SQ 17 Is it a Dream?

Entry 17: Is It a Dream? – I love Megastructures and all those other wonderful programs on The Discovery Channel and Nat Geo that explore the worlds of engineering, science and exploration. I have to watch these media offerings at times when my wife is not in the dreamsroom. Just as she has to watch her favourite lifestyle and reality programs when I am otherwise engaged. There is no animosity attached to this for we have a range of shared favourites at prime-time. (Although, in the splintering media landscape- if a landscape can be said to splinter- such a term as media landscape may seem as quaint as quilting before too long.)

patriarchyNow, I have referred to the patriarchal paradigm before in this series, and I would not be surprised if there is something in the idea that men and women are hard-wired to respond to differing ways of engaging with the world- but I am puzzled by the undoubted fact that I am, and always have been, a complete klutz when it comes to the more sophisticated operations in the area of fabrication, manufacture and the manipulation of the physical world. By more sophisticated, I refer to anything beyond replacing a light-bulb or putting up a shelf.lightbulg

And yet, here you will find me, a 19-year old student on vacation back at home in the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland watching enthralled as the live pictures of the Moon Landing on July 20, 1969 are relayed in glorious black and white to televisions around the world. Michael Collins, the command module pilot, had designed the insignia for the mission: an eagle holding an olive branch in its talons to signify the wish for peace to be a part of the moonlandingsymbolism of this historic event.

Oh! It was so good to get away from the tensions in Belfast where something wicked was building inexorably. Not much more than three weeks after what I consider the greatest achievement of human endeavour, a mob smashed through Bombay Street in West Belfast and the pogrom started: to quote from Belfast Galleries.com- on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls. At the time Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army General in charge of operations, remarked that these barriers would be ‘a temporary affair’. Over 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that!peacewall

Now, you can take tours of the peace walls of Belfast, take selfies in front of graffiti and never think at all that there is something weird about the fact that these walls have outlasted that icon of division in the Western world- the Berlin Wall. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall wrote Robert Frost in his widely anthologised poem, Mending Wall, published back in 1914. But his spirits didn’t have to reckon with the intractability of Irish hatreds.

barricadesBack in 1969, I responded to a call which went out over the radio for boarding students at my college to return early to help the refugees from the burnt-out streets. We hastily set up a reception centre in the college hall and had a crash course in how to be bureaucrats as we helped the bewildered victims fill in emergency relief forms. As I walked down the Falls and Donegall Roads of an evening to visit my girlfriend I could see the corrugated iron barricades going up on the side streets. There was fear in the air and I could feel the prickles on the back of my neck as I imagined being tracked through gunsights from the murky alley-ways I passed.

I listened to Radio Free Belfast at night and wondered what I was doing here. Iradio-free-belfast remembered a schoolboy pact I had made with a friend, that we would visit Australia and watch the cane-fields burn as we worked our way across the exotic continent seemingly as distant as the moon. It wouldn’t be with my school buddy but my girlfriend who became my wife, with whom I would clamber aboard a QANTAS jet in September of 1972, our daughter of three months in our arms, and set off for Sydney.

Over forty years later, now retired, I sit on our back veranda in the winter sunshine and wonder whether ideas have the same solidity as steel, whether the imagery and imagination holding together my songs have the integrity of the International Space Station which journeyed past Venus and Jupiter between 5:31pm and 5:34pm on Wednesday last, another reminder of the astounding achievements possible when human beings work together and set aside ancient grudges to reach for the stars. But maybe we’ll ISSend up like the oysters in this poem:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, /”To talk of many things:/Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax/Of cabbages and kings/And why the sea is boiling hot/And whether pigs have wings.”

 

Is It A Dream?

SQ 18 Diving for Pennies

JFKEntry 18: Diving for Pennies- Most people know the trope: I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when…(Here you can supply your own memorable event) Well, I can remember two such instances from my own life: the first is the assassination of JFK on November 22nd 1963. I was in Junior High at Seroe Colorado High School in Aruba, a small island in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. Its claim to fame was that, at one time, it was the largest oil refinery in the world. It was afternoon and a girl came screaming from the student parking lot “They’ve killed Kennedy, they’ve killed Kennedy”. As you might imagine, the routine of the school-day was shattered- as was everybody, staff and students.

The other event was the destruction of the twin towers by terrorists on September 11th 2001. I was lying in bed preparing for sleep and listening to the radio when the first twintowersreports came through. I was tired, rather puzzled at how a pilot could fail to see such prominent edifices, and drifted off as the radio droned on. The next morning there was nothing on TV but reports of the atrocities involving those aircraft and I sat transfixed, watching the coverage all morning. That afternoon, I remember driving to Sydney airport in a daze to collect my brother-in-law and his wife who were returning from a holiday in Ireland.

It wasn’t until the February of 2002 that I was able to write a song connected with these events. I later put this song with others into a collection I entitled Letdowns: after the millennium. I wrote a post-apocalyptic message to accompany the collection. Like so muchi_love_letdowns_keychain-r133a89f01e334420b7390af792a3de7a_fupus_8byvr_512 else of my oeuvre, I put the idea in a drawer and forgot about it until I decided to write these journal entries. Here follows the overly-pessimistic text I wrote then and a song about letdowns from the collection:

Letdowns should be more poetic. But they’re not. Letdowns, if they are really doing their job, should let you down in every department or else they’re not really… Letdowns. Which leaves songwriters like me in a real quandary- why even bother? Are the songs Letdowns, too? In which case, why this gloss? In this the fifth, and (I would think, on the medical evidence available to me) final album (what a quaint word this is, don’t you think?) that I am likely to write to, perhaps, no one but a distant descendant eager for family-tree minutiae, what can I say?bonepoem Like a poem carved upon an ancient bone. So then, to the eye that may not ever be there to see, and the ear that may never be there to hear- Greetings! I don’t know if your age will be one that is keen on pinning down time; nevertheless, let me give you a point of reference. It is now my birthday- 10:30 p.m. on the 31st of October, 2001 A.D. (if such an hour-and-date nomenclature has meaning in your time). I am living in an outer-western suburb of Sydney, Australia called Werrrington (if such a geographical reference means anything to you).whiskey and coke And I have been drinking (I’m sure, however straitened your circumstances, some form of potable liquor still has a place at your tables or around the fires at your campsites.)- I have been drinking Scotch whisky mixed with Cola– a syrupy and fizzy soft drink popular at one time. As an anthropological aside may I say that many considered such a combination to be a barbarism in our era. To those arbiters of taste around me who made such disparaging references to my imbibing predilection, I answered, only, that, having lost sight of any civility around me, I couldn’t fail but to agree with them. Such was my attachment to the ironic voice. An antique relic of the 20th Century, alas. But this lapse in taste on my part was eclipsed by other departures from civility by others… so, unfortunately, this barbarism didn’t hold a candle to the sorts of atrocity that enveloped the world in the first year or two of the new millennium. Read your history books. If any exist. Of course, songs need no explanation. If they are sung they live. The words are only ash- smudges that are merely remnants of the real thing. However, if your era is anything like ours, we need the crutches of explication- if only to impress by our borrowed erudition. This process was miscalled education while I was alive. I leave, instead, a poem for your contemplation.

circle of starsExplication: Like a poem carved upon an ancient bone/Dug out of an ash-pit,/An outline of a heart in bog-oak/Dragged up and in to the open air,/The remnants of an ancient tune/Whistling through the shaking leaves/Of the last stand of native trees/Left on a fissured plain,/Let my voice, telling of love/And letdowns, carry across/ The fields of time spread/ To the shimmering edges/Of eternity fringed with/A sparkling circlet of stars/Before they wink out/One by one,/Swallowed by the incurious/Blankness beyond.” Dive with me.

 

 

SQ 19 The Goodtimes of Doris and Ronnie

Arial view: Barrow-in-Furness


Entry 19: The Goodtimes of Doris and Ronnie-
In my mid-teens I dated a witch, briefly. She was from Barrow-in-Furness, just across the Irish Sea from Douglas in the Isle of Man where I met her at a holiday camp at which I worked during the summer break of 1966. No Emos or Goths in those days; I was dressed like a Mod but spouting the verse of Lord Byron and waxing lyrical about the black magic novels of Dennis Wheatley made me a forerunner of the type.

So, we got talking and she revealed her interest in the occult confiding that she was a witch. Intrigued, I accepted an invitation to visit her in her home-town the next weekend. Catching the Douglas to Heysham ferry, that Friday, I made my way via rail and bus to that Cumbrian town stuck at the end of the Furness peninsula. We saw The Small Faces perform at a municipal hall and agreed that they were “Fab”.

Lord_Byron_in_Albanian_dress

Turns out I was bored by the semi-literate stuff she showed me and that was the start of my disengagement with matters magical and the world of Wicca. Still loved Byron, though: an affection that has persisted over the decades. I used the poem, Darkness, in a unit on Romantic Poetry featuring, among other works, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade in 2009. (FYI: neither the poem nor the CD were part of the increasingly irksome curriculum prescription of recommended texts to be duly recorded in the college’s computer.)

Byron’s apocalyptic picture of the end of the world was inspired by the year without a summer in 1816, a couple of hundred years ago, which was caused by the eruption of Mt Tambora: the most massive volcanic event of the 19th Century which killed tens of thousands of people and wiped out for all time the island culture of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago.

a-eruption

This was in the era before the telegraph and the later eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 has hogged the limelight: who now remembers Mt Tambora when its effects dumped snow in New England in June and famine in various parts of the world. An Italian so-called scientist’s prediction that the sun would go out on July 18th caused riots, suicides, and religious fervour all over Europe according to Jeffery Vail in “‘the Bright Sun was Extinguis’d’: The Bologna Prophecy and Byron’s ‘Darkness’.” 

 The poem deals with the sun going out and the chaos that inevitably ensues. Two foes survive at the end of the world and they meet beside /The dying embers of an altar-place/ Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things /For an unholy usage;

a-darkness-image

They blow on the embers and then, they lifted up/Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld/Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died /Even of their mutual hideousness they died,/Unknowing who he was upon whose brow/Famine had written Fiend. /The world was void/ Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless/The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,/And nothing stirred within their silent depths; /The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,/The moon their mistress had expir’d before;/ The winds were withered in the stagnant air,/And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need /Of aid from them-She was the Universe.

the-who

 Pretty grim stuff, but youth have always been avid consumers of horror, death and destruction. Which brings me to another pop band the Mods were mad about- The Who. I saw them in concert that same summer in the Palace Ballroom, Douglas. At the end, Pete Townsend smashed his guitar and amp to the outrage of some among the crowd; indeed, it got a few boos and I must admit that I looked on in anguish as an electric guitar splintered onstage- I would have given my eye-teeth to have had one like it.

a-rs-image

 That year, The Rolling Stones, too, were drawing from the well of dark Romanticism when they wrote Paint It Black which charted at number one for ten weeks that spring and summer. But it would be a mistake to represent that time as one unrelievedly drenched in gloom- it was shot through with a happy vibe that, when you are 16, just goes on and on as you listen to The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon or The Hollies’ Bus-stop or The Beatles’ Paperback Writer.

antiwar1

 The Seekers, Australia’s super group, sang bright, up-tempo folk-rock while back home Robin Askin, Premier of NSW, exhorted his driver to “Run the bastards over”, as Vietnam War protesters chanted at his august guest, “Hey, Hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today!” I’ll conclude, though, with lines from what must be one of the quirkiest songs Pete Townsend ever wrote but which captures how I was feeling that wonderful summer:

 Happy Jack wasn’t old, but he was a man/He lived in the sand at the Isle of Man/The kids couldn’t hurt Jack/They tried, tried, tried…/But they couldn’t stop Jack, or the waters lapping/And they couldn’t prevent Jack from feeling happy.

The Goodtimes of Doris and Ronnie

SQ 20 Straight and True

Entry 20: Straight and True- It’s tough being a hero. Not that I claim this honorific for myself, I hasten to add. I think of poor old Heracles, whose name means “the glory of Hera”. Heracles, according to Wikipedia, was the product of what is known as zeusheteroparental superfecundation- where a woman carries twins sired by two different fathers. Randy old Zeus, the husband of the fanatically jealous Hera, disguised himself as the husband, impregnating Alcmene with Heracles before the real husband, Amphitryon, returned later that night to sire Heracles’ mortal twin, Iphicles.

 Hera made Heracles’ life miserable in spite of the name change from Alcides to placate her. She attempted to prevent his birth and, failing that, successfully connived to rob him of his high kingship. When he was only eight months of age she sent two giant serpentsharacles into the nursery, which he duly strangled.  Astonished, Amphitryon sent for the seer, Tiresias, who prophesied an unusual future for the boy. What a surprise! Perhaps more surprising is that Heracles, when presented with a choice between a life of indolent hedonism or severe but glorious virtue, chose the latter.

Most of us would choose the former- or is that just me? His exploits live in legend and he remains the gold standard of the type. If demi-gods such as Heracles find the hero business so fraught, what hope for mere mortals? We need our heroes but are uncomfortable with templates from the past. The democratic spirit in western countries generally, but more croc-dundeeparticularly in Australia, values the self-deprecating-aw-shucks-anyone-would’ve-done-what-I-did schtick adopted by those men and women who perform acts of heroism few of us could ever contemplate doing.

Every time I look at the Australian of the Year site with its categories-one even called “local hero”- I feel proud, on the one hand, that we have so many great role-models among us; but on the other hand (and there’s always that other hand, isn’t there?) I feel more than a bit inadequate that I can’t really measure up. Except to our kids- at least for a while.

mudieWhen I read South Australian poet Ian Mudie’s, My father began as a god the shock of recognition was immediate: I saw myself as the persona of the poem, first; that young boy thinking his father’s laws were as immutable/as if brought down from Sinai; then through the prism of adolescence his father becomes a foolish small old man/with silly and outmoded views; next, with life’s experience shifting the perspective, the flaws scaled away into the past,/ revealing virtues/ such as honesty, generosity, integrity. Finally, and strangest of all, the persona admits that the older he gets the more the image of the father re-asserts its heroic former stature while the son is left just one more of all the little men/who creep through life/not knee-high to this long-dead god.

 As I sit on the back veranda, again soaking up the evening winter sun, I reflect that I am now the same age as Ian Mudie was when he died in London. It is heartening to read that his ashes were brought back to Australia and scattered on the Murray River.

One of the decisions I made fairly early on was that that I would not seek the pedestal position some parents want; that yes, I would be as good a Dad as I could be to my kids but that I would let them see my feet of clay. Some would say that, in this, at least, I was an over-achiever.  The phrase, feet of clay, comes from the Book of Daniel in the Bible and I now realise that I should have chosen another metaphor to puncture childish idolatrydream because we are in the presence of yet another hero. Judaic rather than Greco-Roman, a seer and a prophet rather than a strong-man, Daniel divines and interprets the Dream of Nebuchadnezzar where a statue with a gold head, silver arms and breast, copper belly and thighs, iron legs and mixed iron and clay feet is destroyed by a rock.

The Babylonian seers were unable to achieve this and were put to death: Daniel, is raised to power. His companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survive the fiery furnace. He is able to decipher the mysterious writing on the wall after Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor Belshazzar has drunk from Jewish temple cups at his feast. The words, Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, Daniel explains to Belshazzar,furnace means that God has numbered his days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to his enemies.

eldersMy favourite Daniel story, though, is that of Susanna and the Elders. Two lecherous oldies, spying the naked woman bathing say they will accuse her of meeting with a lover unless she has sex with them. She refuses, is about to be put to death for promiscuity, when Daniel interrupts proceedings and by skilful cross-examination exposes the fraud. The lechers get their comeuppance. Virtue triumphs.

Straight and true (demo version)

SQ 21 When It Isn’t Heaven

Entry 21: When It Isn’t Heaven- (Howling-adjective-producing a long, doleful cry or wailing sound. Oxford Dictionaries) Now that I no longer have to join the stream of traffic down thehighway traffic Great Western Highway to access the means to keep the wolf from the door and a roof over our heads, I luxuriate in reading the books, listening to the music and indulging in those sundry, random activities I didn’t have the time or energy for in the “working” phase of my existence.

Leafing through a collection of Banjo Paterson’s verse the other day I came across the lines,  Just now there is a howling drought/That pretty near has starved us out.  OnTheRoadFromHayToBooligal The poem dealt with the hellish conditions in the environs of the western Riverina town of Booligal in the final decades of the 19th Century. A woodcut from The Illustrated Australian News of 1889 shows a barren plain bisected diagonally by a cracked dirt track where the carcasses of animals consumed by the drought lie scattered across this stark tableau. A lone tree on the horizon is etched against the sky where dark clouds mock the arid desolation below.

Paterson treats the subject semi-humorously by having a denizen of the benighted town opine that apart from the isolation, heat, sand, dust, flies, mozzies, snakes and a plague of rabbits…the place ain’t too bad! The speaker concludes by noting that, in the unlikely event of rain, the track would become impassable and they’d be stuck in Booligal. Those listening to him are horrified, ‘We’d have to stop!’ With bated breath/We prayed that both in life and death/Our fate in other lines might fall:/‘Oh, send us to our just reward/‘In Hay or Hell, but, gracious Lord,/‘Deliver us from Booligal!’

 For some reason I picture Paul Hogan as the speaker. Australians find humour in the grimmest of situations: the tragic aesthetic does not sit well in the island continent which was earmarked as the dumping ground for the worst elements of British society but which transformed in an astonishingly short time into one of the most desirable residences of the planet Earth. I put down the volume of Paterson’s verse and lifted a dictionary of quotations which opened at a page marked by a decades-old anniversary card from my wife to me.

As I was lifting it out, I read the lines: Howling is the noise of hell, singing the voice of heaven,STR17POET_331045k according to John Donne in his guise as a preacher rather than poet. Singing and howling exist on a continuum of sound: one person hears music where another hears a racket. Donne was well acquainted with both concepts, heaven and hell, in his life and work. A saturnine, handsome, young Elizabethan blade with the worlds of adventure, love and preferment in front of him as well as travels as a spy and battle experience with the likes of the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh, stares out from a portrait painted around 1595 when he was 24.

Fast forward 37 years to the months after his death and we find an engraving of a sunken-cheeked, grizzled, death’s head in a shroud: something to frighten children with. 453px-donne-shroudEngraved by Martin Droeshout, better known for the image of Shakespeare that adorns the First Folio, it is based on a portrait that Donne had commissioned and hung on his wall in his final years to remind him of the transience of life.

As I looked from one image to the other I was reminded of Miyazaki’s 2004 anime, Howl’s Moving Castle, where the 18-year-old protagonist, Sophie, is befriended by Howl, a strange, conflicted wizard, who lives in a magical moving castle. She is turned into an aged crone by the Witch of the Wastes. Perilous journeys, transformations and magical encounters within a surrealistic world lead in the end to Sophie and Howl at the bow of the flying castle sharing a tender kiss- oh, my God, shades of the movie, Titanic! And yet we are suckers for the happy ending, particularly onetitanic sealed with a loving kiss. Such a pity, isn’t it, that such endings are as rare as a blood-red diamond.

Or are they? Tragic love stories attract the limelight: who would rate R+J if the Capulets and Montagues reconciled in time for the young couple to move into a new apartment in Verona and start putting up pictures while arguing over the décor of the ensuite? So, probably, there are lots of happy endings out there, under the radar, under the doona…

The idea of a prescriptive pair-bonding, though, seems quaint in the 21st Century. The ideal nuclear family of the 20th Century has morphed into a range of relational paradigms and you can take your pick of which one suits you. Me? Born in the middle of the 20th Century and married for 44 years, I still look to the old paradigm and I find a surprisinglyandrewjackson poignant connection with Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, when he said shortly before he died: Heaven will be no heaven to me if I do not meet my wife there.

When It Isn’t Heaven

SQ 22 Unhallowed Ground

uluruEntry 22: Unhallowed Ground- Comparisons are odious. Why? Hugh Mackay, a prominent Australian social commentator, makes the point, in a newspaper article from 2005, that to argue that only Aborigines have a genuine attachment to sacred sites as opposed to the inauthentic attachment of the Anglo-Celts to their footy grounds, war memorials and suburban plots is rubbish. He argues that a sense of place is essential to everyone’s identity. Uluru is gallipolisacred to its custodians and Gallipoli is holy ground for generations of Aussies.

Comparisons are odious is a saying which was in fairly common use at least five centuries ago, and not just in the English speaking world. Cervantes, in Spain, is credited with its use at about the same time as John Donne in England. In his poem The Comparison, Donne presents us with two women: the first is the mistress of the poet, where beads of sweat are compared to pearl carcanets. (Such as the jewelled chokers found enhancing the slender necks of aristocratic and royal ladies of the time) The second is the mistress of another where, instead, Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,/Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils…

He continues in this vein for more than two dozen lines and concludes; Leave her, and I will leave comparing thus/She and comparisons are odious.  This is not a man you would want to cross! But to uncover the origins of the saying, comparisons are odious, we will have to go back almost two hundred years before the Elizabethan Era to John Lydgate of Bury, a odiuscontemporary of Chaucer, who wrote a little-known but fascinating exploration of animals and their place in creation; in particular, their relationship to humankind.

The title of this obscure tome? The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. To the modern urbanised ear, this seems a slightly ridiculous title and so it did to mine until I began to explore it in more depth. I am indebted to Jeremy Withers of Iowa State University who wrote an engrossing commentary on the poem entitled The Ecology of Late Medieval Warfare in Lydgate’s The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. The subject of the debate is: which of these three animals was of most use to humans? The Horse claims pre-eminence because it is an emblem of chivalry: who cannot but thrill to the image of a knight in shining armour mounted upon a stately steed and advancing under fluttering banners into honourable hand-to-hand combat.

Reality was not so pleasant; war-horses and draft horses were killed in enormous numbers during the Hundred Years War. The Goose advanced its claim by reference to the supply of feathers to furnish the fletchings of the hundreds of thousands of arrows needed in the article-1201096-001418B61000044C-720_634x542seemingly unending conflict. The Battle of Agincourt proved in bloody detail the effectiveness of the English and Welsh bowmen against the aristocratic, mounted French knights who thought they would have easy game that day.

The Sheep, whose position was put by a Ram because the former was so meek, counters the military utility of the others by playing the Jesus card (Lamb of God, wouldn’t you know) and claiming that peace is superior to war. The Horse vehemently asserts that wool, as a premier commodity of the time, fuelled the war efforts of various protagonists. The poet, among all the contenting arguments, reveals the very large impact of human society, and particularly, warfare on the bodies of huge numbers of animals in the late Medieval period.

In this fable, a lion and an eagle act as judges and declare each of the animals should be deemed equal. This is not an idealistic, modern-seeming concern with animal rights or welfare but rather an affirmation of the medieval concept of knowing your place andlion-and-eagle keeping to it. But, to conclude, I will shift the animal metaphor to that of a large herbivorous ape which has a fearsome reputation that is not at all in keeping with its gentle nature and which, alas, is approaching extinction and may live on only figuratively for future generations: the 800-pound gorilla in the room is, as always, Shakespeare.sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate:/Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: 

The sound and sense of Sonnet 18 has, it seems to me, quasi-magical powers. In fourteen lines we have been left one of the most affecting accounts of mortality where the preservation of beauty in the golden amber of verse is effortlessly described in the lines, But thy eternal summer shall not fade… So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. He knew, didn’t he, that his lines would be read and revered long after he and the object of his admiration were dust.

 

Unhallowed Ground (alternative take)

SQ 23 Still on the Move

Entry 23: Still on the MoveZeno was a puzzling fellow: The hapless French knights in the previous entry would have been more than grateful had his arrow paradox been, in fact, true. I cannot improve on the account given in Wikipedia: In the arrow paradox (also known as the fletcher’s paradox), Zeno states that for motion to occur, an object must change the position which it occupies. He gives an example of an arrow in flight. He states that in any one (duration-less) instant of time, the arrow is neither moving to where it is, nor to where it is not. It cannotxeno move to where it is not, because no time elapses for it to move there; it cannot move to where it is, because it is already there. In other words, at every instant of time there is no motion occurring. If everything is motionless at every instant, and time is entirely composed of instants, then motion is impossible.

Diogenes of Sinope, also known as “Diogenes the Cynic”, is said to have replied to the argument that motion is unreal by standing up and walking away. This is known as solvitur ambulando which is Latin for, It is solved by ambulandowalking. Nonetheless, Bertrand Russell in the 20th Century has called the paradoxes of Zeno “immeasurably subtle and profound”. So why did he leave us such fiendish paradoxes to contemplate? Gazing at the idealised marble statues of the philosophers of antiquity may prompt us to ascribe the love of abstract thought as the motivation.

But I suspect it is in the heart rather than the head that we will find the true motive.  Plato reports that Zeno was “tall and fair to look upon” and was “in the days of his youth … to have been beloved by Parmenides”, his teacher. Crucially, according to Plato, the writings of Zeno, including the paradoxes were “meant to protect the arguments of Parmenides“.  Where do we look, then, for the philosophers who can tell us of the paradoxes of the human heart?

Thankfully, we don’t have to search too far in time or place. Carson McCullers at the age of 23, published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in 1940. This frail, illness-wonderfulstricken young woman, had the constitution of a sickly bird but the heart of a classical hero. Her characters seek for meaning and connection in a hostile world within wonderfully titled works such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Square Root of Wonderful.

She, herself, was like a character from her fiction. Married at age 20 to an ex-soldier, Reeves McCullers, who was also an aspiring writer, she began work on her first novel. The marriage didn’t last and in 1941 she left for New York to live with George Davis the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, becoming a member of an arts commune in Brooklyn. Her friends included W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Paul and Jane Bowles. After World War II, McCullers lived mostly in Paris where she re-married Reeves nuestros_libros_carson_mccullersMcCullers. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

In 1948 she became severely depressed and attempted suicide. In 1953, Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him, but she fled and Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills. She returned to the US and lived her final years in Nyack, a small town outside New York City where she died of a brain haemorrhage at age 50 in 1967. Had she lived another 40 years to reveal, perhaps, a prequel to her most famous novel, who knows, she might have had to endure the damning with faint praise I witnessed recently on the ABC’s premier TV book show where her near-contemporary, Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, was reviewed.

She is buried in Oak Hill cemetery where you will also find Edward Hopper, the artist who nighthawkspainted one of the great scenes of 20th Century American Art in his picture Nighthawks, set in an all-night diner on a street corner in New York City. I’ll conclude by quoting from the poem where, on the advice of her editor, Carson McCullers found the title for her first novel. The poem, The Lonely Hunter, is by Scottish writer William Sharpe, who, as a member of the Celtic Revival of the 1890s, wrote under the pseudonym, Fiona McCloud.

This he kept a closely-held secret. Yeats, (in a literary irony or, at least, curiosity,) found the work of McCloud acceptable but not that of Sharpe. He later worked out that Sharpe and McCloud were, in fact, the same person.

SharpeWhat are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?/Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,/But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill./Green is that hill and lonely, set far in a shadowy place;/White is the hunter’s quarry, a lost-loved human face:/O hunting heart, shall you find it, with arrow of failing breath,/Led o’er a green hill lonely by the shadowy hound of Death?

 

 

Still On The Move

SQ 24 Just For You and Me

irish-wolfhoundEntry 24: Just For You and Me- The shadowy hound of death in the poem by Fiona McCloud a.k.a. William Sharp is a wonderful construct where the spectre of mortality is not a grim reaper with hapless humankind withering in helpless stands like the grass and flowers of Isaiah and 1 Peter, All flesh is like grass,/and all its glory like the flowers of the field./The grass withers and the flowers/ fall,  but, instead, we find a questing hound leading the lonely hunter, pursuing the lost-loved face, over a green hill. And what lies over that green hill?

 Perhaps Aristophanes can give part of the answer. In The Birds, we see two middle-agedccland men, lost in a hilly wilderness looking for a land where the strife and privation found in Athens are absent. And what do they find? Cloud-cuckoo-land. One of the themes of the play is a revolt against conventional power-structures and this thread comes down through the centuries to us today. In the Middle-Ages we find the Goliardic tradition where the powerful institution of the Roman Church is mocked mercilessly and finds its apotheosis in The Feast of Fools where licentious behaviour scandalised the sober and pointed to the contradictions between the theory and practice of many of the clergy.

 The Carmina Burana is the best known artefact from those times. In 1567, Breughel the cockaigneElder’s painting of The Land of Cockaigne shows us stock contemporary figures such as a peasant, a soldier and a clerk, semi-comatose from the effects of gluttony. Cockaigne, Wikipedia tells me, was an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist…a land of contraries, where all the restrictions of society are defied (abbots beaten by their monks), sexual liberty is open (nuns flipped over to show their bottoms), and food is plentiful (skies that rain cheeses).

 In the great depression of the 20th Century, the same impulse is at work in songs such as The Big Rock Candy Mountain where the promise of cigarette trees, chocolate heights and lemonade springs lures a naïve young farmer’s son to follow the burly hobo to search for the land of ease. The denouement of the original song is not the sanitised version thatShangriLa_detail2 children sing in school performances. At about the same time as the song was being popularised in the 1930s we find Shangri-La, a mystical valley utopia in the Kunlun Mountains, which was long believed to be a paradise of Taoism.

The word, utopia, was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516 from the Greek words not and place or, colloquially, nowhere. What is implied by the etymology of the word has not prevented a host of visionary dreamers, both the benign and the psychopathic, from instituting their version of a heaven on earth. Manson’s family, Jonestown and Pol Pot’s Cambodia come to mind more readily than, say, the Oneida Community that lasted from 1848 to 1881 and which left us a legacy of stylish silverware-much preferable to the mountains of dead bodies and myriad shattered lives left by the others mentioned before.

Which brings me to The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, painted around 1500. Depicted are three locales, first; on the left-hand panel, we are in Eden with God presenting Eve to Adam, second; in the larger middle panel we could be in a gedregion of Cockaigne where nude men and women cavort among a selection of oversized birds and fruit; finally, in the panel on the right of the triptych, we are in a chamber of hell where the torments of damnation are vividly on show. We pursue our utopias, wherever they lead us. E.E. Cummings wrote a brilliant poem about this in 1944 during the horrors of World War II, pity this busy monster, manunkind, not/…pity poor flesh and trees…but never this fine specimen of hypermagical/ ultraomnipotence/…listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.

 There is learned speculation about the multiverse where every conceivable story and outcome is endlessly played out. Where, in one iteration of existence, you rule the big rock candy mountain; in another, you are a tortured soul endlessly enacting a scene from the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, and so on, and on. In episode 4, Season 6, of Through the Wormhole, Morgan Freeman discusses the view of theorists from a number of scientific fields who wonder if this universe of ours is not just a vast video game and we are pre-programmed elements within it.cosmic joke

These guys, presumably, don’t wear hats made of tinfoil but they are actively looking for glitches in the program that will prove that we are just epiphenomena inside, it may be, the latest fad of some alien teenage emo gamer. Now, wouldn’t that be something?

 

Just For You and Me

SQ 25 Belfast Calling

Belfast City Hall

Entry 25: Belfast Calling-There are places of wonder, splendour, adventure and transcendence, I suppose. Most Saturday mornings, I sit on the northeast corner of our veranda and flip through the travel supplement of The Sydney Morning Herald as I sip coffee and listen to the radio. In winter, the sun is low enough to stream under the roof and warm my blood as well as that of the small lizards that bask on the red-brick wall opposite.

In summer, the sun is higher and the same corner is shaded and open to the cooling breeze. Why, then, would I want to be anywhere else? I notice that the grey dollar is avidly sought as cruise operators, glamping spruikers as well as the more traditional bus touring companies display their dream destinations in extravagant, adjective-strewn purple prose promising fulfilment of various kinds…of-a-lifetime, of course. To over-promise and under-deliver seems a feature of life today. Does “awesome” retain even a sliver of its original heft?

My dyspeptic cast of thought is not solely due to the advertising copy before me (some of it masquerading as travel writing) but the thought that I must return to the small box-room that I use as a writing post. There, I’ve left an excerpt from Letter III of a Congregationalist minister writing, in 1852, an account of his meeting with some of my forbears in a small house at the entry of a cul-de-sac in the slums of Belfast. Entitled Walks Among the Poor of Belfast…, it is one of the many printed exposés of the effects of extreme poverty in the industrial cities of the UK at the time.

slum

The Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon recounts, the first house we entered was filled with sweeps…it is seldom that even one or two of these dusky ones cross our path without exciting…pity for them…as among the semi-barbarous thralls of society…a conclave of some ten or twelve of them, all duly begrimed, and by no means ashamed to shew their colours, is not an every-day sight. My ancestors of less than two centuries ago reminded the reverend person of, a Pandemonium, only very completely shorn of its terrible sublimity and partaking largely of the burlesque. Deep ignorance is, of course, the prevailing characteristic of this class.

Hardly surprising, if the following testimony is typical, inquiring of one, about eighteen years

chimney sweeps

of age, if he had ever been at school, his reply was, that he had gone to school when a child, for a few days, but, not being able to make anything of it, he had given it up and ever since he had looked upon “the larnin’ as a mighty strange thing.” George Bernard Shaw, in Pygmalion, has Eliza Doolittle’s father make the ironic distinction between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor and I wonder if the well-meaning O’Hanlon felt he had discovered one of the former in this next extract:

In this singular group, however, we did find one lad able to read a little, and, having furnished him with the means, we set him to work, for his own benefit and that of his black brethren. What means? What work? I ask myself 163 years later, and I have a feeling there

th (8)Chimney Sweep

may be a script, poem, song or short story here. But I must put it on the long finger, to use an Irish expression from the time, because I would like to share with you the fact that the straitened circumstances in which the charitable Reverend found members of my clan were a des res in comparison to what was found in a nearby lane,

in truth, no pure breath of heaven ever enters here; it is tainted and loaded by the most noisome reeking feculence. Surely, we’ve reached the bottom of the pit? But no, there is yet a lower circle in this suburb of hell, still more narrow and wretched containing, I think, nine houses, seven of which, are the abodes of guilt…here every kind of profligacy and crime is carried on…passers of base coin, thieves and prostitutes all herd together…and sounds of blasphemy, shouts of mad debauch, and cries of quarrel and blood are frequently heard here through the livelong night to the annoyance and terror of the neighbourhood…it is the practice of these miscreants to frequent the docks, and, having caught sailors, like unwary birds, in their toils, to allure them into their pitfalls, where they are soon peeled and plundered.

Sounds a bit like Kings Cross of a Saturday night, doesn’t it? O’Hanlon did not live much longer after his encounter with my black brethren and I honour his memory. But, out here on the veranda, as I gaze at the artfully cropped photographs of tourist destinations far and near, I ponder on the images and accounts that are not submitted for my weekend perusal but that would replicate in substance what the Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon Ireland_Belfast_ire1_largediscovered in the city that was my first abode when I left my parents and began my tentative steps as a new husband, a new father and teacher-in-waiting as I dreamt of a new life in Australia:QANTAS 707

 

SQ 26 Penelope’s Song

Entry 26: Penelope’s Song- In the Glens of Antrim, where I was born, the sea has been aglens powerful shaping force throughout history and, indeed, pre-history. For 10,000 years people have walked through the glens, many having arrived by sea over the millennia and just as many having left by the same means. My father and grandfather were the latest in a long line of Glensmen who sought a livelihood across the sea stretching back to the Neolithic exporters of porcellanite axe heads found the length and breadth of the British Isles and much further afield.

masefieldJohn Masefield has set out in a poem, published in 1902, the allure of the sea-faring life to many a sailor; an allure as powerful as the attractions of the girls from the Belfast brothels of the previous entry.

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,/And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,/And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

 For most part, the womenfolk stayed at home and waited and waited; expected to emulate Penelope, spouse of the Greek hero Odysseus who warded off 108 suitors for twenty years by saying she would entertain their suit when she had finished her weaving, an appropriate wifely task. At night, she would undo what she had done the previous day. This embodiment of uxorial decorum is represented in artpenelope by her modest pose of leaning her cheek on her hand, and by her protectively crossed knees, reflecting her long chastity in Odysseus’s absence.

Her name has traditionally been associated with marital faithfulness, unlike her contemporary, Helen, who represents the fatal attraction of faithless beauty: Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? But some recent readings offer a more ambiguous interpretation of Penelope, the wifely paragon.

 As Margaret Attwood has Penelope observe in The Penelopiad, when she recognises her husband’s beggarly disguise but refrains from calling him on it: it’s always an imprudence to odysseusstep between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.  Continuing the deflation of the legend, she further assets that Odysseus was a liar and drunkard who had fought a one-eyed bartender then boasted it was a giant, cannibalistic Cyclops he had bested through his guile and strength.

 Other, ancient sources including Duris of Samos and Servius, the Virgilian commentator, report that Penelope slept with all 108 suitors in Odysseus’ absence, and gave birth to Pan as a result. One wonders if, in fact, the song of the Sirens that tormented Odysseus was suspicious thoughts of what his wife was up to back in Ithaca.  

 In the early 7th Century, St Isidore, patron saint of the Internet, who is said to have been the last true scholar of the ancient world, asserted in his  Etomologaie that there wereisidore three Sirens…One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck… According to the truth, he asserts, they were prostitutes who led travellers down to poverty.

 In 1917, Franz Kafka writing about these creatures has this to say:  Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly kafkasuch a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.

But we don’t have to put up with their silence, thankfully. In my head I hear a partial roll-call of those intrepid men who heeded the summons of the sea and helped shape modern Australia, the place where I now live and call home: Bass, Baudin, Cook, Dampier, D’Entrecasteaux, Flinders, Frecinyet, Furneaux, La Perouse, Tasman, Torres. They all undertook voyages as legendary as that of Odysseus in the Bronze Age. The age of exploration across the vastness of land and sea has passed.australia

I think, instead, of an Irish writer who took on the immense themes found in the Odyssey and presents us with one day in the life of an unremarkable Dubliner as he wanders around his city on the 16th of June, 1904; a most propitious date that is still celebrated in cities around the world as Bloomsday where readings from the text take pride of place. In Sydney, it has been celebrated in a variety of venues including Bondi Beach where Irish backpackers congregate in large numbers in order to redden their pale Celtic backs in the sun and to redden their pale Celtic faces at the pub afterwards.

molly-bloomSome of them may even take part in marking the composition of Ulysses by James Joyce where we find Molly Bloom, who represents Penelope, lying in bed with her husband Leopold Bloom, who is Odysseus. The novel concludes with Molly’s remembrance of Bloom’s marriage proposal. And her reply? …yes I said yes I will Yes.

 

Penelope’s Song