect the joy sparked by such encounters when I remember such rare and beautiful times as that related in the song.


Where Henry Lawson Can Be Found

SQ 91 Parting Words

Entry 91: Parting Words- The amiable Duke of Gloucester, upon being presented with thea-duke-image second volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall… exclaimed to the author, Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon? So, you see, Prince Phillip is far from being the first aristocratic dolt when it comes to matters cerebral.

I must confess, dear listener, that the punk inside can’t help but whoop with glee: How dare people be so talented! I aimed for mediocrity and fell short… Words, words, words. I wonder what Gibbon would have made of Bo Burnham’s YouTube routine? Rather than an exploration of words, this entry narrows it to first words, last words and parting words.

First words need not detain us long as they do not overly whelm, do they? Mama, Dada, Goo-goo, Gaga. Last words are a bit more entertaining: Lady Astor, awakening briefly during her final illness to find her family gathered around her inquired, Am I dying or is this a-bogart-imagemy birthday? Cautionary notes are sounded, too: I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis, Humphrey Bogart warned before shuffling off this mortal coil in 1957.

For those who prefer a more tragic tone to this most tragic of outcomes will reflect upona-oscar2-image the final words of Caesar, Et tu, Brute? Aficionados of wit will find it hard to go past Oscar Wilde’s final observation: Either that wallpaper goes, or I do. The cats among us will relate to the Italian Renaissance painter, Pietro Perugino, the teacher of Raphael, who explained why he refused to allow a priest to hear his final confession, I am curious to see what happens in the next world to one who dies unshriven.

And so, to parting words. Some are spiteful, such as those of Malvolio, the pompous ass who has been made a fool of in a-malvolio-imageShakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you! If you are a romantic soul, you will nod your head slowly and sing along to Nat King Cole’s 1949 recording of the wonderful For all we know, we may never meet again/Before you go, make this moment sweet again/For all we know, this may only be a dream/We come and go like a ripple on a stream.

 How often have you been afflicted by staircase wit? You know, someone hits you with a zinger and you only think of the telling retort when it is tooa-diederot-image late. The phrase, staircase wit, comes from the French of philosopher, Denis Diderot who encountered such a situation at a soiree in Paris, “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the words levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs”.

 Winston Churchill, for all his weaknesses, was not prone to this one. A famous exchange involving the great man and Lady Astor is well-known but worth repeating, Winston, you’re drunk!/But I shall be sober in the morning and you, madam, will still be ugly./Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your tea./Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it. Another British a-disraeilipolitician, Benjamin Disraeli, was heckled by an opposition MP, Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease./That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress, was Disraeli’s response.

And now to the inspiration for the song: The Moon and Sixpence, a novel by Somerset Maugham, one of my favourite authors, published in 1919. I am tempted to introduce the thing with a profound-ish quote such as, Money is the string with which a sardonic destiny directs the motions of its puppets, but self-awareness insists upon the use of one aimed, it seems, at me, the ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.a-maugham-image

 Ouch! The Moon and Sixpence deals with a protagonist, Charles Strickland, who abandons wife and children, is oblivious to the sufferings of others in the pursuit of his art, and who dies of leprosy in Tahiti leaving paintings of genius but whose magnum opus was painted on the walls of his final habitation, a native hut, which was burnt to the ground on his orders after his death. Although the title was not explained in the text of the novel, Maugham provided the following in a letter dated 1956, If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.

a-north-imageThe song was written in 1979 and I was writing and drinking furiously. I was re-reading the poems in North by Seamus Heaney and in the final poem of the collection, Exposure, I found something that spoke to me as I put together the words and music of Parting Words. I was feeling cut off and uncertain of direction, and Heaney’s verse seemed particularly apt:

How did I end up like this?/ I am neither internee nor informer;/An inner emigre, grown long-haired/And thoughtful;/ Who, blowing up these sparks/For their meagre heat, have missed/The once-in-a-lifetime portent,/The comet’s pulsing rose.a-comet-image


Parting Words

SQ 92 I’m Not a Merry Ploughboy

Entry 92: I’m Not a Merry PloughboyWhat you’ve just heard is an example of an incipit– nota-incipit-image to be confused with insipid which is an adjective meaning weak or tasteless. This sonic confusion may be the reason that many choose to pronounce it in- kip – it. An incipit is the first few words of a text that serves instead of a title and they are found on some of the earliest examples of writing.

In ancient Sumeria, clay tablets containing incipits were maintained by the official scribes so that they might more easily locate tablets relating, for instance, to the number of livestock. Eight hundred years ago Pope Honorius III issued a papal bull, Religiosam Vitam -its first words in Latin translated as the religious life– establishing the Dominican Order. In modern times incipits are still used to identify untitled poems, songs and prayers. Emily Dickinson, in particular, comes to mind.

a-dickinson-imageA literary game to pass an idle afternoon involves selecting a number of first lines to create a “new” Dickinson poem, a feather from the whippoorwill/a face devoid of love or grace/a faded boy in sallow clothes/ a doubt if it be us. One doubts that such games would have been played in the literary salons of 18th Century Paris or London given their more serious aims of educating and enlightening but I like to think that the following anecdote (possibly apocryphal) concerning Samuel Johnson might have occurred as he was seeking entrée to one of the London salon evenings of that severely moral bluestocking, Lady Elizabeth Montagu,

Dr Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century lexicographer, once showed up at a social eventa-johnson-image hosted by an aristocratic lady with his clothes in disarray. Here’s what allegedly followed: Aristocratic lady: “Dr Johnson, your penis is sticking out!” Dr Johnson: Madame, you flatter yourself. “It’s HANGING out.”

You have to admire the learned doctor’s insistence on lexical exactitude, whatever you might think of this lapse in decorum. Not that appearances ever particularly worried Sam Johnson who, upon walking to the top of a hill on one occasion decided that he wanted to roll to the bottom declaring that it had been some time since he had indulged in the pastime.

a-blind-mans-buff-imageUnlike the learned doctor, we are unlikely to gain admittance to a literary salon, if for no other reason than we lack a functioning time machine. However, most of us have indulged in parlour games of one sort or another. Some, such as blind man’s buff go back millennia, others merely centuries such as charades. But I am happy to report that ingenious games continue into modern times.

One I learned about only recently, was created by an American member of Mensa, Jan Carnell. It’s called Carnelli, and is a title association gamea-carnelli where players must link to a previously uttered title of a book, film, play or song. For example, A Tale of Two Cities can elicit the response Great Expectations (the link being Charles Dickens, author of both novels). The response, Tea for Two, a song from the film, No No Nanette, is permissible because of the link work two. Links employing puns, the more groan-worthy the better, are allowable also. For example, the Eagles’ song Tequila Sunrise, can prompt the response To Kill a Mockingbird, provided it’s pronounced Tequila Mockingbird!

 a-pp-imageFamous first lines from novels, plays, and songs are a fertile source of harmless parlour activity. Can you identify the novel and author of the following? It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Or a-clock-imagewhat about, It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. The next example is a bit longer, but I’m sure you’ll nail it, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it a-tale-of-two-citieswas the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

 I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you the answers… but will test you now with a riddle poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s known by its incipit, Some Things That Fly There Be, It’s also known by one of two numbers, 89, if you follow the numbering system used by Thomas H. Johnson in his variorum edition of 1955 or 68 if you prefer the number assigned by R. W. Franklin in his variorum edition of 1998. So, here’s the poem. 

 Some things that fly there be –/Birds — Hours — the Bumblebee –/Of these no Elegy./Some things that stay there be –/Grief — Hills — Eternity –/Nor this behooveth me./There are that resting, rise./Can I expound the skies?/How still the Riddle lies!

 Perhaps only time and eschatology will solve this one.


I’m Not A Merry Ploughboy

SQ 93 Looking at Pictures

Entry 93: Looking at PicturesDo I have to draw you a picture? If you’ve ever been the recipienta-hiddeen-image of such a remark, you’ll- rightly- assume that your perspicacity has been called into question. And yet, how unfair! Steganographers regularly conceal nefarious texts within innocent-seeming pictures. Pictures do not always tell the truth. People who delight in deceit, obfuscation, puzzles, riddles, conundrums and sleight of hand are drawn to this practice.

The art of camouflaging what is true goes back a a-spartan-imagelong way. (A note to Gen Y: photo-shopping is not really a new idea.) The Spartan king, Demaratus, sent a warning to the Greeks of an impending Persian attack by writing the message on the wooden board under an innocent wax covering upon which was written innocuous material. Tricky, eh? But not as tricky as Demaratus himself when he eventually switched sides and served as an advisor to Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 480 BC.

Spies, black-hat hackers and those shadowy forces who seek to create covert elite groups for arcane purposes all think that steganography is the bee’s knees. One group, Cicada 3301, has posted puzzles on the internet from 2012. Who are they? Speculation runs from recruiters to government espionage agencies such as the NSA, to alternate reality gaming tragics, to big bank mavens messinga-hermetic-image with cryptocurrency testing. But they are probably a small group of tech-savvy anti-establishment geeks who would have been Rosicrucians in medieval times or members of the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn a century ago.

I’m with Homer Simpson as far as trying to crack any code such groups might concoct is concerned, if at first you do not succeed, give up. And get on with your short life. Instead of hunching over plasma screens, chasing electronic chimeras across the wilderness of mirrors that is cyberspace, get yourself out of your room and into an art gallery- there you will find puzzles enough to titillate your senses and mind.

a-gallery-imageFor my part, I cross the Nepean River to the Penrith Regional Art Gallery or travel by train to the Art Gallery of NSW or drive down to Canberra to the National Gallery- especially when there is a touring international show. Should my- generally prevailing- inertia prevent so much activity, I listen to music, say, Mussorgsky’s  Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s magnificent orchestration, as played by the Chicago Symphony under Solti.a-gnomus-image

And I see the people and places depicted by Hartmann which inspired the musical work: among them, Gnomus the small frightened man I identify with, Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch whom I encounter after exiting the gloomy Catacombs but, finally, I ride in triumph through the Great Gate of Kiev- the finale of which had me levitating, or so it seemed, when first I heard it as a student. Another reason that I value this a-mussorgsky-imagepiece so much is that it is a testament to friendship.

Mussorgsky wrote the suite as a memorial to his friend Victor Hartmann who died at age 39 in 1873 from an aneurysm. After visiting an exhibition in his memory in 1874, he composed the suite rapidly during June of that year. However, he hit the skids and died in 1881 shortly after his 42nd birthday. Had it not been for his friend Rimsky-Korsakov, whoa-rimsy-korsakov-image published an, admittedly, flawed version in 1886, it, arguably, would have been lost to posterity. It makes you wonder how many masterpieces have sunk without trace because of the lack of a friend to pull it from oblivion.

a-muss-imageLike Mussorgsky, I place value in drinking as an aid to inspiration, and during one bibulous late night alone I found myself surveying the living room: first, a wedding photograph in a silver frame, next, a family tree with photos of grandparents, us and the kids, followed by a wooden warrior with a shield from New Guinea. A ceramic Taoist philosopher made by my daughter sat on the cathode-ray TV which we still possessed then on which a muted re-run of Twin Peaks was showing.

At this point I stepped on a hand-mirror reaching for another drink, cracking it. Lifting my eyes in exasperation, I looked anew at a watercolour of a scene from the Glens of Antrim by a noted local artist- a gift from my brother who had visited the year before. Slumping to the floor, I noticed a bell-jar containing an exotic moth mounted on a faux flower, behind which the wedding photo of my wife cutting the cake distorted weirdly- or perhaps it was just the whiskey.

Beside me was a cane-chair holding an indoor plant with green tendrils covering the cluesa-intox-image to a partially completed cryptic crossword. Picking up the pen lying beside the paper, I jotted down a few ideas which, a day later, I worked up into this song. As Nietzsche so cogently observed, for art to exist… a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication


Looking At Pictures

SQ 94 Central Story

Entry 94: Central StoryTomorrow is St Patrick’s Day and I have not had a single drink fora-st-pats-day-image three days now in preparation for the feast. For the first time since it was inaugurated in Sydney, the St Paddy’s Day parade will not be held. The reason? Money. The organisers discovered the debt too late to do much more than pass round the begging bowl in the hopes that next year it will be reinstated.

a-1916-imageOne would have thought the fact that this year is the Centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, a not inconsequential event in Irish history, might have concentrated the minds of the committee. Ah, well. So Irish.  And so much for thinking ahead.

When I returned from North Queensland to Sydney in 1995, I helped form a group we called Banter, and we landed the gig playing Irish jigs, reels, hornpipes and ballads on a float through the city centre. We repeated the gig in 1999 and then we called it a day. But what a day. The song celebrates the anarchy and the craica-st-pats-sydney-image of the gathering in the park near Central station in the mid-to-late 90s. In the years since, the celebration moved to another, enclosed, location and it has gone up-market with the tight security and ballooning expenses that goes with such a move.

Radix malorum est cupiditas, hisses the Pardoner to the congregation in Chaucer’s great tale: the a-rmec-imagelove of money is the root of all evil. When we started, we were a knock-about group playing in small rooms in the back of pubs and clubs. Then we got ideas. What about getting better equipment? Mics, a PA, stands, cables? But to pay for these? Charge the venues. And slowly and inexorably things changed. A mate who was OK in the more relaxed atmosphere of an informal session, found he could not fit in to the more disciplined requirements of the new regime. So, he left.

Those paying the piper felt, increasingly, they could call the tune. Can you play fora-duo dancing? Not really, having neither a bass nor a drum-kit. But if you can stomp a hornpipe or reel or double jig- go for your life! Now, seeing how musicians, however accomplished, have become merely part of the backdrop, a blood-and-guts juke-box over which the audience discuss loudly the minutiae of their lives or consult constantly their digital devices lest they miss out on the latest ephemeral tit-bit chiming through the ether, I am glad that I don’t have to endure the ignominy that is par for the course.

a-pardonerSome don’t seem to mind; a duo playing along to backing tracks with vocal enhancers makes more economic sense than having to divvy up the meagre spoils among five or six. Still, radix malorum est cupiditas. Chaucer’s tale of three young drunken revellers who set out to murder Death, who had claimed one of their friends that very day, is a masterpiece of storytelling.

Encountering an old man, they are directed, to fynde Deeth, turne up this croked wey,/ For in that grove I lafte hym, by my fey,/ Under a tree, and there he wole abyde;/ …Se ye that ook? Right thera-pardoners-tale-image ye shal hym fynde. And under the oak tree, instead of their quarry, they find bags of gold. They draw straws to determine who should go back to the tavern to get wine to celebrate their great fortune. The youngest draws the short straw and sets off.

His fellows determine to kill him and split his share between them. However, the youngest has a similar mind and soul and so poisons their bottles of wine. He is killed upon returning and his murderers drink the poisoned wine. The drunken revellers are, indeed, successful in their search for Death. So, I am not going to the city to the parade this weekend, but am travelling up the Blue Mountains to Katoomba for the 21st music festival held there.

a-bmmf-imageI was there for the inaugural event in 1995 and returned for quite a few years but have not been there for at least a decade. On a whim, upon learning that there was no parade, I decided to book my wife and myself into accommodation there. I reckon that I must have got just about the last room going in Katoomba and I reckon that I paid about five times the normal tariff. Silly me. Radix malorum est cupiditas is alive and well.

The immutable law of supply and demand sounds so much more acceptable, though, doesn’t it? Kurt Vonnegut puts it this way, thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.” But it would be wrong to leave the rotten stench of cupidity as the end ofa-goethe-image this account; instead, let Goethe have the last word, One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.

So, I intend to hear a little song or two and take with me a book of poetry as well.


Central Story

SQ 95 A Packet of White Powder

Entry 95: A Packet of White Powder– You would really like Rat Park, if you were a rat. And-a-rat-image actually- it doesn’t look too bad from a human perspective. Lots of friends and things to do, plentiful food and diverting activities including the odd hit of stimulating substances such as cocaine: what’s not to like?  In Rat Park there is no war on drugs and hence no multi-billion-dollar organised criminal rodent cartels corrupting the institutions of society and spreading misery and mayhem through every level of Rat Park.

a-ratcageThe rats are free to have a blast whenever they feel like it. But, surely then, there are hordes of addicted, drug-addled rats committing all sorts of dastardly rat-crimes all over the place? No… Back in the 1970s a perceptive psychology professor from Vancouver, Bruce K Alexander, questioned the accepted protocol of placing lone rats in a bare cage and offering them drug-laced water. The outcome of such a protocol was: heavily addicted rats who would take the drugged water repeatedly until death intervened.

He and his colleagues built Rat Park as described before and, guess what? Because the ratsa-bruce-image lived in a healthy, harmonious community, they partook of the stimulants offered- but did not become dysfunctional. I read an article (or it may be a transcript of a speech) of his from July 3 2014 which begins,

Herewith, I confess to the charge of attempted murder. My intended victim was – and still is – the Official View of Addiction, sometimes known in the field by its aliases including, “the brain disease model of addiction” or “The NIDA model”. The presentation below contains irrefutable evidence of my guilt. However, it also expresses my plea to the High Court that ridding the world of the Official View of Addiction is justifiable.

His thesis is simple and compelling: addicts are not brain-damaged creatures in thrall to their substance of abuse in an otherwise well-functioning society, but rather, in modern times, most addiction arises because of the dislocation caused by fragmented societies. In a-chasing-imagefragmented societies, addiction leaves few people untouched. This dislocation thesis is eloquently elaborated by Johann Hari in his book, Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

Now initially, he, like many of you, felt the glowing reports from Rat Park were, well, rat-o-centric. But, as he writes in a Huff Post article in 2015, I discovered that there was – at the same time as the Rat Park experiment – a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War.

The American forces in that conflict used heroin habitually: 1 in 5 becoming addicted. There were some professionals back in the good old USA who were terrified of the prospect of hordes of addicted, drug-addled G.I.s returning home to commit all sorts of dastardly crimes all over the place.

Bated breath now, as Johann Hari reports what happened next, but in fact some 95 percent ofa-viet-vet-image the addicted soldiers…simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more. WTF! All this was known forty years ago?

How much money has been misspent, how much misery has been inflicted, and- yes- how much dislocation has been visited on societies and communities throughout our world over the decades since the war on drugs was declared by powerful forces in the US long, long ago?

Sort of reminiscent of the war on terror that exercises the bulging craniums of the great and good in our contemporary world, don’t you think?  Now, I could be privy to the secrets of deeply imbedded whistle-blowers and reveal here incontrovertible evidence that would support the professor’s thesis.

But it would be in vain. The only force that can break through the immovable object which is the world’s received wisdom is…(drumroll)…Poetry! Music! Literature! Art! Who knows!

But I sit and sip my shiraz and feel the fan swirling the humid midnight air around me and I thank God that I can still tap, tap, tap on the keyboard as I try to negotiate a way through this thicket before I have to go to bed and plug in the earplugs that will deliver to me a-quartet-imageBeethoven’s late quartets as I toss and turn in the sheets and try to imagine a sun rising sometime soon when I can re-join the world of birds and buses and busy, busy, busy people.

Our addictions are legion. And I am grateful for those artists who have negotiated the shoals and reefs of their pain in order to show us what it is like to be on the edge of agony: and here, I would like to pay homage to Anne Sexton,

I’m the queen of this condition./I’m an expert on making the trip- …Then I lie on my altar/ elevateda-anne-sexton-image by the eight chemical kisses./What a lay me down this is/with two pink, two orange,/ two green, two white goodnights./Fee-fi-fo-fum-/Now I’m borrowed./Now I’m numb.


A Packet Of White Powder

SQ 96 The Muso’s Lament

Entry 96: The Muso LamentsIsn’t it delicious when you think you have something no one else has? When all the flowers blossom all at once just because you are passing by? Then,a-de-la-mare-image you must have been a budding guitarist along with me as I took up the challenge of negotiating the pathways of the guitar. Walter de La Mare knew the feeling, When music sounds, gone is the earth I know,/ And all her lovely things even lovelier grow.

You must have been with me in Belfast as I walked up the Falls Road to St Joseph’s College of Education. But others were walking up that road too. On one side of me was a handsome, movie-star clone who boasted that he had had his way with many lonely housewives in his district. He tried, at one stage, to seduce my girlfriend, who found him rather oleaginous.

Walking on my other side was a charismatic musician who had a-falls-image2a position with the Catholic establishment of the diocese. He raped me, or did his best to, one night when I was more than just a wee bit in my cups. The shadow at my left-hand told me that it was OK to lie to achieve whatever you wanted as long as you didn’t get caught in the arms of someone’s wife. The shadow at my right-hand told me that anything was OK as long as you didn’t get caught and you were secure in the arms of mother church.

Nearly fifty years later, I watched a skilful young tenor banjo player rip up the scene as hea-tb2-image surveyed the drunken crowd at the Penrith Gaels on Paddy’s Day, 2016. I identified with him as he played to a largely oblivious audience. And this is why it is good to go to music festivals. The day after, we spent three days in Katoomba wandering from venue to venue within the festival site and heard some of the best music going on this planet. Some of it was courtesy of artists with an international reputation but, if you are lucky, a new unknown emerges to gasps of delight as the audience members recognise that a new star has ignited and was starting to shine in the musical firmament.

Three days and nights of this served to recharge seriously depleted emotional and spiritual batteries and, as we drove down the mountains to the Cumberland plain, we resolved to repeat the experience next year. Musicians from Ireland were prominent among the artists and I remembered that at one time I had ambitions that would have set me on the same festival-strewn path but for one small problem: I da-blue-mts-imageidn’t really have the requisite chops.

I twigged within a couple of years that, while I could make what passed for music, I was not in the same league as so many talented musos I encountered among the bars and byways of Belfast, not to mention the wider world. But this hasn’t stopped me practising the art in a small way, nor has it diminished the truth of what de la Mare wrote in hisa-music-image2 poem, Music, When music sounds, all that I was I am/ Ere to this haunt of brooding dust I came. Brooding dust- don’t you love poets for their verbal felicity!

The beauty borne on vibrating air, whether set in motion by words or music, often bears no relation to the shape and physiognomy of the progenitors of the vibrations. Roger Bourland, professor of music at UCLA, nominated Rossini as the composer whacked most often by the ugly stick. Witter Brynner, minor American poet, would probably have awarded Amy Lowell the gold medal for ugliness when he referred to her as a hippopoetess, much to the delight of Ezra Pound, who repeated the unflattering epithet.

a-amy-imageJournalist Heywood Broun Jr, who is remembered for his passion for battling social ills and for taking the part of the underdog, defended Amy Lowell in his obituary notice for her, Given one more gram of emotion, Amy Lowell would have burst into flame and been consumed to cinders. Very handsomely done, sir!  You get a sense of this in a poem of hers entitled, Music, where the persona lies in bed at night and listens to a flute being played by her neighbour.

The notes invade her bedroom and press in upon her at night, but by day she observes how he eats bread and onions with one hand while he copies music with the other. She is somewhat conflicted by the dichotomy between the unseen vibrations and the seen surface: as she notes,

He is fat and has a bald head,/So I do not look at him,/But run quickly past his window./There isa-moon-image always the sky to look at,/Or the water in the well!/But when night comes and he plays his flute,/I think of him as a young man,/With gold seals hanging from his watch,/And a blue coat with silver buttons./As I lie in my bed/The flute-notes push against my ears and lips,/And I go to sleep, dreaming.

The Muso’s Lament was one of the first songs I wrote in college and it recalls the frustration I felt at the disconnect between what was yearned for and what was actually manifest.


The Muso’s Lament

SQ 97 Autumn Road

Entry 97: Autumn RoadA haiku is not a poem, it is not literature; it is a hand beckoning, a doora-blyth-image half-opened, a mirror wiped clean.  It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature.  It is a way in which the cold winter rain, the swallows of evening, even the very day in its hotness, and the length of the night, become truly alive, share in our humanity, speak their own silent and expressive language.

 So wrote Reginald Horace Blyth in the first of his four volume Haiku series published between 1949 and 1952. He has exerted influence on several generations of writers. What interests me about this definition is that, after stating that a haiku is not a poem, he goes on to define it in terms that are very reminiscent of definitions of poetry that I have come across over the decades. The poem as a doorway or mirror or deep expression of our humanity or a path to our imaginative self or to the natural world are tropes not unknown to the history of western poetics.

a-watts-imageMy first memory of haiku was reading Alan Watts, a populariser of eastern philosophies, when I began, during the mid-1970s, to search for meaning outside the frame of Western, Judeo-Christian perspectives. Watts, also, has influenced generations of writers and I was taken by the lucidity with which he communicated his enthusiasm for exploring elements of being and consciousness, particularly in his books The Way of Zen and Tao: the watercourse way.

He still has a significant presence, thanks to YouTube, that has opened up his writings anda-basho-image talks to new, digital generations. Both Blyth and, later, Watts brought the 17th Century Edo Period poet Basho to the attention of Western audiences. Working in my box-room tonight, cut off from every natural sight and sipping spirits, I am reminded of one of Basho’s haiku, No blossoms and no moon,/and he is drinking sake/all alone! Not an exact match, though- my computer tells me there is a waning gibbous moon outside, 71% illumination, and I am imbibing whiskey, not sake. But close enough for the purposes of this journal.

a-camellia-imageSo let’s talk about flowers now- in particular Camellia sasanqua. That excellent resource, Wikipedia informs me, At the beginning of the Edo period, cultivars of Camellia sasanqua began appearing… It has a long history of cultivation in Japan for practical rather than decorative reasons. The leaves are used to make tea while the seeds or nuts are used to make tea seed oil, which is used for lighting, lubrication, cooking and cosmetic purposes. Tea oil has a higher calorific content than any other edible oil available naturally in Japan. Camellia sasanqua is valued in gardens for its handsome glossy green foliage, and fragrant single white flowers produced extremely early in the season.

Basho, I think, would have been well-acquainted with this plant. Blyth, in his jisei– or death poem- references this blossom,

I leave my heart/to the sasanqua flower/on the day of this journey.a-buddhist-temple

Watts, too, references vegetable matter in what some have seen as his jisei, written towards the end of his life when, after a long, uphill trek, he had visited a Buddhist temple in Japan,

This is all there is;/the path comes to an end/among the parsley.

 About ten years ago, my interest in haiku re-ignited and I came across many translations of Basho’s work online. On one, haikupoetshut.com, I came across eight readings of Basho haiku by three different translators: R. H. Blyth, Lucien Stryck and Peter Beilenson. The penultimate haiku, the one about the temple bell, featured alternate readings by Stryck and one by Blyth followed by the jisei of Blyth, himself. All the readings are noteworthy and I have used them in the classroom as a way of introducing haiku to students although, here following, I give the translations by Blyth only.

a-autumn-roadAlong this road/Goes no one/This autumn evening.

a-bamboo-imageMoonlight slants through/ The vast bamboo grove:/ A cuckoo cries


a-cloud-moon-image  From time to time/The clouds give rest/To the moon beholders.

Ah, summer grasses!/All that remains/Of the warriors’ dreams.a-basho2-image

a-butterflyorchid-imageThe butterfly is perfuming/Its wings in the scent/Of the orchid.


The old pond/A frog jumps in/The sound of water.



Yes, spring has come/This morning a nameless hill/Is shrouded in mist.



It is deep autumn/My neighbour/How does he live, I wonder?


The temple bell dies away/The scent of flowers in the evening/Is still tolling the bell.

 And I can’t end this journal entry before recording the last haiku of Basho, himself, as he lay dying, surrounded by his disciples:

Falling ill on a journey/my dreams go wandering/over withered fields.a-basho7-image

These resonating bells, and butterflies, and blossoms, were the inspiration for the song, Autumn Road.


Autumn Road

SQ 98 Fleurs du Mal

Entry 98: Fleurs du Mal– It’s the first of April. And I got up late enough to escape the pranka-april-fools planned by my daughter to make a fool out of me. She had to leave to catch the bus (for something or other) and my wife came into the bedroom to advise me that I had just dodged a bullet. But, me being me, I lolled in bed for a further three hours to make assurances doubly sure. I’ve been fooled before, of course, and I will be again.

As I lie in bed, I think of the situation I find a-dandymyself in: I luxuriate under the sheets while the rest of the family are up and moving and shaking and generally making a good impression of being productive citizens. So, I reprise, if only for a short while, the part of an indolent dandy. As a teen I discovered mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron. I dressed, for a time, in paisley cravats, bell-bottom trousers and floral shirts ensuring hoots of derision as I walked past Belfast building sites on my way to visit my Mod girlfriend- later, wife.

The scorn of the whistling workers only validated my choice of attire and attitude at the time. That I would fall under the spell of Baudelaire was inevitable, I guess. He wrote, that to be a dandy, one must have no profession other than elegance… no other status, but that of cultivating the ideaa-baudelaire-image of beauty in their own persons… The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror. His poems, especially in the 1857 volume, The Flowers of Evil, with their themes of sex and death, are perennially appealing to youth.

To shock disapproving adults and institutions is de rigueur for the aspiring dandy who will quote with approbation such lines as, Slowly, luxuriously, I will hollow a deep grave,/ With my own hands, in rich black snail-frequented soil,/ And lay me down, forspent with that voluptuous toil,/ And go to sleep, as happy as a shark in the wave. These lines from the poem, The Grateful Dead, or, what about, With bold and insolent grimace,/ Love laughingly bestrides/ The bare skull of the Human Race,/ And, as enthroned he rides,/ Blows bubbles from his rosy cheek/ Which soar into the sky, this, from Love and the Skull.

a-dandy2Sooner or later, though, most of us out-grow the fashion for feculence and recognise dandyism for what it ultimately is: nihilistic nonsense. Camus points this out in his 1951 book-length essay The Rebel, The dandy is, by occupation, always in opposition. He can only exist by defiance…He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others’ faces. Other people are his mirror. A mirror that quickly becomes clouded, it’s true, since human capacity for attention is limited. It must be ceaselessly stimulated, spurred on by provocation…Perpetually incomplete, always on the fringe of things, he compels others to create him, while denying their values. He plays at life because he is unable to live it.

When it was safely past 12 noon and I could emerge from the bedroom without gettinga-bucket-prank pranked by my wife (who, for all I knew, was in cahoots with my daughter to visit some indignity on my spirit or person) I resolved to get a fix of culture and so I drove across the Nepean River and along the River Road to the regional art gallery. A great place to chill: it looks out over the Nepean River and is set in a beautiful garden with a lively café and an interesting collection.

Today, I take in a fascinating exhibition entitled Punuku Tjukurpa from the central and western deserts of Australia a-aboriginal-artefactthat include Uluru, that great red omphalos in the centre of the continent. From the exhibition notes it is, an exhibition celebrating the stories and Law of Anangu culture told through intricate carvings and artefacts…for Anangu the country dies without its people because human beings, who act according to the law, are fundamental to the wellbeing of the land.

As usual, I am overcome with feelings of inadequacy even as I think I recognise the deep authenticity of what I am viewing: perentie lizards, boomerangs, desert serpents and spears produced by Aboriginal artists from the centre of Australia. In the same venue,a-untitled there is an exhibition by a non-Aboriginal artist who spent months in the east Kimberley region and who has a number of large modernist paintings with three colours only- black, white and orange in blocks reminiscent of Mark Rothko. A couple alongside me remarked that their daughter, at pre-school, could do better.

a-painted-wordI thought about Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word that I had read in the mid-seventies and Andy Capp’s quip about abstract art that sums up, it seems to me, Wolfe’s acerbic critique, a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered. And I really feel for the young artist who would struggle, and I hope successfully, to overcome the cynicism made so manifest by the young couple also getting their fix.


Fleurs du Mal