SQ 54 The Younger Son

Entry 54: The Younger Son– What is there outside the skin, the eyes, the ears, the tonguea-senses-image and sense of smell?  Smell, oh, yes, your man Proust would validate that ticket. But books I do love. The Bible, Shakespeare, the canonical poets and great authors; but add to that the songwriters and storytellers who grab you by the lobe of your ear and say- listen, listen, are you deaf or what? Can’t you read? No matter, just sit or stand here and listen.

And don’t presume for one minute that it is all about you, despite your uniqueness. Just like you, there are billions of skins, noses, eyes, tongues and ears who yearn for the warmth of the sun, the cooling draught of water, the caress of the breeze, the sweetness of honey and the smell of flowers that makes life such a fine and various thing. But are you the younger son, the lesser sibling, a-outsider-imagethe undervalued one, the person who has failed to find favour? Whether by gender, politics, primogeniture or…whatever…are you feeling on the outer? Maybe an outsider? Maybe a misunderstood member of a despised group?

Perhaps just someone who decided that, hey, I don’t want to think, I don’t want to work, I don’t want to explain, I don’t want to engage, I don’t want to figure in any of your classifications? Who would ever want you? Or to be you? The great bluesman B.B King sang, No-one loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too. Or another King, Albert by name, reminded so many of us that, if it wasn’t for bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all. I subscribe to a streaming music service and the song-lists, left to their own are randomised.

I drink to try to keep a tightrope traversing run possible within the bravado imparted bya-ball-and-biscuit-image alcohol and the buzz generated by the sound bouncing off the walls as I stab at the keyboard, five-fingered, as stuff that miraculously coheres into semi-meaningful text blossoms onto the screen in front of me to the sonic hammer of, for instance, The White Stripes’ Ball and Biscuit as I marvel at the serendipity of the lyrics moaned by Jack White, Let’s have a ball and a biscuit sugar/And take our sweet little time about it/Let’s have a ball girl/And take our sweet little time about it.

The ball-cocaine and biscuit-MDMA are “right now” while the future promise of getting clean serves as an excuse for the persona’s “seventh son” to excuse present-day excess, We’ll get clean together/And I’ll find me a soapbox where I can shout it. Sure you will!  While the desperate among the affluent flagellate themselves with drugs and despair there are a-asylum-imageother, more desperate people seeking some sort of solace. Huge movements of dispossessed and persecuted men, women and children reach their hands out to the promise given by the enticing siren images of the Western World’s illusion of peace and plenty as they flee from unspeakable barbarities. Let’s have a ball, baby.

Thirty years ago, Seamus Heaney wrote a poem entitled From the Republic of Conscience for Amnesty International where we discover that we are all ambassadors by virtue of duala-tutu-quote citizenship of our native land and the Republic of Conscience where their sacred symbol is a stylized boat./The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,/the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye. We learn that we must act rather than turn away and, rather than remaining silent in the face of injustice to speak on their behalf andno ambassador would ever be relieved.

 The Bible provides one of the richest sources of material for writers. The parable of The Good Samaritan clearly applies here. Yet it seems to be a a-good-sam-imageconundrum to the adult political world, largely, although most children get it without too much of a struggle. I have never been inspired to transmute it into song. This is not the case, though, with another parable which inspired the song at the end of this entry. In the gospel of Luke can be found the parable of The Prodigal Son. And lots of artists, musicians and writers have found this strange and beautiful story. And made something of it.

Here’s a stanza from Rudyard Kipling’s take on the parable:

My father glooms and advises me,/ My brother sulks and despises me,/ And Mother catechisesa-prodigal-son-image me/ Till I want to go out and swear./ And, in spite of the butler’s gravity,/ I know that the servants have it I/ Am a monster of moral depravity,/ And I’m damned if I think it’s fair!

The Wild Rover, by The Dubliners, was a favourite single of mine fifty years ago and I have sung it off and on in a variety of venues in the decades since: I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year/ And I’ve spent all me money on whiskey and beer…these lines are more autobiographical than I’d wish, alas. The last verse references the parable, I’ll go home to me parents, confess what I’ve done/And I’ll ask them to pardon their prodigal son. Of course, all I do is sing the song, drunkenly.


The Younger Son

SQ 55 Back to You

Entry 55: Back to You– The road and music are related and rooted deep in history. Minstrels,a-image-of-minstrels troubadours, strolling players, and itinerant harpers such as the great Turloch O’Carolan who travelled the length and breadth of Ireland in the 17th Century, have set a template for musicians with itchy feet ever since.

We know for a fact, of course, that Robert Johnston made a pact with the devil at the crossroads and that the late, great Hank Williams perished in the back of the car taking him to a New Year’s Day concert because his last single was prophetically entitled, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

a-crossroads-imageNow, whether the original musical impulse was connected to the sacred or the profane will never be known, although I would speculate that they were twin births for no more reliable reason than that offered for the crossroads pact and prophetic song title. The brothers Grimm in the 19th Century recorded a tale about and ass, a dog, a cat and a cock, each having served faithfully their masters and mistresses, and now, at the end of their usefulness, about to be slaughtered, take to the road and form a pact to travel to the city where they may try their luck as a band of musicians.

On their journey, they come across a dwelling in which a band of criminals are sitting down to a feast. They hit upon a plan to eat well that night so the donkey stands on his hind legs, the dog climbs up with the cat on his head and the cock at the top of the pile: they are now a real band!

When all was ready a signal was given, and they began their music. The ass brayed, the dog barked,a-bremen-image the cat mewed, and the cock screamed; and then they all broke through the window at once, and came tumbling into the room, amongst the broken glass, with a most hideous clatter! The robbers, who had been not a little frightened by the opening concert, had now no doubt that some frightful hobgoblin had broken in upon them, and scampered away as fast as they could.

But the real world is not as aesthetically pleasing, alas. On Friday the 13th of November 2015, a band of evil men broke into the Le a-bataclan-imageBataclan theatre on the Rue Voltaire. In an article in The Guardian shortly after the massacre we read that, the chinoiserie-style theatre was built in 1864 and opened the following year. It has played an integral part in Paris’s musical scene…in the early 70s. Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico performed there in 1972…Prince, Jeff Buckley, Captain Beefheart, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motörhead, the Clash, the Cure, the Ramones, Beck, My Bloody Valentine, Blur and Oasis are just some of countless artists who’ve played at the Bataclan over the years.

In a city synonymous with light; in a street named after the great secular philosophera-bataclan-image2 Voltaire; in a venue that is emblematic of the plurality and vibrancy of Western culture- there can be no doubt that this place was not picked at random, but quite deliberately by those whose souls are diametrically opposed to the spirit and energy of the culture of Western civilisation. I had not heard of the band that played there on the night terror struck.

The band, The Eagles of Death Metal, released this statement on their Facebook page which reads, in part …we are horrified and still trying to come to terms with what happened in France. Our thoughts and hearts are first and foremost… with all the friends and fans whose lives were taken in Paris, as well as their friends, families, and loved ones. Although bonded in grief with the victims, the fans, the families, the citizens of Paris, and all those affected by terrorism, we are proud to stand together, with our new family, now united by a common goal of love and compassion. We would like to thank…all those at ground zero with us who helped each other as best they could during this unimaginable ordeal, proving once again that love overshadows evil.

a-charlie-hebdo-imageThe heartless ghouls behind the killings should read the posts on the band’s page to see just how futile their campaign was, is and will be. A previous attack in Paris on Charlie Hebdo inspired a great cartoon by Australian David Pope- He drew first. I know cartoonists will hit back against this atrocity. I leave you with this Sandburg poem entitled Honky Tonk in Cleveland, Ohio,

It’s a jazz affair, drum crashes and cornet razzes./The trombone pony neighs and the tuba jackassa-charlie-hebdo-image2 snorts./The banjo tickles and titters too awful./The chippies talk about the funnies in the papers./The cartoonists weep in their beer./Ship riveters talk with their feet/To the feet of floozies under the tables./A quartet of white hopes mourn with interspersed snickers:/“I got the blues./ I got the blues./I got the blues.”/And . . . as we said earlier:/The cartoonists weep in their beer.

But, when they finish weeping, they will pick up their pens and they will be mightier.


Back to You

SQ 56 Somewhere Along the Line

Entry 56: Somewhere Along the Line– A cladogram of the phylogenetic tree of life has itsa-luca-image roots in time about 3.8 billion years ago where we find the Last Universal Common Ancestor a.k.a. LUCA. Why it’s not called the First Universal Common Ancestor, I’ll never know, although the acronym FUCA may not provoke as serious a response as most scientists might wish…

Please! Don’t leave! Just when we were getting to know one another…

a-big-bang-imageKnowing that our heritage is older yet, residing in exploding stars at least three times as old, we are entitled to swagger a little, aren’t we? No one can call you a Johnny Come Lately when you can trace your lineage back to the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago.

So, given our common ancestry, why do we hunt animals to extinction and why do we kill one another in such staggering numbers?  If you are listening to this, you are another link in a long line that is 14 billion years and counting.

The Biblical lifespan of three score and ten- or seventy years, just doesn’t make sense ifa-who-do-image we try to fit it into the timescale of the universe- the number deifies proper human comprehension. But you just have to view a few episodes of that internationally popular program, Who Do You Think You Are? to understand the very real emotions that the celebrities, who are the subject of these programs, exhibit.

a-whodo2-imageTypically, they trace their ancestry back three or four generations and are, in turn, gratified, horrified, scarified and discombobulated by what the researchers uncover. All of us, though, live our lives along a continuum that might be moments or decades but will never exceed by more than a few years, one century. And within that continuum, there may be a section that is subject to more emotional intensity than other sections.

Can you remember your first two or three years of life? What about those whose final years or decades are lost in mists of dementia? The song of the entry’s title focuses on a sectiona-march-of-time-image of such emotional intensity- say, about ten years straddling the second and third decades of life. Ten years is manageable. So much can happen! Such memories! Oh my, how did things turn around so?

For me, the years between 14 and 24 were the most momentous- and although you may cite another age-range for yourself, it seems to me that more of relevance to my life and development happened in that ten-year period than in the decade before or the decades after.

Of course, having said this, I may yet discover the secret of time-travel or invent a weight-a-time-imageloss pill that actually works. (In either case, I think I would have to revise the timing of my most momentous decade.) While we may wish we could preserve some moments in amber or on a Grecian vase, it cannot be so. Smart people have theorised that time is not, as all we lesser intellects have surmised, a linear construct, an arrow flying in one direction only- but instead a mixing bowl into which is folded all the events of the universe and which can be reversed to unmix the ingredients.

A film that can be run in reverse, I suppose. You know, this would give me the shits! Are you seriously telling me that all those awkward words, thoughts and actions that I thoughta-embarrass-image buried forever in the vault of time are going to be resurrected to shame me all over again? I thought that was what embarrassment was created for! Because every time we remember an incident where blood flamed in our faces, we experience it all over again.

The pain, the pain! We all know that, thankfully, we do not re-experience the agony of a leg broken long ago when we recall falling off the bike that time when we were attempting a BMX record. But that we would see arising from the reversed blender all our less salubrious moments makes me pray that time goes in one direction only, even, or especially, if it leads to oblivion.

Banjo Paterson knows all about the nature of time and its murky depths,

a-banjo-imageAll of us play our very best game/Any other time./ Golf or billiards, it’s all the same,/ Any other time./  Lose a match and you always say,/ “Just my luck! I was ‘off’ to-day!/ I could have beaten him quite half-way,/ Any other time!”

But to the song- there can be no more poignant scenario than that of passion cooling on the part of one of a pair of lovers. Entropy proceeds at differing rates in the human heart, unlike the big, old universe. Shakespeare, in Sonnet 73, was way in advance of the Brainiacs of this age-

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,/That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,/As the deathbeda-sonnet-73 whereon it must expire,/Consumed with that which it was nourished by./This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long. 


Somewhere Along The Line

SQ 57 Universe of Blue

Entry 57: Universe of Blue– “I don’t do chords,” said B. B. King. Now, most musos woulda-bb-image treat such a statement from, say, me, as an excuse for excoriation, humiliation and light entertainment. But, for B.B that was OK. He played in a range of venues from juke-joints to stadia and command performances at the White House, as well as other prestigious places over a period of 60+ years.

For women, it’s not so good, though, is it? They begin to fade from view very soon. Is this related to the premium placed on the value of feminine beauty that kicks in earlier and earlier it seems- but which can be estimated as a sweet spot of the two decades between fifteen and thirty-five? Lamentably, fewer women than men older than this remain in esteem in Western culture.

a-old-womanAdieu, farewell earth’s bliss,/This world uncertain is./ Fond are life’s lustful joys-/Death proves them all but toys./None from his darts can fly-/I am sick; I must die./Lord Have mercy on us.

The opening stanza of Thomas Nashe’s, In Time of Pestilence, is as striking today as when it was penned towards the end of the 16th Century.

Beauty is but a flower,/Which wrinkles will devour./Brightness falls from the air;/Queens have died young and fair;/Dust hath closed Helen’s eye:/I am sick; I must die./Lord, have mercy on us.

There must have been something in the water, or perhaps, the firmament during the 16tha-wyatt-image Century- some alignment of stars conducive to literary excellence. Can you hear echoes of Shakespeare? Or perhaps, Marlowe? And do you hear, listening intently, the voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, earlier in the century complaining,

They flee from me that sometime did me seek/With naked foot stalking in my chamber/I have seen them gentle, tame and meek/that now are wild and do not remember/That sometime they put themselves in danger/To take bread at my hand; and now they range,/Busily seeking with a continual change.

 a-young-man-imageFebrile, youthful males in every generation since have yearned for the consummation outlined in stanza two where Wyatt remembers a time,

When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,/And she me caught in her arms long and small,/Therewithal sweetly did me kiss/And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

How like you this, indeed! Sex and Death- as always, a heady mixture- and one supplied in copious quantities by artists down the centuries. But the mixture cloys and thickens, sweetly-sour, when the 19th Century gets hold of it.

The Lady of Shalott by Tennyson supplies the nexus. In a grey tower by the river running toa-holman-hunt-image Camelot sits a faery princess weaving a magic web replicating what she sees through her mirror- the passing parade; trapped by a curse…(theorists of every stripe have had a field day with this!) she must not look directly out of her window.

The mirror shows her the agrarian round of sowing and reaping and harvest and bucolic celebration until she sighs, I am half-sick of shadows. Then, Sir Lancelot appears,

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;/On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;/From underneath his helmet flow’d/His coal-black curls as on he rode,/As he rode down to Camelot./From the bank and from the river/He flashed into the crystal mirror,/’Tirra lirra,’ by the river/Sang Sir Lancelot.

a-lady-image-2Oh, my Lord! The power of music- like a pentatonic riff by B. B. King ripping through the consciousness of, say, a pimply 15-year-old in Northern Ireland in the mid-sixties- the lyrical notes of Sir Lancelot drew the Lady to the window where,

Out flew the web and floated wide-/The mirror crack’d from side to side;/”The curse is come upon me,” cried/The Lady of Shalott.

No prizes for guessing the denouement. She finds a boat and, singing her death-song, drifts with the current towards Camelot,

They heard her singing her last song/The Lady of Shalott/Heard a carol, mournful, holy/Chanted loudly, chanted lowly/Till her blood was frozen slowly/And her eyes were darkened wholly/Turned to towered Camelot/For ere she reached upon the tide/The first house by the waterside/Singing in her song she died/The Lady of Shalott.

 The Pre-Raphaelites lapped it up and painted various scenes from it. Founder of thewilliam_holman_hunt_xx_the_awakening_conscience movement, William Holman-Hunt, painted the lady entangled in her magic tapestry’s web as Sir Lancelot passes by outside singing Tirra Lirra.

The Awakening Conscience, painted by Holman-Hunt, fifty years before, makes for an interesting comparison; there, too, is a mirror, a window and a beautiful woman depicted, but here, she’s on her lover’s lap as she gazes, transfixed out of the window.

As I look from one painting to the other, I am, inexplicably reminded of those beauty pageants for pre-teens where mothers primp and preen their pre-pubescent daughters for the cattle-call. The song which follows details the future life of such a little one.

Universe of Blue

SQ 58 Open Season

Entry 58: Open Season– We live in perilous times and in perilous places, wondering all thea-apocalyptic-image while whether the complexion of the universe is benign, malign or merely indifferent.

I found a ball of grass among the hay/And progged it as I passed and went away/And when I looked I fancied something stirred/And turned again and hoped to catch the bird/When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat/With all her young ones hanging at her teats/She looked so odd and so grotesque to me/I ran and wondered what the thing could be/And pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood/When the mouse hurried from the craking brood/The young ones squeaked and when I went away/She found her nest again among the hay./The water o’er the pebbles scarce could run/And broad old cesspools glittered in the sun.

 There is a microcosm here, ina-mouse-nest, as finely detailed as any found in theological or cosmological treatises on the matter. John Clare knew privation and the prospect of a bird at hand no doubt stimulated his salivary glands. The odd and grotesque sight stimulates his curiosity and he runs to see more but soon turns away and notices now the broad old cesspools which glitter in the sun. But the world of the mother mouse and her young ones has been considerably disrupted.

The god-like overview the poet projects here soon loses the certitude of being the prime mover in a very short time, and one imagines that Clare is speaking personally when he writes:a-clare-image

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;/My friends forsake me like a memory lost:/I am the self- consumer of my woes.

 I am the self-consumer of my woes- what a profound statement- yet who knows this little known poet? Confined to an insane asylum by friends, he seems to have been given better treatment than most people in similar circumstances two centuries later. He is a bit like Kit Smart, who was also considered a lunatic in the previous century, but who, instead of focusing on a mouse, recorded his cat, Jeoffry,


…I will consider my Cat Jeoffry./For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him./For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way./For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness./For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.

 This was written in an age that knew nothing of the problems of feral cats in Australia, today. There are lots of people in the antipodean great south land that consider cats as servants of Satan rather than the living God. There was a time when hunting the whale was a worthy, indeed heroic, undertaking. This makes me wonder which activities that attract approbation today will be considered barbarous in our grandchildren’s world. God! Did they actually kill mosquitoes back then! This, after scientists discover that the mozzie is the only thinga-mozzie-image standing between us and the worst impacts of climate change.

Who knows? Writing this entry at 3:30 a.m. I was distracted by a beautiful sound- listening to a streaming audio, I thought it was part of that effusion. Then I realised that it was something else. Still curious, after all these years, I got up from my desk and wine, and wandered outside to hear the sound of a freight-train, trying to- maximise? – the clangour by slowing down as it passed by. a-freight-train-imageThe metal wheels made weirdly harmonic music and I stood transfixed.  If only I were as talented as, say, Phillip Glass or any one of the minimalists, I would now be notating another masterpiece of minimalism based on those squeaking, screeching and craking sounds.

But I have promises to keep: porterhouse steaks to sear and a breaking in of the Weber barbeque- this must happen tomorrow if I am to be accorded full acceptance into the pantheon of Aussie manhood- or so my wife asserts, especially as it will be Australia Day. Yet, in the 1970s, as I recall, I wieldeda-nb-image tongs over an Hibachi on North Beach, Wollongong and scorched some meat that passed muster. But now, in the 21st Century, I have to search out strange herbs and spices, uncommon cuts of meat, in-fashion fish and source-matching wines to be in the race, it seems.

It’s hard to live comfortably with a-syria-imagethis beneficence after viewing online a still photograph of a mother and child in Syria standing in front of a ruined streetscape in a village near the Turkish border, liberated from Islamic State. There is something in the eyes that hooks your soul; like the Steve McCurry photo of the Afghan girl, and the Madonna and child image from Ethiopia in the 1980s, there is a cri de Coeur here too,

No man is an island,/Entire of itself./Each is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main./If a cloda-island-image be washed away by the sea,/Europe is the less…/Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind./Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls,/ It tolls for thee.

 These lines, from John Donne’s Meditation 17, still apply.


Open Season

SQ 59 Where’s the Harm?

Entry 59: Where’s The Harm?– What wouldn’t I give to have the resilient characteristics of aa-water-bear tardigrade?  These critters are almost indestructible- small but tough. The name tardigrade means slow walker– but who’s in a hurry, if able to withstand extremes of pressure and temperature, to say nothing of poisons and a variety of stressors that would kill every other multi-cellular organism on earth?

And, interestingly, these wonderful little plodders are not classified as extremophiles; that is, they do not thrive in extremes of heat, aridity or pressure, like those organisms adapted to extreme conditions- but they can resist those extremes, preferring temperate a-hobbitconditions- like us. I suppose they could be classified as the Hobbits of the microscopic world.

The German pastor, Johann August Ephraim Goeze, in 1773, first described these “little water bears” as he called them, measuring less than ½ mm as a rule. Emily Dickinson, in an early poem describes a theological virtue we are all familiar with,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops—at all//And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard/ And sore must be the storm/That could abash the little Bird/ That kept so many warm//I’ve heard it in the chillest land/ And on the strangesta-hope-image Sea/ Yet, never, in Extremity,/ It asked a crumb—of Me.

This is a very different kind of hope from that detailed by Friedrich Nietzsche in his explication of the Pandora myth. We may think that we know what words like faith, hope and charity (or love) actually mean. But it’s not so simple. Our definitions bend and twist as the torsion of our lives unwind under the force of time. I can remember a moment as a child (when the Latin Mass was still the norm) when I was petrified to let the Host touch my teeth. The priests had impressed upon us the need to avoid crushing the body of Christ within our puerile mouths.

a-eucharistHow could we dare to subject our Saviour to such torture? Decades later, I scoffed at a traditionalist Catholic who objected to the validity of a Eucharist celebrated at a school camp high up an escarpment in North Queensland in the early 90s, by a parish priest confronted with a mixed bag of Catholics and non-Catholics who were invited to share the Paschal sacrifice with leavened bread and wine in clay-ware containers.

The word the critic used was, heterodoxical. As an aficionado of language, I naturally honed in on the usage, particularly when I saw the blanching on the cheeks of the priest. Did I leap to his defence? Ah, you know me better by now. Of course not! Today, heterodoxicalauto-da-fe persons just get excommunicated. Pretty grim, of course, but not as dire as the auto da fe of medieval times where the lateral thinkers were routinely set on fire.

Ten years ago, I awoke on Good Friday morning with a fragment of a song in my head, Where’s the harm in that? linked to a nebulous character who was simple and uncomplicated but who felt as deeply as anyone in MENSA or a Nobel laureate. As the day wore on, the persona of the song became more detailed and real until, by that evening, when the song was finished, Michael had as much substance to me as any acquaintance.

a-truth-imageThe line, But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest applies here. Carl Sandburg, even though he only had daughters, knew what fathers want to say to their sons,

“Life is hard; be steel; be a rock.”/And this might stand him for the storms/and serve him for humdrum monotony/and guide him among sudden betrayals/and tighten him for slack moments./

“Life is a soft loam; be gentle; go easy.”/And this too might serve him./Brutes have been gentled where lashes failed./The growth of a frail flower in a path up/has sometimes shattered and split a rock./A tough will counts. So does desire./ So does a rich soft wanting./Without rich wanting nothing arrives./ 

Tell him too much money has killed men/and left them dead years before burial:/the quest of lucre beyond a few easy needs/has twisted good enough men/sometimes into dry thwarted worms./

Tell him to be alone often and get at himself/and above all tell himself no lies about himself/whatever the white lies and protective fronts/he may use against other people./Tell him solitude is creative if he is strong/and the final decisions are made in silent rooms./Tell him to be different from other people/if it comes natural and easy being different./

Let him have lazy days seeking his deeper motives./Let him seek deep for where he is borna-sandburg-image natural./Then he may understand Shakespeare/and the Wright brothers,…and free imaginations/Bringing changes into a world resenting change./He will be lonely enough/to have time for the work/he knows as his own.

 But-alas-only if the son lives long enough.


Where’s The Harm?

SQ 60 Come Back an Angel

Entry 60: Come Back an Angel– It depends how you look at it: humanity is either on thea-lear-image verge of a transcendent apotheosis or it is poised on the brink of extinction: either triumphant at the apex of creation or King Lear’s poor bare forked animal struggling to make it into the top ten.

On one reading we, as a species, are on a sure trajectory to the domination of space and time- what with our nascent abilities to terra-form planets and create Dyson spheres to enclose a-terraforming-imagestars and make use of the energy therein. After all, the thought merely precedes the action and science fiction stories are crammed with planets and stars at our beck and call.

There are other readings, alas, that predict less than glorious outcomes. One such is neocatastrophism which cites sudden extinctions in the palaeontological record caused bya-nasa high magnitude, low frequency occurrences such as massive asteroid strikes, super-volcanic eruptions and super-nova gamma ray bursts- any one of which would spoil your holiday plans somewhat.

And, in another reading, we don’t even make the top ten. Numero Uno, of course, is the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God with a capital G. Following in descending order of precedence are the nine orders of angels: Seraphim, a-archangel-imageCherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Archangels and Angels. Weighing in at number 11 in the scheme of things- that would be us!

So why do I celebrate this? The hendecasyllabic truth is just this: that it lies between the mundane decimal and the ancient order of counting by 12. It is represented as a unicursal hexagram with a five-petalled flower inscribed inside. If you are like me, you love complication if only because simplification forces too much examination.

Which bring me to the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. I’ll bet thata-angelpin-image you chose a number other than 11. But did you get this answer? In the humoristic magazine Annals of Improbable Research,  Anders Sandberg has presented a calculation based on theories of information physics and quantum gravity, establishing an upper bound of 8.6766×1049 angels.

When my son died in a motor-bike crash in October 1989, my niece told me, when she visited me seven years later, that he had manifested at the foot of her bed to reassure her that all was well. I, with my wife, received this information with respect but with a certain amount of puzzlement. Why, we asked ourselves, was the message relayed to someone who had a much more tangential relationship with him?

a-guardianDid I curse his guardian angel? After all, to whom could I relay my dissatisfaction with the issue of guardianship-apart from myself? Pusillanimous by nature, how could I shirt-front a being ranked above me in the universal order? And I also wonder about the better angels of our nature. When I think about the final words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, I realise that even that great orator was unable to avert the coming catastrophe,

we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, ita-lincoln-image must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

I know that a death in one family cannot compare to the mass carnage of the American Civil War, but the human heart has only so much surface area available to be pierced by the arrows of anguish. And what of those forces opposed to the better angels? Renowned 12th Century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, wrote a poem entitled Antiphon for the Angels, in which she gives the following account,

a-hildegard-imageSpirited light! on the edge/of the Presence your yearning/burns in the secret darkness,/O angels, insatiably/into God’s gaze./Perversity/could not touch your beauty;/you are essential joy./But your lost companion,/angel of the crooked/wings- he sought the summit,/shot down the depths of God/and plummeted past Adam -/that a mud-bound spirit might soar.

 This remarkable woman, recognised as a Doctor of the Church in 2012 by Benedict XVI, was a formidable intellect who was a writer of poetry, music, philosophy, theology, natural sciences as well as extensive correspondence to Popes, Emperors and others. The Latin word, angelus, means messenger and this is what angels are, traditionally.

I can remember, as a boy, working in my uncle’s hilly fields in the summertime. Come twelvea-angelus-image noon and the bells would ring out from the village below. Work would stop and he would start: The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary. We would reply, And she conceived of the Holy Spirit. These are the opening lines of the Catholic devotion marking the Incarnation which seemed to soar heaven-wards in that distant time.

Now, this mud-bound spirit finds it increasingly hard to soar.


Come Back and Angel

SQ 61 The Answer

Entry 61: The Answer– Back in 1979, when the German Democratic Republic was still aa-gdr-image
glowering presence on the front-line of the Warsaw Pact, I watched a BBC documentary which showed East German scientists conducting animal research involving rats in order to find a “cure” for homosexuality.

The song, The Answer, was written then as a reaction against the excesses of reductionist philosophies such as Marxist dialectical materialism which produces this sort of absurd activity; although, falling to one’s knees to pray as a reaction may be seen as equally absurd.

a-euler-imageThe mathematicians smug it up as they point to the answers contained in their elegant and, to most of us, incomprehensible equations. One, though, I like- perhaps because it’s the only one I sort of understand: the equation goes, 1=0.99 repeating.

Stephen Strogatz of Cornell University cites it as his fave, I love how simple it is — everyone understands what it says — yet how provocative it is. Many people don’t believe it could be true. It’s also beautifully balanced. The left side represents the beginning of mathematics; the right side represents the mysteries of infinity.

 Popular culture goes for another number, though. In The Hitchiker’s Guide to thea-answer-image Galaxy by Douglas Adams, “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over a period of 7.5 million years turns out to be the number 42. Unfortunately, the question is lost to us.

Maybe Adams was aware of the mathematician, Paul Cooper who theorised in 1966 that, the fastest, most efficient way to travel across continents would be to bore a straight hollow tube directly through the Earth, connecting a set of antipodes, remove the air from the tube and fall through. The first half of the journey consists of free-fall acceleration, while the second half consists of an exactly equal deceleration. The time for such a journey works out to be 42 minutes.

a-gravity-trainEven if the tube does not pass through the exact centre of the Earth, the time for a journey powered entirely by gravity (known as a gravity train) always works out to be 42 minutes, so long as the tube remains friction-free, as while the force of gravity would be lessened, the distance travelled is reduced at an equal rate. (The same idea was proposed, without calculation by Lewis Carroll in 1893 in Sylvie and Bruno, Concluded.)

 Doug Adams was a big fan of Lewis Carroll. The American Sara Teasdale who composed clear, elegant verse wrote a poem entitled The Answer early in the 20th Century.  Again, you will have to search for the question, but it may be a tad uncomfortable, particularly if you are a male,a-st-image

When I go back to earth/And all my joyous body/Puts off the red and white/That once had been so proud,/If men should pass above/With false and feeble pity,/My dust will find a voice/To answer them aloud:/“Be still, I am content,/Take back your poor compassion,/Joy was a flame in me/Too steady to destroy;/Lithe as a bending reed/Loving the storm that sways her—/I found more joy in sorrow/Than you could find in joy.”

The search for meaning takes people on strange and arduous paths. The image of a guru on a mountain top dispensing wisdom, wit or cynicism a-guru-imageto an endless procession of seekers has become an enduring meme in popular culture. I remember being somewhat puzzled, as a teen in the sixties, by the Beatles’ infatuation with the giggling Maharishi; although, not much later, I followed them eastwards to explore the worlds of Buddhism and Taoism.

Not on anything so arduous as a pilgrimage, mind you. I used books as my means of conveyance- cheaper and more comfortable, I found (or, rather, I didn’t find- for interesting and diverting though the textual exploration was, in the end, I had to admit that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for).

That said, the concept of pilgrimage has always had an appeal to me, ever since, as a teen, I read Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,a-chp-image

in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,/Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;/But spent his days in riot most uncouth,/And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night./Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,/Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;/Few earthly things found favour in his sight/Save concubines and carnal companie,/And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.

The 16-year old boy was, unsurprisingly, much taken by this. The Australian-Greek poet, Dimitris Tsaloumas a-church-interiorapproximates where I am now, fifty years later, in his poem, The Pilgrimage, I’ve been on this pilgrimage for a long, bitter time…twelve austere couplets lead to the desolate conclusion that I share, as I flash in and out of belief, …I fear the message; there is no temple/ of light, no priest to read barefoot the voice of God.

The Answer

SQ 62 Desolation Row/1984

Entry 62: Desolation Row/1984 The song dates to 1979. I was largely unemployed duringa-desolate-image 1979 (having just returned from a seven-year sojourn in Australia) and I had spent some time driving around Ireland and staying in various B&Bs and above pubs. I look at the photographs from that time and weep that I was so unconscious. My wife and kids were there too, thinking that I knew what I was doing. After all, would Hubby/Dad take off, driving them around Ireland without some sort of plan?

a-1984-imageMmm, as it transpired, Yes! The 1960s were the decade of coming of age; transition between Aruba and Ireland; between adolescence and young adulthood. The 1970s were years of graduation, marriage, children, emigration to Australia and first employment, return to Ireland and first (but not only) taste of unemployment. The song references two of the great influences on what might loosely be termed my development as a songwriter- Dylan’s phantasmagorical lyricism and Orwell’s pellucid prose.

I never got close to either- but did that stop me trying? Not on your Nelly! (What does that phrase even mean?) Were we to actually stop and interrogate my every usage or idiom, there would be no advancement on what might laughingly be described as a narrative. Ia-h61-image have a clear memory of a meal with my family at our home in Cushendall. This would have been sometime late in 1965. I was sixteen years old and my brother, Brendan had bought for me, as a birthday present, an LP by Bob Dylan called Highway 61 Revisited.

Looking at that seriously cool dude on the cover, I was captivated even before I heard the opening bars of Like a Rolling Stone. Even more impressive was the response of the eldest sibling of a-lars-imageour family, Jim, who was visiting from County Cork where he was established as one of the new, young Vets of modern Ireland. He was knocked out- demanding that the 11-minute song, Desolation Row, was allowed to be played rather than turned off, when the meal was to be served. Did I preen? Yes. Did I get all the allusions Dylan peppered throughout his song? No. But I knew, at a visceral level, that this was an important work of art and that it would follow me down the years.

And here I am fifty years later listening to the masterpiece at 2:00 a.m. Will it stand the test of time? I cannot say anything other than, this song fills my soul as much now in my senior years as it did way back when everything seemed possible. 1984 was an anti-climax- thea-ba-image year, I mean. I was teaching English at Ballymena Academy to O-Level and A-Level. For a change, nothing much was going on politically or para-militarily in the province.

The rest of the world lived in more interesting times, though. On the sub-continent, Indira Ghandi was assassinated and thousands died of toxic gases in Bhopal, courtesy of the Union Carbide chemical company. In Africa, widespread famine in Ethiopia prompted a bunch of a-ghb-imageUK and Irish rockers to stage the Band-Aid charity event while in Australia, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister and a bunch of feuding bikies shot it out in a gun-battle that became known as the Milperra massacre. In the US, a gunman killed 20 people at a McDonalds in San Ysidro, California and in the UK the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton where the Conservatives were holding their annual conference.

On a more optimistic note, the first Apple Macintosh went on sale and the space shuttlea-am-image Discovery made its maiden voyage. 1984, the novel, has given us some enduring concepts and memorable quotations. Doublethink, where one is capable of holding two contradictory ideas in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them, is one of the concepts Orwell has bequeathed to us. His image of the future as a boot stamping on a human face, forever, is as chilling now as it was in 1949 when it was published.

a-macniece-imageIrish poet, Louis MacNiece was among the ‘thirties poets, W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender who were opposed to fascism but he rejected the armchair activism of some of his contemporaries for a more wry take on the world that I responded to immediately when I read his poem, Bagpipe Music,

It’s no go the Government grants, it’s no go the elections,/Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

Been there, done that!

 The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,/But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.

 Another poem, entitled Sunlight on the Garden, and some more favourite lines,

The sunlight on the garden/Hardens and grows cold,/We cannot cage the minute/Within its nets ofa-garden-image gold;/When all is told/We cannot beg for pardon…// And not expecting pardon,/Hardened in heart anew,/But glad to have sat under/Thunder and rain with you,/And grateful too/For sunlight on the garden. 

 Time for the song.


Desolation Row 1984

SQ 63 Hold Me Love Me

Entry 63: Hold Me Love Me– I was appointed as a teacher at Ballymena Academy in Januarya-ba-uniform-image 1980. It was a bit of a change from the multicultural, behavioural and academic mix that was Warrawong High School in NSW where I had worked for six years. The Academy was selective, taking the top 10% of students sorted by an exam at age 11. It was almost exclusively white and Christian- mostly Protestant although a few of the wealthier Catholic families sent their kids there. 95% of the kids wore their uniform neatly, did their homework without complaint and were attentive and cooperative in class. The polished, civilised, veneer of middle-class respectability shone out- for most of the time.

 Not an adverse criticism- we need our veneers to cover the less sightly aspects of our souls and to protect us against damaging elements. Towards the end of the academic year, in early June, we were shocked in the Glens (I was back living a-turnley-imagein Cushendall, again) by the news that John Turnley, the area’s biggest landowner, had been assassinated on his way to a council meeting by three members of the UDA, the biggest Protestant paramilitary group. Although a scion of the Protestant ascendency, he had been drawn to the nationalist side of politics and, as a recent member of the Irish Independence Party, was agitating for recognition of political status for Republican prisoners in the H-Block.

 In my senior classroom shortly after, I remarked on the savagery of this murderous attack on a husband and father. Silence. No one actually said he deserved it because no one said anything, but the silence was eloquent: he was a turncoat, a lundy. The latter word is a Northern Irish colloquialism which is derived from the name of the governor of Derry in the 18th century, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Lundy, who was suspected of Catholic sympathies by the Protestant community.a-lundy-image

Seamus Heaney’s 1975 poem Punishment recognises the reciprocal nature of this silent response where he compares the 2000 year-old killing of a young female adulterer exhumed from a German bog with the treatment of Catholic girls who consorted with British soldiers in Northern Ireland: they were chained to railings, their hair was shaved off and hot tar was poured over them. Thinking of the bog girl he admits,

 a-punishment-imageI almost love you/but would have cast, I know, /the stones of silence… I who have stood dumb/when your betraying sisters,/ cauled in tar,/wept by the railings. Like my students a few years later, he understands the exact and tribal… revenge.

When I attended a performance of Brian Friel’s acclaimed drama, Translations a few months later, I understood much better the theme of failure to communicate which underpins the play which is set in a remote rural settlement in 1833 as two British officers come to map the area for the Ordnance survey. In making aa-cartography-image map, of course, the maker gets to name (or rename) all the places and notate the roads, bridges, forests, hills, settlements and other strategic elements that form the necessary preparation for the consolidation of imperial rule.

They are accompanied by Owen, the son of the alcoholic teacher of the local hedge school- an Irish institution of which Irish writer, William Carelton, provided the following contemporaneous account to amuse his English reading audience,

a-carleton-imageOn once asking an Irish peasant, why he sent his children to a school master who was notoriously addicted to spirituous liquors, rather than to a man of sober habits who taught in the same neighbourhood, “Why do I send them to Mat Meegan, is it?” he replied – “and do you think, Sir,” said he, “that I’d send them to that dry-headed dunce, Mr. Frazher, with his black coat upon him, and his caroline hat, and him wouldn’t take a glass of poteen wanst in seven years? Mat, Sir, likes it, and teaches the boys ten times betther whin he’s dhrunk nor when he’s sober; and you’ll never find a good tacher, Sir, but’s fond of it.

The Catholic hierarchy were pleased when the British Government introduced National Schools in the 1830s because, as the bishop of Kildare wrote to his priests in 1831, he approved of the rule which requires that all the teachers are henceforth to be employed be provided…with a certificate of their competency, that will aid us in a work of great difficulty, to wit, that of suppressing hedge schools, and placing youths under the direction of competent teachers, and of those only. That is, only those of whom the hierarchy approved would get a position.

The best hedge schools (which were held in barns or cabins rather than hedges) taught aa-hedge-school-image range of subjects, including Greek and Latin as well as a curriculum geared to local needs. Where, oh where, are they now? The song which follows maps three different scenarios of imposing one’s will.

Hold Me Love Me