SQ 107 Progress

Entry 107: Progress– At entry 73, I referred to a cartoon from the sixties by Ron Cobb,a-cobb-caartoon3 entitled Progress, the upper panel shows two cavemen brandishing bones at one another. Then, dividing the upper panel from the lower, is the word Progress. The lower panel shows two men in suits; one has a pistol with which he has just shot his rival dead. This song inserts a few more panels outlining the history of war.

Originally entitled Pentagon Progress, I thought, afterwards, this was unfairly restrictive and just adopted the Cobb label (even though the US accounts for 75% of the world’s total expenditure on the military but only 0.04% of the total a-cobb-road-kill-ron-cobb-19724population of the planet). In 1972 Cobb composed a cartoon showing road-kill in the Australian outback; lying at the side of the road, among the litter and detritus of road-users, was an aboriginal tribesman and a kangaroo as a road-train sped off, oblivious into the distance.

Almost 45 years later, it still packs a punch. Worth a look, too, is a three-panel depiction of uranium mining in Australia by Fiona Katauskas: panel one- a hole in the ground with the caption, Mine; the second panel an evena-mineoursfionakatauskas larger hole in the ground with the caption, Mine; finally, a facility filled with radioactive barrels with the caption, Ours. Of course, the picture is not one of total gloom: if you haven’t yet checked out Hans Rosling on TED talks, you’re denying yourself a wake-up call about the real state of the world.

a-chimp-imageOver ten years ago, Rosling demonstrated that medical students in Sweden performed worse than chimpanzees at predicting mortality rates and other indicators of progress. Most westerners still have mid-twentieth century notions of us and them about the developed world and the third world: this despite the increasing evidence of Asian tourists at our iconic sites.

Half a billion Chinese are middle-class with disposable income that would turn many westerners green with envy. India is close on thea-chinese-tourist heels of its large neighbour, so it’s probable that we will have a new middle class of one billion plus before too long. Elsewhere in the world, even in sub-Saharan Africa, there is increasing wealth and better health. By the middle of this century, many of the people who just assumed that the largesse was theirs, only, may look longingly off-shore at the greener grass in foreign fields.

While bad news fills our screens, behind the mayhem, there is quiet progress in many areas of social development worldwide. Loathsome regimes (you know who you are!) are no longer able to conceal their barbarities from the ubiquitous smartphones- affordable by a-micro-imageeven the poor.  Micro-finance schemes liberating women from servitude, pro-active prosecution of predators who have felt safe indulging their pedophilic appetites in poorer countries, and the slow awakening in developed nations among the blue-collar workers that they have been played for saps by their political elites, are all signs of the times that provide a counterweight for the doom and gloom scenarios to which we pay too much attention, perhaps.

Or so I hope. I am a hopeless romantic, I guess. I have, at my desk, a reproduction of thea-alter_1060x400-1060x400 icon at my local church as I write this- which is a tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board measuring 100cm by 70 cm. It depicts St Joseph and his stepson. It stands ignored, for most part, for most of the year, squashed between my printer and my 20.5 inch display monitor. There is something in the pictorial relationship that catches me, though.

How this old guy, depending on a dream, travelled over hard ground to register a birth, and then fled into the land of original slavery to preserve a promise for the ages. Whether you believe it or not, it is a potent archetype of selflessness that cannot be gainsaid. Men, males, of most species, kill the progeny of other males to establish their dominance. Joseph took his mother and him in- a big deal then- and taught him an honourable trade. Of course, today, digital disruption would consign his humble woodworking skills to the bin and spit him out like so many others.

a-iss-imagejpgCrucifixion, like so many other methods of mass killing, would be lost in the plethora of statistics the UN so conveniently keeps. So, where is all the good news? Here it is. All around us: In every land, from the circumpolar wastes, to the savannahs, to the rain-forests, to the cities, to the vast plains, to the islands and archipelagos, to the deep-ocean submersibles and to the International Space Station, let us affirm that there is a point to all of our endeavours; that there is an end to the dark travails so many of us endure;, that there is a reason for all us to cheer.

As Oscar Wilde, recalling Socrates, so wisely wrote:

Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more… Progress.

 

Progress

SQ 108 An Impervious Wall

Entry 108: An Impervious WallBefore I built a wall, I’d ask to know/What I was walling in ora-auden-poem walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence./Something there is that does not love a wall, that wants it down. Truly spoken, Robert Frost. Another poet, W. H. Auden wrote about Hadrian’s Wall in Roman Wall Blues, where he captures the loneliness and misery of sentinels the world over throughout history as they stand vigil on their particular wall and peer into the mist for signs of the enemy, The rain comes pattering out of the sky,/I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.

 a-castleThere is something about walls that engender complacency- in Edwin Muir’s poem, The Castle, the besieged look unconcernedly from the turret walls surrounding the fortress at the foe half a mile distant confident in the knowledge of their ample provisions, brave defenders, stout fortifications and allies drawing near. But… There was a little private gate,/A little wicked wicket gate./The wizened warder let them through. And why? Our only enemy was gold,/And we had no arms to fight it with.

 So-called Chinese walls in financial, commercial and legal institutions are supposed to guarantee probity in matters where conflicts of interest may occur but this does not stop regular breaches of the walls and laws in all of these sectors. The actual Great Wall of Chinaa-chinese-wall is stupendous to look at but failed miserably in its purpose of keeping out determined invaders, who simply rode around it or had its gates opened by traitors. The Berlin Wall failed and one may surmise (indeed, hope) that similar walls still in place around the world, will ultimately fail, too.

Something there is that does not love a wall. Are you listening, Donald Trump? Walls made of unobtainium remain the ideal of oppressors throughout time and place. Such a wall would a-big-wallbe impervious to any agency, method or technology. Impenetrable, resisting any level of energy or density of matter, this wall would serve the wildest fantasies of even the most certifiable of megalomaniacs. But it’s out of reach in our material world. The only place such walls can be forged are in the furnaces of the dogmatic mind. Is there anything in this universe more adamantine than the certitude of the religious bigot or political ideologue?

The wailing wall has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries and the practice of leavinga-wailing-wall prayers on scraps of paper stuffed into cracks is one that fulfils a deep human need to connect in a tangible way with sacred places. In the city of Leiden, the Netherlands, there is a modern version of the wailing wall, it seems to me. Two artists, Ben Walenkamp and Jan-Willem Bruins, with the assistance of various civic and philanthropic bodies arranged that on various walls throughout the city you will be able read 101 poems by a range of poets, starting in 1992 a-dutch-wallwith a poem in Russian by Marina Tssvetaeva, concluding in 2005 with the Federico Garcia Lorca poem, De Profundis,

Those hundred lovers/are asleep forever/beneath the dry earth./Andalusia has/long, red-coloured roads./Córdoba, green olive trees/for placing a hundred crosses/to remember them./Those hundred lovers/are asleep forever.

 Assassinated, himself, in shadowy circumstances in 1936, his friend Pablo Neruda, explained that the poet had a premonition of his impending death, relating to him that, waking just before dawn Lorca walked to the ruins of a feudal estate on the outskirts of a village in Castile,

Suddenly Federico felt oppressed as if by something about to come out of the dawn, somethinga-innocent-lamb about to happen. He sat down on the broken-off capital of a pillar lying toppled there. A tiny lamb came out to browse in the weeds among the ruins, appearing like an angel of mist, out of nowhere, to turn solitude into something human, dropping like a gentle petal on the solitude of the place. The poet no longer felt alone. Suddenly a herd of swine also came into the area. There were four or five dark animals, half-wild pigs with a savage hunger and hoofs like rocks. Then Federico witnessed a blood-curdling scene: the swine fell on the lamb and, to the great horror of the poet, tore it to pieces and devoured it.a-feral-pig

So, was this sublime poet, musician and playwright, taken to some pock-marked wall and slaughtered; his body later disposed of in a manner shrouded, to this day, in mystery? Yet another young life cut short. I used to yearn, like the Roman wall soldier in Auden’s poem for the days, When I’m a veteran with only one eye/I shall do nothing but look at the sky. I think, I’ve reached that point.

And I recall the words of Moe Bandy’s fine country song, Til I’m Too Old To Die Young, I will climb the highest hill/And watch the rising sun/And pray that I won’t feel the chill/’Til I’m too old to die young. Why is that too much to ask for far too many?

 

An Impervious Wall

SQ 109 I Rest My Case

Entry 109: I Rest My Case– We have such a lot to put up with in the state of Affluenza: I’ma-consumerism-cartoon suffering from compassion fatigue: there’s always someone after my charity dollar…Paying off the mortgage is taking all my time and energy; so much so that I can’t enjoy my harbour view…I feel so guilty: I know! I’ll dress in black, like Johnny Cash did, until there is equality and harmony and world peace… Keeping up with the Joneses is such tiring business because just when you get up to where they are, lo and behold, another set of Joneses pops up to spoil your feeling of having arrived.

The phrase has been with us for over one hundred years and is becoming increasingly archaic; predicated, as it was, on a much lesser gap in wealth between socio-economic groups. Now, the gap between wealth and the rest a-cartoon-about-inequalityis staggering. And even within the top 1%- that cliché for true wealth, there is a divide between the millionaires who are becoming a dime a dozen, so to speak, and the rarefied planet of the jet-setting billionaires.

In the state of Affluenza, you don’t want to be alone, in a position of vulnerability, and subject to illness, accident or attack, because- chances are- you will become just another statistic in the case-files of the bystander effect. Wikipedia defines this as a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

Now, this phenomenon pre-dates Affluenza as the parable of The Good Samaritan attestsa-cartoon-about-the-gs but it is clearly amplified in affluent, urban societies. Here are a few: Kitty Genovese, a young woman stabbed, raped and killed brutally over a period of half an hour outside her apartment building in Queens, NYC in 1964, within the hearing of a dozen people, not one of whom lifted a hand to help or even a phone for police assistance, which would have saved her life. In 2011 two-year old Wang Yue was run over twice, by drivers, in the Chinese city of Foshan, neither of whom stopped. At least 18 bystanders walked past without aiding the stricken infant. Only an elderly rubbish scavenger, Chen Xianmei, stopped to help the dying child.

a-carter-photoHow many of the plutocracy are worth as much, in essence, as this fine woman. But what does inaction do to those who witness human distress without active compassion? And how many of us can say we have always acted honourably when confronted with similar situations? There is a photograph that I often used in the last twenty years of my teaching career to illustrate the importance of context and framing in the making of meaning. It is a photograph taken in 1993 by photo-journalist Kevin Carter of an African scene.

I would show, at first, a cropped shot of a vulture on the arid plain gazing intently ata-carter2-photo something just out of frame and ask for a response- which was usually fairly tepid. Then, I would reveal the uncropped shot where we see in the foreground a severely emaciated child crawling on the ground. Now, it is clear why the vulture is gazing so intently. The response is always one of shock.

As I was shocked today, when I learned a fuller version of the story: Carter waited, in vain, for 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings- which he thought would make the better shot. All the while the child was whimpering and panting in distress. Carter took the shot, shoo-ed the vulture away and then walked off, leaving the child, claiming he didn’t want to get involved. He won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and he took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning.

I don’t presume to know if there was a causal link between the circumstances of the photograph and his final act, but I would not be surprised to learn that it was a factor. Here a-hodanin Australia, another refugee has self-immolated in protest over the conditions at Nauru, the off-shore detention centre. Both of the major parties are welded to policies that guarantee cruelty to these people will persist as I, and twenty million fellow citizens look on.

I’ve read that the treasurer, like so many of his colleagues, are active Christians, so Ia-mt2-image wonder how foreign aid will fare in the budget tonight. In a thought-experiment, I have the cabinet study in detail Matthew 25: 31-45. You know, the one about the sheep and the goats. And I would have them all recite The Confiteor, that old penitential prayer which includes these words, I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.

 Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa- indeed.

 

I Rest My Case

SQ 110 Now We’re 64

Entry 110: Now We’re 64– It’s strange how the gravitational pull of the stellar personalitiesa-beatles-image in our youth, no matter how fast and far we thought we had travelled in the years since, draw us into an orbit of obeisance, or, at least, sincere acknowledgement of influence.  As I lurched through the barrier of sixty, I began to think of eschatological matters with a little more attention: I mean, even with the most optimistic and deluded of outlooks, one would have to agree that the past was more packed with incident and longevity than the years ahead.

So I wrote a song which touched upon matters encompassing the fifty years I have known my wife.  As my inspiration, I took a song from the Beatles’ St. Pepper’s album, Paul McCartney’s, When I’m 64. Although the theme is “ageing”, Wikipedia informs me, it was one of the first songs McCartney wrote, when he was 16. It was on the Beatles playlist in their early a-beatles2-imagedays as a song to perform when their amplifiers broke down or the electricity went off. Lennon said, in his 1980 interview for Playboy, “I would never even dream of writing a song like that.”

But, I did, at age 63. And I’m not Robinson Crusoe, in this regard either. Lots of other people, riffing off the McCartney song, have registered in song or verse or prose, reflections on reaching age 64. And almost fifty years before the Beatles set the song in vinyl, T.S. Eliot, in one of his finest poems, explored age in a poem, the title of which, means old manGerontion.a-gerontian-image

…Vacant shuttles/ Weave the wind.  I have no ghosts,/ An old man in a draughty house/ Under a windy knob.// After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now/History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities./ I was neither at the hot gates/ Nor fought in the warm rain/ Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass… I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:… These with a thousand small deliberations… multiply variety in a wilderness of mirrors…

McCartney was only 16 when he wrote his song; Eliot was twice his age- 32- when he wrote his poem. But neither, by any stretch, could be considered old. Are our senior poets, then, so immured in their senescence, that we can learn nothing from them?

a-cad-imageNot so! Carol Ann Duffy, that redoubtable poet (and laureate) wrote, introducing a selection of poems from senior British poets in The Guardian back in 2010, I invited the poets here to write, in any way they chose, about ageing. Our society, I believe, is turning gradually away from its obsession with “yoof” and “slebs”. We are beginning to realise that we face, at the very least, an uncertain future, one in which wisdom and experience – and respect – will need to be accorded a more important role. Nice thought, Carol Ann, if only it were true.

All the old gods have become enfeebled,/mere playthings for poets. Few, doze or daft,/frolic on Parnassian clover, wrote Dannie Abse, a notable poet, who died at age 91, in 2014. For Ruth Fainlight, aged 85, and close friend of Sylvia Plath in the years before that poet’s suicide,a-fainlight-image ageing, means no more roller-skating./That used to be my favourite/ sport, after school, every day:… When I saw that young girl on her blades,/wind in her hair, sun on her face,… racing/her boyfriend along the pavement:/– then I understood ageing.

Interesting, and amusing, is Roger McGough’s re-working of his famous 1967 poem, Let Me Die A Youngman’s Death, where he spurns the decorous, fading-away-like-the-smoke-of-a-blown-candle sort of death for one that is full of incident, violence, lasciviousness and noise- a-mcgough-imagealthough not before the age of 73 at the earliest! Now, at age 78, he admits, My nights are rarely unruly. My days/of allnight parties are over, well and truly./No mistresses no red sports cars/no shady deals no gangland bars/no drugs no fags no rock’n’roll/Time alone has taken its toll.

I guess, that for Roger and me and so many others in- what do you call them- our golden years, a dose of Lily the Pink’s medicinal compound would be just what the doctor ordered! I’ll finish by reference to a poem by erudite British-baseda-porter-image Australian poet, Peter Porter who died in 2010, aged 81, shortly after submitting, Random Ageist Verses, for inclusion in the Guardian article.

In this short poem of ten quatrains rhyming abab, he ranges wittily across age-related themes, citing Churchill, Auden, Hardy and Hyden, with insights such as, Immersed in time, we question time/And ask for commentators’ rights/The amoeba has a taste for slime/ Among its range of appetites concluding with these lines that surely only the wisdom of age can craft,

The greyness of the sky is streaked/Along its width with shades of red;/The pity of the world has leaked/ But who are these whose hands have bled?

 

Now We’re 64

SQ 111 Sidekick

a-caroon-sidekick

Entry 111: SidekickWhat do Porky Pig, Tonto and Dr Watson have in common? The entry title gives it away, I guess. They’re all the sidekick to the protagonist they support: Daffy Duck, The Lone Ranger and Sherlock Holmes respectively. Defined by Wikipedia as a close companion or colleague (not necessarily in fiction) who is actually, or generally regarded as, subordinate to the one he accompanies, the sidekick has a special place in our hearts.  

 By asking questions of the hero, or giving the hero someone to talk to, the sidekick provides an opportunity for the author to provide exposition, thereby filling the same role as a Greek chorus. Sidekicks frequently serve as an emotional connection, especially when the hero is depicted as detached and distant, traits which might make it difficult to like the hero.

a-cartoon-henchman

 Of course, every hero needs the opposition of a villainous antagonist. The villain often mirrors the hero by also having a secondary accomplice. But these are not dignified by the label, sidekick.

A villain‘s supporters are normally called henchmen, minions, or lackeys, not sidekicks. While this is partially a convention in terminology, it also reflects that few villains are capable of bonds of friendship and loyalty, which are normal in the relationship between a hero and sidekick. This may also be due to the different roles in fiction of the protagonist and the antagonist: whereas a sidekick is a relatively important character due to his or her proximity to the protagonist, and so will likely be a developed character, the role of a henchman is to act as cannon-fodder for the hero and his sidekick. As a result, henchmen tend to be anonymous, disposable characters, existing for the sole purpose of illustrating the protagonists’ prowess as they defeat them.

a-cartoon-ghoul-horde

This truth can be amply demonstrated by viewing Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy and even more so, The Hobbit films: how many orcs, goblins and assorted ghoulish monsters perish under the axes, swords and spells of Tolkien’s heroes. Far too many to adequately sustain suspension of disbelief, in my experience. I remember not playing Cowboys and Indians as a kid in Aruba because no one wanted to be one of the Indians, fated to lose every encounter; so we were each our own hero, pe-yoo, pe-yooing mouth salvos as we invariably avoided the fatal bullet, conceding only wounds to the left shoulder, leaving our deadly right-hand fully functioning into the descending dusk or until some other diversion attracted our attention.

a-canterbury-tale-squire

Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,/Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;/ Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,/ He was as fressh as is the monthe of May. This is The Squire, from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, and he is my ideal for the youthful sidekick. Nameless, he shines from the fourteenth century as a template of the type, Wel koude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde./ He koude songes make, and wel endite,/ Juste, and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write./ So hoote he lovede, that by nyghtertale/ He slepte namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale./ Not only was he passionate and accomplished in all the knightly arts, but humility and loyalty were also part of his repertoire, Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,/ And carf biforn his fader at the table.

a-don-q-sidekick

 Now past the mid-point of my sixties, it is futile to aspire to this template and so I must look to a more mature example of the species. Perhaps Sancho Panza, the sidekick of Don Quixote may serve. Panza means paunch in Spanish, so this bit fits. The online Britannica notes that his gross appetite, common sense, and vulgar wit serve as a foil to the mad idealism of his master. This, too, induces sparks of recognition but in the end fails to start a fire.

a-donkey-shrek

Ultimately, perhaps, there is no single template that will do because so many of us are, in fact, only sidekicks within our own narrative. To aspire to be a named sidekick outside of our own story is too lofty an ambition for most: who would be so big-headed as to compare themselves to Sam Gamgee? Robin, The Boy Wonder? Or even, Donkey from Shrek? Some may find an image of themselves in the poem Sidekicks, by American poet, Ronald Koertge,

They were never handsome and often came/with a hormone imbalance manifested by corpulence,/a yodel of a voice or ears big as kidneys.

 Of course, as we all know, the most important attributes are not those of physicality but those of character, as the poem makes clear,

a-hero-image

But each was brave. More than once a sidekick/has thrown himself in front of our hero in order/to receive the bullet or blow meant for that/perfect face and body.

In this song, stanza one looks at the home life of the sidekick and stanza two takes the longer view, while the coda emphasises their essential equality…where not even heroes get to go to heaven.

Sidekick

SQ 112 BMD (Births Marriages Deaths)

Entry 112: BMD (Births Marriages Deaths)– Back in the mid-eighties, I collaborated with ana-cushendall-coastal-path ex-student of mine from Ballymena Academy to compose a jazz suite as part of his honours music course at Queen’s University, Belfast. I came up with the idea of a set of lyrics based on parts of the newspaper: the headline, the horoscope, the page three girlie shot, and so on. We met over the summer months in the pleasant coastal village of Cushendall and hammered out a draft- I handled the lyrics and he composed the music.

a-whitla-hall-imageAll went well until, in the autumn term, I received an urgent telephone call one Friday evening: the suite was not long enough as drafted and the deadline for submission was looming. So that night, I stayed up until about 2:00 a.m. working on the lyrics and music. The next day, I drove to Belfast with my guitar and lyrics and we worked in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s as he sat at the grand piano and composed a jazz score of the song I had written. It sufficed, and we later recorded the suite at BBC Northern Ireland for radio broadcast with the Desmond Harlan Quartet and Candy Devine as singer.a-candy-image

In the thirty years since, I wrote a number of songs that seemed worthwhile keeping and, having well over a hundred examples, thought it time to gather them together. Here is text from the introduction,

I’ll start with a banal assertion: there must be defining moments. The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, Sept 11, 2001-in our era- are  big moments prompting questions such as where were you? when that happened. But that’s history. In our own lives, Births, Marriages and Deaths used to be those a-bible-imagejpgRed (or Black) Letter days recorded in family Bibles (or analogous familial archives). Now, those time-honoured milestones are increasingly quaint, it seems. Our personal histories are now far more idiosyncratic, tied to the minutiae of a day-to-day existence that is often driven by a fear of missing out.

 So, that is what The Summa Quotidian is: defining moments, captured in song, which forms a quasi-chronicle of my life and musings. I had tried to keep a diary, as so many do. It didn’t go anywhere, though. At one stage I kept a record of the books I had read and my reactions to them. At other times I tried to chronicle in prose my responses to the TV shows, music and films I was avidly consuming. Sometimes I evena-journal found the energy to write for TV, Radio and the Stage. And several of these effusions found an outlet. All worthy, but limited in time to a matter of months as writing projects, and limited, too, in their range.

 Songs, taken as individual works, might seem to be even more limited- and, indeed, they are, until you see them as a larger grouping linked by a unifying (and an ageing, if not evolving) sensibility. Then they form a larger picture. A gestalt of the zeitgeist, perhaps? What I have held on to consistently over the decades, and what I could carry in my head, retrieve, and reconstruct after a time, was the minor art-form of song. From my early teens I inhaled the melodies and the words of popular song. Before I could play an instrument I knew that this was something I could (and would) do as naturally as I breathe: write songs.

a-caraqvel-image And, as I live and breathe, that’s what I’ve done. For better or worse, for most of my life. Here assembled, are ten collections of twelve songs. They are not strictly sequential. I think of a reef, off a stormy shore. Ten caravels, one after the other, are wrecked on the stony spines and the currents and vagaries of wind and weight wash the cargoes ashore to be caressed by the tides into figurations that are found, at a later date, by beachcombers. They may speculate on the provenance of each trove and, who knows, they could be right (or wrong) as they piece together a putative chronology.

 If you entered the world when I did (and this would put your date of birth about the midpoint of the 20th Century), then, a lot of the references and terms will be second- nature to you: especially if, like me, you were a product of the postwar West and you found the reading of books to be a harmless but consuming addiction. So, what’s it all about, really? The answer is- not very much. You live day by day. You take stuff in. You go to the pub or club or bed or wherever… and you talk…to someone…(or no one?) And they say, what do you think about…? and you say whatever occurs to you . Or it’s the other way round. And it’s important. At the time. Sometimes, though, you’re only blowing smoke. Sometimes a song gets written.

 The Summa hangs together by gossamer threads such as these. And the shape it is is what it is. It’sa-gossamer-thread just…stuff! But as the incomparable Bard wrote at the conclusion of his last play, We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.

But not just yet, still a few songs to go.

 

BMD (Births, Marriages, Deaths)

SQ 113 Slow Burn (a title for this song)

Entry 113: Slow Burn (A Title For This Song)– 1963 was a memorable year: especially for poeta-larkin2-image Philip Larkin, as he records in Annus Mirabilis, Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, became a cause celebre at the start of the 1960s, and according to some, began the deterioration of faith and morals that attached, somewhat unfairly and inaccurately, to that decade.

The release of the Beatles’ first LP, Please, Please Me, in March of 1963, a-beatles3-imagemarked a musical revolution- here was a group that wrote its own songs and played its own instruments. Exploding out of the blocks with McCartney’s, I Saw Her Standing There, She was just seventeen, you know what I mean…(Yes, Paul, we know) and wrapping up with Lennon’s hoarse rock version of Twist and Shout, I was one of the first kids in Aruba to hear this phenomenal group, thanks to my older brother, who brought the LP out with him duringa-beatles4-image his bi-annual visit for the summer holidays, courtesy of the oil company my father worked for.

Music started to permeate our lives as we attended the Seroe Colorado High School hops of a Friday night: I recall Tornado by the Telstars, Walk Like a Man by the Four Seasons, It’s My Party by Lesley Gore and My Boyfriend’s Back a-angels-imageby the Angels. Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys were on high rotation at these popular functions as we shimmied, shook and twisted under the tropical night skies. Some of the cooler kids came back from trips back to the States with talk about the protest music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan- but this music never made the playlists for the hops.

As I was thinking about those distant dances, Edmund Blunden’s The Midnight Skaters poppeda-blundel-image into my mind. How incongruous! was my initial reaction. A poem which describes a rustic pre-war setting among the hop-fields of Kent on a frozen pond seems a million miles from the affluent bubble that was the expatriate community of Aruba in the early sixties.

The hop-poles stand in cones,/The icy pond lurks under,/The pole-tops steeple to the thrones/Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder;/But not the tallest thee, ’tis said,/Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

 But as I pondered the intrusion of this poem into my reverie, I realised that the distance of age gave me perspective, as it did, with so much more effect, this wonderful English poet,

a-blunden-scenethen is not death at watch/Within those secret waters? /What wants he but to catch/Earth’s heedless sons and daughters? /With but a crystal parapet/Between, he has his engines set.

 Aren’t we all earth’s heedless sons and daughters? And don’t you, like me, fall on your knees in thankfulness for our poets who tell us our innermost secrets and reveal to us a common language that we did not know we owned until they shared it with us? Over the years, I have heard the bell toll for so many of those who have shared that dance-floor. And not only my companions on that Caribbean crystal parapet, but those who have shared the dance with me in Ireland and Australia,

Then on, blood shouts, on, on, /Twirl, wheel and whip above him, /Dance on this ball-floor thina-ice-skater and wan, / Use him as though you love him;/Court him, elude him, reel and pass, /And let him hate you through the glass.

As I grow older, I become more grateful for the largesse bestowed upon me by those artists, present and past, who grow my soul. Of course, 1963 was known for darker deeds than racy song lyrics. JFK’s assassination in November of that year casts its pall over much of what was note-worthy that year: who now remembers the final project of NASA’s Mercury mission where,

a-faith7-imageThe Faith 7 spacecraft carried astronaut Gordon Cooper into space for about 34 hours during which he orbited the Earth 22 times. The purpose of the mission was to test the limits of the Mercury space capsule. Cooper’s flight was about three times longer than any other human space flight that had been completed at that point in history. It also marked the final time that NASA launched a solo orbital mission.

That year also saw important landmarks which have not been forgotten, I Have a Dream, by Martin Luther King, was delivered earlier that year, the rhetoric of which still echoes down the corridors of history. And not wanting to push the from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous button too often, can I report that the release of the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand, onea-i-have-a-dream week after Kennedy’s assassination, was destined to chart at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and cause all of the tweens and teens in Aruba to throw theirs arms in the air in chorus as they joined the less-than-profound shout, I want to hold your ha-a-a-a-a-nd?

 

Slow Burn (A Title For This Song)

SQ 114 You Ask How Much I Love You

Entry 114: You Ask How Much I Love YouYet another incipit; the entry title comprises thea-lear-image first seven words of the song. A tricky question, as King Lear was to find out when his two eldest daughters responded in hyperbolistic terms to his demand to know the quality and quantity of their love for him:

Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter,/Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,/Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,/No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor,/As much as child e’er loved or father found—/A love that makes breath poor and speech unable./Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

 a-lear2-imageThis is Goneril, his eldest. Regan, the second-born sister, not the be outdone, claims, I find she names my very deed of love—/Only she comes too short, that I profess/Myself an enemy to all other joys,/Which the most precious square of sense possesses./And find I am alone felicitate/In your dear highness’ love.

 This tsunami of flattery prompts the ageing monarch to gift to each of these fulsome daughters a bounteous portion of the kingdom, though still reserving the quality cut for his favourite and youngest daughter, Cordelia. As you may guess, if you do not already know, it all ends in tears. Nothing, she responds, allowing her personal distaste for her sisters’ hypocrisy, to cruel her chances for her father’s affection and largesse.a-lear3-image

Just as well, I hear the aesthetes among you murmur, otherwise we would have been deprived of one of the greatest tragedies of world literature. But pre-Christian Britain was not the only locus for love gone awry: the intemperate geriatric autocrat who rejects his loving daughter and banishes his faithful counsellor, Kent, for attempting to defend her, seems quite a placid, level-headed sort of fellow when compared to a-shahriyar-mimage ruler of the Sassanid Empire who, upon learning of the infidelity of his wife, had her executed and then, in a stratagem to prevent further infidelity, married and murdered a succession of 1000 virgins after the consummation on the wedding night.

Now, even a great empire will run short of virgins in such circumstances, and the vizier, whose job it is to provide the daily delivery of young and innocent flesh for Shahryar, reluctantly gives into his daughter’s plea to offer herself up as ransom. Scheherazade, for such is the minx’s moniker, has a cunning plan: she regales the ruler with a story and a half each night, using the impending dawn as an excuse for failing to finish the second story.

Shahryar, a true fan of narrative, stalls the execution until he can hear the conclusion ofa-scheherazade-image the story from the night before- and so it goes for a thousand and one nights and days until he grows besotted with the wily storyteller and she can relinquish her increasingly wearisome gambit for survival. So, to all you creative types who moan about impending deadlines for the dross you are obliged to provide for a jaded public palate, reflect on the story of Scheherazade and- why not?- filch one of her life-saving tales as a template for your tedious  and thankless task.

Rimsky-Korsakov shows the way in his enduringly popular symphonic suite of 1888 entitled Scheherazade. Chosen by many competitive skaters, including 2010 Olympic Gold medallist Evan Lysacek and 2014 Gold a-rk-imagemedallists, Charlie White and Meryl Davis for their free skating routines, this music is an ever-enchanting accompaniment. Hyperbole is the default setting for expositions about love in any genre: bodice-rippers, in particular, would be lost without it.

Auden’s justly famous Funeral Blues, uses it to exquisite comic effect, The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,/Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;/For nothing now can ever come to any good. Yes, the intensity that rages in thea-auden-poem2 blood, driven by hormones coursing through the bewildered brain, lends itself to excess in everything- including language. And Shakespeare knows full well how to play this card time and again in his drama and poetry- but he can also, consummate show-off that he is, turn it on its head and create a splendid example of litotes, as in sonnet 130:

a-eye-imageMy mistress eyes are nothing like the sun./ Coral is far more red, than her lips red:/If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;/If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head./I have seen roses damasked, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks;/And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks./I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/That music hath a far more pleasing sound:/I grant I never saw a goddess go,/ My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/ And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.

 

You Ask How Much I Love You

SQ 115 I Wish I Never Was

Entry 115: I Wish I Never Was– Sometimes, when you witness the glories of this earth, as, fora-creation-image example, you do, when viewing something like David Attenborough’s trilogy on the Great Barrier Reef, you sing hosannas to whatever forces have produced such splendour. All of my life, I have been entranced by films, exhibitions and documentaries on nature. From deep-sea fumaroles to deep-space imagery of unimaginably distant galaxies; from those infinitesimally small strings that, perhaps, may harmonise our existence to the immensity of all the possible multiverses, I have been enthralled by the mysteries of creation.

a-blessings-imageKnowing that I will never pierce the inner workings of any of these arcane mysteries, I content myself with just saying: thank you. Glad to be here. Hope I get to stay a bit longer. Lately, I have been counting my blessings. In youth and mid-life, I raged a fair bit about the injustice of it all. Particularly as it applied to me!

Now, I just sit on my back veranda and watch an old friend’s pigeons wheel in the sky above as he prepares them for a competitive flighta-bird-image next weekend; or sipping a glass of shiraz, I watch a neighbour putting in a new roof as I listen, on the radio, to Richard Glover talk about stuff that only people in Sydney and, at a stretch, New South Wales would care about.

And I laugh. It is just so great to be alive and part of this quotidian existence. Notice that I have used the word just a couple of times? I have used it, in each case, as an adverb meaning simply, but there is an underlying hook here. How is it just?

a-lake-imageWhile living rather modestly in the outer west of Sydney for the past twenty years, I am aware that my lot is so much better than that so many others who live in this relatively wealthy country of Australia. In the world, most people alive today are living in more straitened circumstances than I.

Most times, driven by the relentless round ofa-street-scene getting and spending, I have been able to push this reality to one side. But there are times when something lodges and refuses to be dislodged.

Lodgement One, New Year’s Eve, Singapore, 1978, in a taxi going back to our hotel, I see an old Chinese woman dragging a load of cardboard behind her: the taxi slows for traffic lights, and our eyes meet.

a-grocery-imageLodgement Two, it’s 1981 and I have just cashed a cheque from RTE radio in Dublin who have bought a radio play and I go into the supermarket to stock up on some luxuries. Ahead of me, a young woman in threadbare coat, trying to soothe a squalling infant, pushes her trolley with basic necessities to the checkout and rummages through her purse for coins to cover her meagre purchases. She glances at my basket of superfluous goodies and then up and into my eyes.

I could go on to enumerate a dozen such instances- but you get my drift. It’s not sufficienta-homeless-image merely to intone, there but for the grace of God go I. What do you do? And is it enough? In 1990, I watched a documentary film which was prompted by a report by Human Rights’ Commissioner Brian Burdekin into youth homelessness.

was shocked at the idea that there were up to 15,000 people under 18 in such circumstances. In 2007 Brian Burdekin raged at the lack of government action in the intervening years. Now, the figures stand at nearly 30,000. How’s that for progress?

a-burdekin-imageIn 1991, I was commissioned to write a musical play for a theatre in North Queensland. The play was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the theatre’s establishment. A friend, visiting from Ireland, had been having a few drinks with the theatre’s director and casually mentioned that I had written plays in Ireland.

So, I was asked to provide a draft that would involve various arts groups. I came up with a memory play that involved a young guy, homeless from childhood, who had travelled north from Sydney with his girlfriend, picking up infrequent odd jobs.

They cross paths with indigenous people and also befriend a young woman, a test subject at a medical research centre, who had fled from the facility. A tropical cyclone also makes an appearance. A group of musicians played behind a scrim and it was only in the final minutes of the play that the scrim flew revealing that the audience were not listening to a backing tape, but a live group- one of several sleights of hand involved with the production. The themes of homelessness, alienation, redemption were all at play and young dancers were choreographed skilfully into the whole.

The central character, at an early stage of the play, states his feelings of hopelessness ina-millstone the song that follows. Its epigraph, if it were to have one, would be Matthew 18:6, If anyone causes one of these little ones…to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. There should be a run on millstones.

 

I Wish I Never Was

SQ116 The Frost or the Fire

Entry 116: The Frost or the Fire– I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituariesa-darrow-image with great pleasure- Fine words! I wonder where you stole them. Hold your horses, Jonathan Swift! If you’d given me the time, I would have admitted my debt to Clarence Darrow, a famous- some would say, infamous- American lawyer. Will you be content if I quote lines from what I consider a minor masterpiece of yours?

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.

a-swift-imageYour stinging satire, A Modest Proposal, published anonymously in 1729, in which an unnamed proposer coolly advances his plan for simultaneously relieving Irish poverty and increasing the store of protein available for consumption by the moneyed classes, places your heart in Ireland with the urban and rural poor, even though the ambitions thronging your head wished for preferment among the upper echelons in England.

Almost two hundred years later, we hear an impassioned speech in a courthouse in Tennessee, where Darrow is defending John T Scopes, a high school teacher who has run afoul of a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools,

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school,a-monkey-trial tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools…After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Both Darrow and Swift have their detractors: The Irish clergyman is often painted as a misanthrope because of the blackness of his vision, so apparent in his most famous work, a-gulliver-imageGulliver’s Travels and for his much-quoted words, principally I hate and detest that animal called man.  But then he goes on to say, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. A true misanthrope wouldn’t take the time or effort to produce polemics aimed at altering the behaviour of his fellow human beings for the better.

Darrow has been maligned for his greed for money and publicity, his lack of legal qualifications and his blind belief in deterministic science as the only lens through which the world can be revealed. A militant atheist, he claimed,a-atheist-cartoon

the purpose of life is living. Men and women should get the most they can out of their lives. The smallest, tiniest intellect may be quite as valuable to society as the largest. It may be still more valuable to itself: it may have all the capacity for enjoyment that the wisest has. The purpose of man is like the purpose of the pollywog (this is not a racist epithet but an American dialect term for a tadpole)— to wriggle along as far as he can without dying; or to hang on until death takes him.

Two very different people, Swift the frosty satirist and Darrow the fiery populist; but both, at their core, believed in the worth of the individual, however insignificant, after their own fashion. There are two poets, among many such possible pairings, that I would put forward a-frost-imageas representatives of the dichotomy between the frost and the fire: Robert Frost and Henry Lawson. Frost, in a well-know poem observes:

Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice./From what I’ve tasted of desire/I hold with those who favour fire./But if it had to perish twice,/I think I know enough of hate/To say that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.

Ever, the ironical, detached observer, in another poem, he watches people on a beach looking out to sea,

…wherever the truth may be-/The water comes ashore,/And the people look at the sea./They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?

Compare this to Henry Lawson in Macleay Street and Red Rock Lane,a-lawson-image

Macleay Street looks to Mosman,/Across the other side,/With brave asphalted pavements/And roadway clean and wide…Red Rock Lane looks to nowhere,/With pockets into hell;/Red Rock Lane is a horror/Of heat and dirt and smell…And-well, there seems no moral,/And nothing more to tell,/But because of that fierce sympathy/Of souls to souls in hell;/And because of that wild kindness/To souls in sordid pain,/My soul I’d rather venture/With some in Red Rock Lane.

And now, for something completely different: the song following was written in 1983 when I was afflicted by itchy feet and wanted to move on… At the time, I was working with a musician who challenged me to write something commercial, even if it be crass!

 

The Frost Or The Fire