SQ 27 Paddy Went Home Today

Entry 27: Paddy Went Home Today- In Australia, those men, who enter apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics and a host of other trades that construct the protective carapaces in which we exist are designated “tradies” and theytradie have an honoured place in the pantheon of occupations in this land that was dismissively labelled a bricklayer’s paradise in the 1960s when so many found a place in the sun and started to build a new life for themselves and their families.

Even in the early 70s when I first arrived on these shores, the shortage of skilled labour ensured that anyone with a modicum of skill in any trade could walk out of one job in the morning and have another job that afternoon. Advertising reflected this by, for instance, contrasting the pasty-faced white-collar workers glumly eating a business lunch in a restaurant with young, bronzed, muscled office-drudgebuilders happily eating a meat pie outside in the cabin of their Ute. This image has persisted over the decades, even though their golden age has passed and the new economy has its own young guns slinging code and establishing start-ups which are worth millions within a year.

There are lots of paeans to those inhabiting the upper-crust of society- Kings and Queens and the like, and also to those inhabiting the base of the human pie- the peasantry and the proletariat. This entry, though, deals with those who inhabit that special place that will not see them loaded onto tumbrils on the way to the greedy guillotine or consigned to be factory-and-cannon fodder.

But we can’t comfortably categorise them as petit bourgeois either. Soren Kierkegaardkierkegaard wrote, “the petty bourgeois is spiritless…devoid of imagination… he lives within a certain orbit of trivial experiences as to how things come about, what is possible, what usually happens… this is the way the petty bourgeois has lost himself and God This scornful depiction owes more to the prejudices of the philosophical Dane’s affluent middle-class upbringing than any thoroughgoing analysis.

It seems to me that human progress has been accomplished by men and women looking at how things come about, what is possible workersand what usually happens. From pre-historic times, the work and innovation of stone-masons, carpenters, tool-makers, and metalworkers have added to the utility and aesthetics of human existence. From classical times, the ingenuity of plumbers, ship-builders, aqueduct engineers and road-makers has ensured the spread of civilisation.

Modern times owes much of its definition to electricity on demand and, now, the sparkie joins the ranks tradespeople who keep our lives on its comfortable track. Think of the last time your toilet was blocked, or there was a power outage, or the ceiling leaked or if this happened at once- as it might in thehouse aftermath of a storm. Then, you, too, would be singing paeans those who would fix the problems.

Paean is such a strange word- it means enthusiastic praise and derives from a hymn to Apollo, who was physician to the gods. I am reminded of a relatively obscure incident from the Cold War where this word was used in an interesting way. In 1968, the USS Pueblo, an American Naval spy ship, was captured after being fired upon by North Korean navy ships killing fireman Duane Hodges and wounding uss-puebloa third of the contingent. 82 officers and crew were imprisoned and tortured physically and mentally for 11 months.

As part of the conditions for release the captain and officers had to sign an admission crewof guilt. The captain gamed his tormentors, using the word paean to do so. Skip Schumacher, interviewed for the BBC program Witness in 2012, recalls with humour and pride their final act of resistance as the men walked to freedom across the “bridge of no return” at butcherPanmunjom. “Blasted on the loud speakers for all to hear came the booming voice of Commander Bucher wishing to pee on the North Korean navy and most of all pee on Premier Kim ll-sung!”

The crew members, too, were defiant as demonstrated by, on one occasion a group of eight sailors were photographed by the North Koreans to show how well the crew was being treated. In the photograph every sailor held up his middle finger – a lewd gesture that was not recognised by their captors. “We told them the finger was a Hawaiian good luck sign so they thought that was wonderful,” Lt Schumacher remembers.

So, then, what follows is a song of praise- a paean, to the tradies who work long hours for little in the way of glory. I heard about the protagonist of the song when the members of the folk band I was playing in were talking about big drinkers we had encountered duringsheetmetal-worker our working lives. Paddy is based on a sheet-metal worker from inner Sydney, during the boom times of the mid-70s.


Paddy Went Home Today (alternative take)

SQ 28 Mountains and Trees

Entry 28: Mountains and Trees- I worked a summer job in 1970 at a fish-and-chip shop in Donaghadee, County Down in Northern Ireland. I was trying to gather a few shekels together to get married the following year. There I met an acquaintance from schooldays who was in training to accompany the Queens University Mountaineering Club for an attempt on K2, second highest mountain in the world the following summer break.k2

The Savage Mountain, as K2 is known, has the second highest fatality rate among the eight-thousanders (that is-those 14 mountains above 8,000 metres or 26,247 feet) Their summits are in the death zone which  refers to altitudes above a certain point where the amount of oxygen is deemed insufficient to sustain human life. Yet 33 people have climbed all 14 peaks without extra oxygen. Hundreds have died in the attempt, so death zone seems accurate enough.

messnerWikipedia has a great story concerning ace mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, renowned for making the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and for being the first climber to ascend all fourteen “eight-thousanders: he was given the opportunity by the Chinese government to climb kailash, a mountain sacred to four religions, in the mid-1980s but he declined. In 2001 the Chinese gave permission for a Spanish team to climb the peak, but in the face of international disapproval the Chinese decided to ban all attempts to climb the mountain. Messner, referring to the Spanish plans, said, “If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls … I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder. Kailash is not so high and not so hard.

Well, at almost 22,000 feet it is no mean mountain, thought by earlier mountaineers to be unclimbable, so Messner’s not so high and not so hard has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Still, it’s good to know that there is a sacred site that has not been trashed by tourists of uluru-lightingone kind or another; unlike Uluru, also known as Ayer’s Rock, in central Australia where visitors regularly ignore requests that the sacred rock is not climbed as are requests that certain sections are not photographed.

Of course, I have climbed nothing much higher than the flat-topped mountain of some eleven hundred feet which towered over my childhood home. I had always regarded it with awe as a child and I finally climbed it in the company of my to-be wife in the spring of 1968. I experienced that senselurig
of exaltation that so many of us report when at the summit of a high place. It’s something to do with being able to see for miles and miles; looking down at the insignificance of humans and their achievements.

You can also lose yourself, in a different sort of way, among the trees. Although limited theoretically to growing less than 130 metres or 430 feet tall, we feel dwarfed by these towering plants that can outlive us by thousands of years as well. Near Bulahdelah, northern NSW in the Myall Lakes National park is the aptly named the Grandis, a 400-year-old gum which soars 76 metres among the surrounding grandisforest.

This area is home, as well, to Australia’s greatest poet, Les Murray, who writes in Noonday les-murray-1Axeman, about his forbears who came here from Scotland to work the timber…my great-great grandfather here with his first sons,/who would grow old, still speaking with his Scots accent, /never having seen those highlands that they sang of. As humans we measure ourselves against just about everything we experience but to compare ourselves to trees is more comprehensible than to set a measure against the mountains of the world, large or small. A. E. Housman, does so in one of his best-known poems,

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough,/And stands about thecherry-blossom woodland ride/Wearing white for Eastertide./Now, of my threescore years and ten,/Twenty will not come again,/And take from seventy springs a score,/It only leaves me fifty more./And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow.

Compare this to Basho’s terse comment, The oak oaktree:/not interested/in cherry blossoms.

In 1972, we set up home in Wollongong, between the heavily wooded Illawarra Range and the long white beaches washed by the surf sets of the South Pacific Ocean. In 1974 we moved just across from the city’s Botanic Gardens and we would often take the kids to the duck pond or rose garden. I would, on occasion, sit under a tree, reading poetry, strumming my guitar or learning how to play the tin-whistle. During that year, apart from annoying the ducks bybotanical-garden over-blowing, I wrote the song, Mountains and Trees, there; comparing the scenes of my youth in Northern Ireland to the strange and compelling vistas around me.


SQ 29 Home

Entry 29: Home- Let’s start big. We are star-stuff. The heavy elements that make us possible started in stellar furnaces and were blasted across the universe by super-novae and here we are. Our home is the universe. But I wonder how consoling that thought is tosupernova the 100 million plus people on this planet who are categorised as homeless or the 1.6 billion who are inadequately housed according to standards established by the UN?

 Some people live in the one spot, the one dwelling, their whole lives as have their parents and grandparents before them and they, in turn, expect to hand on the home to one or more of their children- but such instances must be rare today. For instance, in the first 45 years of my life, I had lived in twenty different places on three continents. However, for the past twenty years I have lived at the same address.

On those desk calendars with a quote-a-day you will find sentiments such as, home attributed to Pliny the Elder. The Germans have a word for it- Heimat. Wikipedia says, People are bound to their heimat by their birth and their childhood, their language, their earliest experiences or acquired affinity. Heimat as a trinity of descendance, community and tradition highly affects a person’s identity. Historically, it found strength as an instrument of self-assurance and orientation in an increasingly alienating world. It was a reaction to the onset of modernity, loss of individuality and intimate community.

 Heimat is also the overall title of several series of films in 32 episodes written and directed by Edgar Reitz which view life in Germany between 1919 and 2000 through the eyes of a family from the Hunsruck area of the Rhineland. Personal and domestic life is set againstheimaat glimpses of wider social and political events. The combined length of the 32 films is 53 hours and 25 minutes, making it one of the longest series of feature-length films in cinema history.

 A related concept, Heimweh or homesickness, has deep roots and is an ancient phenomenon, mentioned in both Homer’s The Odyssey, where we find Athena arguing with Zeus to bring Odysseus home because he is homesick. “…longing for his wife and his homecoming…” and the Old Testament (Exodus and Psalm 137) “By the rivers of Babylon, babylonthere we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

 But if I started big, I’d like to modulate to something smaller now by taking us to a modest homestead in New England in the opening years of the 20th Century, where a woman, Mary, is waiting for her husband, Warren. She has taken in an old man, Silas, who used to work for them but left over a dispute about money. Warren says bitterly, at one point, Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in. This is from a long, conversational poem byfarmhouse Robert Frost- a wonderful exploration of the concept of home. It touches upon several other themes including family, power, justice, mercy, age, death, friendship, redemption, guilt and belonging. Warren wants to know why Silas didn’t just walk the extra thirteen miles to his well-heeled brother’s place. Mary replies, Worthless though he is,/He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.

As with all Robert Frost’s long conversational poems, this one is deceptively simple in its structure and language. Warren is reluctant to take his former worker back, and not just because Silas left him at an inopportune time. Mary knows her husband well and she says to him, ‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:/You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’/‘Home,’ he mocked gently./‘Yes, what else but home? Mary persuades her husband to go and see Silas whom she had left resting on a chair by the stove.

clouds-and-moonI’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud/Will hit or miss the moon.’ /It hit the moon./Then there were three there, making a dim row,/The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.

 Now, isn’t that breathtaking! The way in which a real poet moves from the mundane to the sublime in an instant and then back again Warren returned—too soon, it seemed to her, /Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited./‘Warren,’ she questioned. /‘Dead,’ was all he answered. Dear Listener, please read the complete poem, The Death of the Hired Man where you will experience it in its proper order and complexity.

 On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I was relaxing in my backyard with a beer in my hand and my guitar by my side. My family were all in residence and the sun was shining. The heat of the Australian summer was tempered by a cool breeze. I realised that, for the first time in overbackyard thirty years, I was in a place that I could call home without demur. Usually I wouldn’t have registered the thought but, that day, I wandered inside, collected a pen and notebook and, calling for another beer, I wrote this song:



SQ 30 Perfect (as you can be)

a-chineses-imageEntry 30: Perfect (as you can be)- Sometime in the middle of the 17th Century, somewhere in China, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, a former mandarin official, Zha Shibiao, found something else to do with his life. He became one of the Four Masters of Anhui and one of the few capable of attaining the three perfections. This title goes back to the 8th Century when the Emperor Xuanzong, delighted by a painting given him, inscribed
xuanzong the words “three perfections” on it.

Since that time the three elements: painting, poetry and calligraphy have been appreciated as the ultimate expression of the visual arts. The calligraphy, in itself of the highest aesthetic value, is further enhanced by the formal beauty of the poem, which comments of the subject-matter of the painting. The complex interplay of these elements, as mediated in the informed mind of the observer of the art-work, results in an increasingly sophisticated appreciation of the composition upon repeated viewings.zha-shibiao

On the western fringe of Sydney, hanging on a wall of the box-room I use for writing, above the printer, is a reproduction of an exemplar of the three perfections. The original: a hanging scroll, ink on paper, measuring 97 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. The sheer verticality of the format lends itself to the steep cliffs, distant mountains and forest trees depicted. A solitary figure, surrounded by tall trees and standing at the edge of a stream, looks out across the water and up the steep rock face. As we follow his gaze, our eyes are drawn along the gully to a temple which peeks out from behind a vertiginous bluff, one of several, which are surmounted by stands of trees. Our eyes travel ever upwards to view the conical mountains in the distance.

Zha Shibiao, signing himself, The Taoist of Plum Gully, composed the following poem for the landscape (maybe he painted the scene after writing the poem):

A clear stream at the gully’s mouth,/On the stone path I enter the cold forest./It is late as I approach the front of the mountain,/The stream flows off into the distance.

There is a sort of perfection found near running water under trees which are sighing in the breeze, surrounded by steep, wooded slopes flooded by summer sunlight. There’s another sort of perfection found in numbers. Mathematicians claim that beauty, similar to that to be found in painting or literature or music, resides in the rarefied upper reaches of their discipline.

numbersUnable as I am, to ascend even the foothills of that discipline, I content myself with finding nuggets such as, six is the perfect number- Pythagoras and St Augustine agree, though for different reasons. Greek mathematicians regarded as perfect those numbers which equal the sum of their divisors that are smaller than themselves. Such a number is 6, for 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. Similarly, 28, which is 1+2+4+7+14=28. The Bishop of Hippo cited the number of days it took God to create the world as the reason for 6’s perfection.

Other claimants to be considered the perfect number among the single digits include, each and every one! Zero and one can encode the universe in binary form. Two is the smallest prime. Three is the Trinity, four, the points on the Compass, five the fingers of the hand, seven days in a week, the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing started at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 pm on 8 August 2008. There are nine muses in Greek mythology- don’t get me started on the whole nine yards!

What, I wonder, would a perfect person be like? Michelangelo’s David? Perhaps one of Themr-perfect Stepford Wives?? Or what about the perfect society? Calvin’s Geneva? Pol Pot’s Cambodia? In yearning for perfection, like so many other things in life, it is wise to remember the admonition to be careful what you wish for. In Australia, to call any achievement or attainment pretty ordinary is, in fact, a comprehensive put-down.

But what about the situation so many find themselves in where to achieve the merely ordinary would be a blessing, if not a miracle? It was in the mid-70s, living in Wollongong, that I read Thomas Shapcott’s poem, Near the school for child-crossing-roadhandicapped children.  It struck a chord then and that dissonant stack of notes has sounded again and again over the decades since, striking closer to home. This compelling poem gets it right: I am hurt by my wholeness, the poet says when he spots the disabled child whose freckled face reminds him of nephews and how his limbs remind me of how straight/is my own spine and that I take my fingers/for granted. Love blazes out in the simple line, he has been dressed carefully.

When the lights change to green, the child skips across the road like a skimming tambourine/brittle with music, the telling simile with which the poem ends. The light, signalling the ordinary, will be stuck on red forever.tambourine



Perfect (as you can be)

SQ 31 The Cycle of Love

Entry 31: The Cycle of Love- Gulgong is a memorable spot. Situated ingulgong-panorama-on4_38955r the Central Tablelands of New South Wales about 300 kilometres north-west of Sydney, it afforded the indigenous Wiradjuri people plentiful game and sweet water before white settlement. In the 1820s, conflict between white settlers and the aboriginal inhabitants intensified, with martial law being decreed in 1824. Shooting parties, freed to roam at will, killing the tribespeople on sight, ensured that, within a generation, very few survivors remained. One William Cox, who, according to some abor-conflictsources made a significant contribution to their extermination, claimed the last local black died in 1876. 

By this time, a gold rush had been in full swing for six years, with the population of the area swelling to over 20,000. But by 1881, it was all over, with the population subsiding to a little over twelve hundred souls. In its hey-day, though, Gulgong swanked it with the best of hergoldrush larger metropolitan sisters what, with dancing girls having nuggets of gold thrown in their laps and crowds of rowdy fortune seekers surging through the narrow streets.

Henry Lawson sets the tone in The Roaring Days, So let us fill our glasses/ And toast the Days of Gold;/ When finds of wondrous treasure/ Set all the South ablaze. Between 1870 and 1880, the fabled Cobb and Co coaches took away 483,170 cobb-and-coounces of gold from Gulgong and nearby fieldsAnd the poet captures the excitement of the time with Behind six foaming horses,/And lit by flashing lamps,/Old Cobb and Co., in royal state,/Went dashing past the camps.

Henry would have been somewhat bemused to find himself on the first ten-dollar note, given his lack ofarticle-lead-wide10086lawson luck with money during his lifetime. Almost always desperately poor, he spent time in Darlinghurst Gaol for drunkenness and non-payment of child support. The tone of One Hundred and Three, his prison number, and the title of a sombre poem, published in 1908, is far removed from The Roaring Days, The brute is a brute and a kind man kind and the strong heart does not fail-/A crawler’s a crawler everywhere but a man is a man in gaol!

australia_10dollar_note_1968But I like to think that he would have laughed out loud to find that Francis Greenaway, a convict transported for the crime of forgery, is depicted on the obverse of the note. In 1989 a white VG Valiant drove slowly up to the Ten Dollar Motel as the sun was rising on New Year’s Eve. The back of the 2000 kdancingm  journey between North Queensland and Sydney was broken and that’s how my spine felt as we settled into our rooms.

My wife and daughter were excited by the buzz in the streets, surging again with people, as revellers got set for a night’s dancing and drinking as singers in the town’s pubs revisited the region’s past in varying displays of competency at bush balladeering. The 19th Century streetscape is one of the attractions of the town and it was featured as a backdrop to Lawson’s image on the new decimal currency paper note. We had a fine old time dancing up and down the street as the bush band bashed out old favourites such as The Heel and Toe Polka and before we knew it, a new decade had ticked over.

sydneyReturning to Sydney at the end of 1994, we flew over the sunlit landscape below where a little over four years previously I had managed to take a wrong turn during the night drive down from Queensland and found the redoubtable Valiant bouncing down a dry creek-bed where the big, lazy, Detroit six cylinder, displacing 245 cubic inches, shrugged off the sucking sand and rounded river stones to shoulder past whipping branches as the headlights made crazy patterns in thecreek-bed darkness while my passengers made comments on my sanity and prowess as a driver. When, somehow, I regained a passable dirt road without ripping out the sump, I told my captive audience that I had merely taken a scenic detour to enliven their journey.

I have been back to Gulgong to two more occasions since then, in ’96 and ’97 to take in the Folk Festival at the turn of the year. I would have liked to have played a few sessions in the pubs with the group I helped get started in Sydney, but family circumstances and work commitments made it impossible. However, carting my second-best guitar, I strolled into a pub and, waiting my opportunity, I sang a song I had composed earlier in the year to a small crowd who had done nothing at all to provoke me.

The stimulus for composition was reports in the media about abuse of various kinds that got me thinking that there were more cycles that those of abuse. Standing in the pub that afternoon, what prompted me to unsling the instrument was the sight of an elderly, smiling woman who reminded me of my mother, who had died five years previously.

 As I say, Gulgong is a memorable spot.



The Cycle of Love

SQ 32 Dreams of the Elemental

Entry 32: Dreams of the Elemental– Cyberspace has hundreds of millions of wunderkind cyberspiderspiders dancing across the span of its virtual web weaving texts for every (and no) conceivable occasion. Snared in incalculable arrays of snugly wrapped binary cocoons are the multitudinous textual trash and treasure from the present and past, waiting to be plucked to a screen near you by the stroke of a key.

 Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. Who said that? And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. Pardon? One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. Ah, of course, . Revered or reviled, depending on the dancing-starcommentator, this astonishing intellect produced some of the most influential ideas of the past century.

Yeats and Auden, Wallace Stevens and Thomas Mann each produced sublime works inspired, in part, by the stateless occupant of the chair of classical philology at the University of Basel. His detractors discredited him by linking his ideas to the world-view of the Nazis (what with their ideas of the Aryan super race and so on). They also had him riddled with syphilis and labelled a raving lunatic for the last decade of his life.nietzsche

The protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, Adrian Leverkuhn, is a composer of genius whose 24 years of compositional ecstasy corresponds to the supposed length of time it takes for the incubation of the spirochete and progress of the disease to its end in terminal tertiary syphilis. Mann based his main character on Nietzsche who, in a fragment entitled On Words and Music, asserted the judgment that music is a primary expression of the essence of everything.

 Some of his letters, written at the start of his tragic decade of madness, he signed Dionysos recalling his influential writings on tragedy where he posits the Apollonian and the Dionysian as the opposing poles of order and chaos from which tragedy emerges. In some ways, he is following in the steps of one of his favourite poets, Holderlin 220px-friedrich_hoelderlin, who spent the final 36 years of his life sequestered in a tower suffering the torments of schizophrenia.

In periods of lucidity, Holderlin produced verse of lyrical beauty,

A kindly divinity leads us on at first/with blue, then prepares clouds,/shaped like grey domes, with/searing lightning and rolling thunder,/ then comes the loveliness of the fields,/and beauty wells forth from/the source of the primal image. Or, The earth hangs down/to the lake, full of yellow/ pears and wild roses./ Lovely swans, drunk with/ kisses, you dip your heads/ into the holy, sobering waters.

Something I may well have emulated when I crossed the line. Shortly after New Year, 1979, I treated the family to a cruise. We were returning to Ireland and we set out from the port of Fremantle bound for Singapore. The ship, named the Kota Singapura, did not only carry acrossing-the-line human cargo, but also livestock.

The hijinks on-board were Bacchanalian as the target demographic were young backpackers who were entertained each evening by a guy who was later attacked with a sword by a disgruntled crew member. An elderly lady, an occupant of the cabin next to ours, was thrown from her bunk during a storm overnight, and broke her arm.

The next afternoon, beginning to worry about a run of bad luck, I glanced anxiously up at Krakatoa, willing it to remain dormant, as we passed to the east of it.  At this stage of my krakatoalife, I was fascinated by Eastern philosophy, particularly, Taoism, and I has a well-thumbed paperback translation of the Tao Te Ching to hand. I read: The name that can be named is not the eternal name…the famous first line… just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognise the usefulness of what is not.

However, my mind wasn’t on philosophy but the upcoming party. King Neptune, in the person of the soon-to-be-hacked entertainments officer, presided over ceremonies designed to inflict mild humiliation on those whoking-neptune admitted to having never crossed the equator by sea before. I sang O’Sullivan’s John raucously, accompanying myself on borrowed guitar, before being thrown into the pool and swallowing a mouthful or two of holy sobering waters.

Then the ship began to list to port, but the hijinks continued unabated, and, as the ship limped into the dock at Singapore to a waiting contingent of police with dogs and vans, we disembarked to the rumour swirling among us that Mick Jagger would be on Bugis Street that evening. Speculation as bugisto whether he would be in drag or just another tourist added spice to the rumour. As I say, I treated the family to a cruise at the beginning of 1979. So effective has the treatment been, that, in the thirty-odd years since, I have received no requests for a repetition of the dose.



Dreams of the Elemental

SQ 33 I’m Supposed To Be

Entry 33: I’m Supposed To Be- The Bonny Earl o’ Moray is a 17th Century Scottish ballad. Itsrelicsofanciente03perciala_0007 fourth line has given rise to a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st Centuries called the Mondegreen. Coined in 1954 by American writer Sylvia Wright in a Harper’s Bazaar article she explains its origin: When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favourite poems began, as I remember:/Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,/Oh, where hae ye been?/They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,/And Lady Mondegreen. The actual fourth line is “And laid him on the green”. Wright explained the need for a new term: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original. “Her essay had already described the bonny Earl holding the beautiful Lady Mondegreen’s hand, both bleeding profusely but faithful unto death. She disputed: “I know, but I won’t give in to it. Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand–I WON’T HAVE IT!!!”

We substitute what we think are the actual words, through a mishearing of the original substituteword or phrase. In March, 1966, I bought Substitute, a single by the group, The Who and would sing it lustily on the bus on the morning run to school. The line, My sharkskin suit is really made out of sack, which I’m sure I heard on the original, elicited the question from my school mates, What’s a sharkskin suit? To which I responded with the universal don’t know, don’t care shrug and grunt of the teenage boy. It isn’t even a close homophone of the lyrics, which I later found to be, My fine linen suit is really made out of sack.

For whatever reason, I substituted sharkskin for fine linen. And I still think it a better reading of the line. Townsend’s lyrics went beyond the usual cliches of popdom, I’m a substitute for another guy/I look pretty tall but my heels are high/The simple things you see are all complicated/I look pretty young, but I’m just backdated, yeah. Later that year, Townsend continued his exploration of illusion and reality and how roles define us in the song I’m a Boy.boygirl.jpg

The mother won’t accept that her son is a boy and instructs his sisters, Put your frock on, Jean Marie/Plait your hair, Felicity/Paint your nails, little Sally Joy/Put this wig on, little boy. Not suffering from gender dysphoria, little boy laments, I wanna play cricket on the green/Ride my bike across the street/Cut myself and see my blood/I wanna come home all covered in mud. Sadly, his mother remains adamantine to the pleas of the chorus, I’m a boy, I’m a boy/But my ma won’t admit it/I’m a boy, I’m a boy/But if I say I am, I get it.

earDiscontent is woven into the human condition, is it not? Edwin Arlington Robinson, whose parents had wanted a girl and held off naming him for six months, wrote about a man uncomfortable in his milieu in one of his best known poems, published in 1910, Miniver Cheevy,

 Miniver cursed the commonplace/And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;/He missed the mediæval grace/Of iron clothing./Miniver Cheevy, born too late,/Scratched his head and kept on thinking;/Miniver coughed, and called it fate,/And kept on drinking.

But wealth alone cannot shield one from existential discontentment as Robinson demonstrates in Richard Cory, if anything even more well-known than Miniver Cheevy. Richard Cory is wealthy and well-mannered, debonair, educated and the object of admiration and envy among the townspeople who struggle to make ends meet.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,/And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;/And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,/Went home and put a bullet through his head.cory

The seemingly crushing difficulties of the lives of the people are trumped by the meaningless daily round of Richard Cory.

Which leads me to the song I’m Supposed To Be. Four years in the heat of North Queensland and I was slowly going troppo. Outward trappings of success, a commission to write a musical play put on in the local commercial theatre, confident and assured as the head of English at a pleasant school, and I was sinking. Friends and acquaintances, family, excursions to the Whitsunday Islands, fishing trips and holidays on Magnetic Island- none of these rescued me from the world of Substitute where the north side of my town faced east and the east was facing south.

midlifecrisisUnlike the young protagonist of the song, I was approaching my mid-forties, within the zone for an occurrence of the mid-life crisis, although empirical research has found no evidence for it and questions its validity as a human condition. Wouldn’t that be a bummer for so many writers in so many genres who mine this particular seam for considerable profit- if they were to allow something so inconvenient as the truth to intrude:



I’m Supposed To Be

SQ 34 This Cold Bed

Entry 34: This Cold Bed- The corrido is a Spanish folk style popularised in Mexico and mostcucaracha listeners will recognise its most pervasive example, La Cucaracha. But will they, really? Often presented as a speeded up soundtrack in 5/4 time for a cartoon featuring a variety of Mexican stereotypes, frequently mice with elongated ears, or stylised cockroaches in vivid Mexican colours playing a variety of ethnic percussion instruments as they emulate dancing beans, you only get its true power by listening to authentic folk bands who value the historical and revolutionary origins of the song.

YouTube comes into its own here, where even a cursory search brings up a handful of moving renditions. The black-and-white stills and film images from the Mexican adelitarevolution of 1910-1920 accompany a number of versions of that song as well as corridos written about heroes of the revolution including such towering figures as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. One of the remarkable features of this revolution was the number of striking women who took up arms and who are commemorated in song after song and photograph after photograph.

The contribution of the revolutionaries of both sexes is constantly refreshed by ongoing interpretations by contemporary singers and musicians. As I write this, horsemen sweep across a dusty plain through exploding shells; now a firing squad cuts down its hapless targets; a steam trainexecutions pulls out of the station draped with cheering, moustachioed men; beautiful women wearing bandoliers brandish rifles and family groups in serious poses recall similar middle-class family portraits from the Edwardian era in Europe except that each person in the Mexican portrait, man or woman, boy or girl, is holding a rifle or pistol.

In a sinister modern twist to this story, the brutal drug lords who have reduced parts of Mexico to blood-drenched landscapes and cityscapes of terror and horror are celebrated in narco- corridos with slick production values that would not be out of place in the recordings of rock royalty. In the lyrics, however, the real picture emerges, With an AK47 and a bazooka on my shoulder, cross my path narcocorridosand I’ll chop your head off. We’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill. This is not hyperbole or graphic story-telling but an account what has happened to many thousands of victims, men, women and children who have had the temerity to cross the path of one of the narco-gangs.

Juarez, Mexico has a population of three times that of El Paso, its West Texas neighbour. Five homicides were recorded in El Paso in 2010. Therefore, were the homicide rates similar, you would expect 15 deaths in the Mexican city. 3,622 murders were, in fact, recorded for that year.  For an Australian perspective, imagine if, in the last year, ten thousand violentjuarez murders were committed across the Sydney basin.

In the spring break of 1981, I played host to an Australian friend and writer who had just flown into Northern Ireland from West Berlin. We were to spend a week on a hired boat on Lough Erne where I was accompanying a small group of student fishing enthusiasts and the Art teacher from the school where we both taught. My Australian guest had commented on the graffiti on the roads from the airport and I explained to him that Northern Ireland was a patchwork of sectarian allegiances and that you had to be a little bit careful as you negotiated the geographical and political landscape.

bobby_sands_udbThe Lough Erne system comprises two connected lakes straddled by the historic town of Enniskillen. The area is one of breath-taking beauty and we spent an idyllic time cruising the upper and lower loughs and exploring the historical sites on several of the many islands which are sprinkled across the system. At this time, the hunger-strikes were underway, orchestrated by the youngest MP in the British parliament, one Bobby Sands. He was gravely ill in the Maze prison hospital and one of the students, listening to a news update whispered, Die, Bobby Sands, Die.

My Australian guest, shocked at the venom evident in the hissed response to the news item, asked me why there was such hatred when we shared a bottle of wine later. Ireland, I replied.

Sands was a charismatic man. He was also a musician and writer. His best-known song, Back Home in Derry, to a borrowed tune, commemorates the Irish convicts transported toconvicts Van Diemen’s Land in 1803- the present-day paradise of Tasmania. My comrades’ ghosts walk behind me/A rebel I came – And I’ll die the same/On the cold winters’ night you will find me.

 When I came to write the song This Cold Bed in Sydney in the mid-90s, I was thinking of Bobby Sands and of all those artists who felt that the protest inherent in painting or writing or song wasn’t enough of a response to the times they found themselves in.



This Cold Bed

SQ 35 Sing Along

Entry 35: Sing Along- Maybe it all started a hundred thousand years ago on an escarpmentearly-humans fringing the African savannah. A number of families of early humans have sought sanctuary in caves and hollows from marauding bands of hyena who howl their hunger under a blood-moon as infants cower in their mother’s arms and their fathers with fire-hardened wooden spears muster at the entrances to stave off the predators surrounding them.

As the slavering shadows draw near, a lone voice responds defiantly and then another, and another, until along the line of cave mouths a human chorus sings out a challenge to hyenaDeath as, emboldened, the hunted become the hunters and the hyenas are scattered by an outrush of warriors. Later, around triumphant campfires, the voices re-enact the battle-scene in shaped notes that predate harmony and history.

Ever since those misty proto-mythological times, song, in all its proliferations, has taken root in human culture and almost every human heart. To evince a dislike for music is akin to an admission of having no sense of humour. The Lothario with his lute, serenading his lover under her balcony is an enduring stereotype and, indeed, an admitted motivation for a legion of actual and wannabe rock stars. The well-springs ofsong song are not only amatory but also rise from love of many kinds- of God, of tribe and country, of children and even, for heaven’s sake, of material goods.

The forces range from the lone, unaccompanied voice of Wordsworth’s solitary reaper who may be singing for old, unhappy, far-off things/and battles long ago,/Or is it some more humble lay,/Familiar matter of today?/Some natural sorrow, loss or pain,/That has been and may be again? to stadia rocked by massed voices epitomised by the Cor World Choir which comprises 20,000 choristers assembled with orchestral support at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff in May 2017.

Song types range from the primitive cooing of any mother in any time to highly sophisticated art-song composed by one of the great composers, say, Mahler, who selected five poems from 428 written in an outpouring of grief by a devastated Friedrich Rückert following the illness and death from scarlet fever of two of his children. These poems form the text of the sublime kindertotenlieder-songs on the death of children. The work, featuring a solo singer, premiered in Vienna on 29 January 1905.

The hall selected was a relatively small one, compatible with the intimacy of the lied genre; the composer himself conducting a small group drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic. In an awful twist of fate, Mahler lost his daughter, Maria, to scarlet fever, four years after the composition of the work. His wife, Alma, found it incomprehensible and feared Mahler was tempting Providence, when he had resumed work on Kindertotenlieder just two weeks after Maria’s birth. In some archaic chamber of her heart she must have blamed Mahler for tweaking the tail of the dragon, Destiny, which had lashed out at the hubris of her husband.

But let us leave that hall in fin de siecle Vienna and journey through space and time to a small church hall in the suburb of Annandale, Sydney. It is 2012 and there are rows of chairs arranged in a hollow square. Men and women of all ages, dressed variously, file in and take their places according to whether they are basses, trebles, altos or tenors. To be here they do not need formal musical training or qualification. But in a matter of moments they will produce music of remarkable power. They are Sacred Harp singers. sacred-harp

Originating in 18th Century America they have spread to every corner of the planet. They are resolutely independent, democratic, inclusive and sure of the value in what they are doing as a communal activity. The leader of this particular round calls the next song by its page number and sings establishing notes. The singers respond and immediately the song begins. The leader faces the tenors, beating the time with an open palm as many in the hall mirror his gestures. The uninitiated listener, perhaps a guest of the leader and standing in the middle of the square, is stunned by the exotic experience of the sounds coming at him from every direction.

But this swirling, primal harmony has a core of recognisability and by the second or third verse he realises that this is Amazing Grace, but sung in a version never before encountered. The melody is buried in the tenor line and, indeed, Sacred Harp arrangers concentrate on giving each section their time to shine. My encounters with music and i-singsinging of all styles has kept me alive spiritually along with encounters with poetry, painting, drama and all manner of ostensibly useless art-forms. Walt Whitman cried out, I sing the body electric contemporaneous with the flowering of Sacred Harp music. Please, let’s sing along:


Sing Along

SQ 36 Staring (in the Antrim Lounge)

archeryEntry 36: Staring (in the Antrim Lounge)- Whether you love it or loathe it, Sport is one of the enduring activities of humankind.  17,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic era, we find in the cave paintings at Lascaux, scenes depicting sprinting. Neolithic rock art from Libya shows archery being practised over 6,000 years ago.

Have a look at a mural from the Egyptian tomb of two royal servants, Khnumhotep andwrestling Niankhkhnum who lived 2,400 years ago. The mural shows a wrestling bout between two men that are like stills from an animation. Team sports also have roots in antiquity. Sports that are at least two and a half thousand years old include hurling in Ireland, shinty in Scotland, harpastum (similar to rugby in Rome, cuju (similar to association football) in China, and polo in Persia, according to Wikipedia.

The earliest reference to hurling in Australia is related in the book “Sketches of Garryowen.” On 12 July 1844, a match took place at Batman’s Hill in Melbourne as a counterpoint to a march by the Orange Order. Reportedly, the hurling match attracted a cristy-ringcrowd of five hundred Irish immigrants, while the Orange march shivered out of existence. In the opening scenes of the 2011 film BlitzJason Statham uses a hurley to beat up three youths who are trying to steal a car. Statham’s character is heard to say, “This, lads, is a hurley, used in the Irish game of hurling, a cross between hockey and murder”. Which brings us to Orwell’s opinion on the matter, serious sport has nothing to do with fair play, it is bound up with hatred and jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all the rules and sadistic pleasure in unnecessary violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.

In a spirited refutation of this view, Brendan Gallagher, writing in Britain’s The Telegraph in July 2004 asserts, Sportsmen make great soldiers because they are generally fit, courageous, aggressive, skilled, self-sacrificing and disciplined. What Orwell overlooked is that most sportsmencricketer bring a generosity of spirit, dignity and integrity to everything they do, including going to war. With few exceptions, they behave better on the sporting field than the rest of mankind do in their everyday lives and over the years they have taken those qualities into the battlefield. They raise the bar, especially when the going gets tough.

Writing in the New York Times in 2006, American author David Foster Wallace’s article Federer as Religious Experience, captures perfectly the reverence inspired by supreme sports-people, a top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to federerdescribe directly. Or to evoke…His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, , first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games inspired similar feelings in me as I watched those gravity-defying moves of her magical routines on the beam, uneven bars and floor.yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Nadia Comăneci, first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games inspired similar feelings in me as I watched those gravity-defying moves of her magical routines on the beam, uneven bars and floor.  Nadia Comăneci, first female gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games inspired similar feelings in me as I watched those gravity-defying moves of her magical routines on the beam, uneven bars and floor.  comenaci

Only two years earlier I had been at beachNorth Wollongong Beach with my family. At that time, I was in reasonable physical shape and was sunning myself (and, yes, preening myself) on the sand. Then a procession of ancient Greek Gods, men and women of tremendous physique and beauty hove into view dwarfing mere mortals like me. This wasn’t the product of sunstroke but a contingent of Australian Olympians passing by. Some among this elite group occupying the pinnacle of sporting prowess become even larger in the public’s consciousness and attain the status of myth, of icon.

George Best, for many, occupied this special place. His handsome presence and devil-may-care attitude allied to a preternatural ability on the football pitch made him a star ofbestgeorge the 1960s. Problems with alcohol and the excesses of an extravagant lifestyle were to dog him for the last decades of his life, about which he quipped memorably: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars – the rest I just squandered”.

Penrith Gaels used to have a small room called the Antrim Lounge where photographs and posters on a variety of sports were on view. One of these was a signed photograph of George Best with Dennis Law, his friend and team mate, taken during the mid- 60s at Old Trafford. Of a Friday arvo, after work, I would repair to this sanctuary to enjoy a pint or two with my son who had been in Belfast in 2005 when George died in London’s Cromwell hospital from complications best-and-lawassociated with his liver transplant. One afternoon in 2006, the conversation got around to song-writing and I said that I could write a song about where we were. I pointed to the photograph on the wall and said that it would feature in the verses. Furthermore, I boasted, you’ll feature too: Bullshit, he replied:


Staring (in the Antrim Lounge)