SQ 96 The Muso’s Lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Muso’s Lament

SQ 97 Autumn Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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



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



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


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

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

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

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


Autumn Road

SQ 98 Fleurs du Mal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fleurs du Mal

SQ 99 Over and Over

Entry 99: Over and Over– What does it mean to live a life that has meaning? I never had toa-snoopy-image ask myself this question until I was approaching 25 years of age. Well, maybe these existential queries did intrude on my psyche before this time, but, for the sake of this journal entry, let’s just pretend that I was a wide-eyed innocent as I answered the door one Saturday morning.

I remember a vacuum-cleaner salesman of about thirty who originated from the New England tablelands: I invited him into our rented house on Paulsgrove Street in Gwynneville, Wollongong in 1975. I was protected by my employment by the Education Department of NSW from privation even if luxuries were mere aspirations at the a-salesmantime. He tried to tell me that I needed his product even though it was evident that I had sanded and estapolled the floorboards of the whole house and had scattered a few budget rugs here and there to make the Government Real Estate property seem more like a home.

I didn’t buy his product, but I will never forget the look in his eyes as he registered yet another failure on his journey and confided that he was for the chop.  Within five years I was in a better position to empathise: six months without a job, watching savings dwindle and feeling less and lessa-ad like a man. Fast forward about ten years and I’m back in Sydney. Again, six months without a job, I scan the papers: not that I have many options outside of teaching. Even so-called educationalists are a bit leery about employing Shakespeare-loving, poetry-spouting candidates: one snide Principal even writes that my CV is incredible.

Thankfully, I have only had to endure a year’s unemployment in total over a working life of 42 years. However, back when I was in my mid-twenties, I met a muso who had suffered a back injury, was unemployed, and was despairing that he would be excluded from the world that everyone else so smugly inhabited. I regret to a-dole-imagereport that I did not pay much attention to his sob-story, especially because he seemed perfectly mobile and displayed no pain; I also remember thinking that he could kick back and collect benefits for the rest of his natural.

What I missed, until I had a taste of it myself, was the soul-destroying grind that being unwillingly unemployed imposes. In Cushendall, in the winter of early 1979 I found myself sitting in pubs with people who hadn’t worked in years, in decades, and didn’t want to. I found I had little in common witha-bar2-image them and soon avoided the interaction. Ten years later in Werrington, I again felt adrift and afflicted with ennui as I left my wife at the station to commute to Parramatta for her job while I picked up a few casual teaching days here and there, wondering when a permanent job would eventuate: back then the idea that experienced teachers would long endure the uncertainty of casualisation was not a reality until the new millennium with its challenges and changes hove into view in the mid-nineties when I wrote this song.

a-dr-and-p-imageI thought of the vacuum-cleaner salesman and the injured muso from twenty years before and wondered how they had fared. Bruce Dawe, in his poem, Doctor to Patient, compares unemployment with a disease that increasingly isolates the individual as, in the monologue, the doctor outlines some of the treatment options to his patient, you’ll no doubt be urged to try the various / recommended anodynes: editorials in newspapers, / voluntary unpaid work for local charities, booze, / other compulsive mind-destroyers, prayers, comforting talks with increasingly less-interested friends. The doctor concludes by reassuring the afflicted teenager that you will be relieved to know the disease/is only in a minority of cases terminal. / Most, that is, survive.

 But not all: Sarah Boseley, writing in The Guardian of 11 February 2015 reports that 45,000a-depression-image suicides a year- or one in five of the total worldwide- are attributable to the distress and despair brought on by unemployment. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, warns Roger Webb and Navneet Kapur, from the University of Manchester,

Many affected individuals who remain in work during these hard times encounter serious psychological stressors due to pernicious economic strains other than un­employment, including falling income, zero­-hour contracting, job insecurity, bankruptcy, debt, and home repossession… we also require a better understanding of other psychosocial manifestations of economic adversity, including non-fatal self-harm, stress and anxiety, low mood, hopelessness, alcohol problems, anger, familial conflict and relationship breakdown.

 They add: We also need to know how and why highly resilient individuals who experience the greatest levels of economic adversity manage to sustain favourable mental health and wellbeing.

Amen to that!


Over and Over

SQ 100 Dumb

Entry 100: DumbHow dumb can you get?! Question mark; exclamation point. Hands up alla-dumb-image those who have never had this accusation, or some synonymous hoot, levelled at them. Oh…Kay… can you just shift over to the liars’ corner- now, please?

1959, Aruba, Netherlands Antilles. It was not long after my tenth birthday and I had just returned from my best friend, Rusty’s, “Christmas party” (air-quotes, here).  His Dad was a raging atheist and had flushed his Mom’s Bible, page by page, down the toilet, not so long before, Rusty confided. So she had to have a party that had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, but she still wanted to have some sort of commemoration, being a woman of faith, a-christmaspresents-f-550-jpghowever brow-beaten, and possibly beaten in other ways, too. So she devised a gift-sharing party for her son in mid-December which coincided with his birthday.

We all brought gifts, bought and wrapped by our mothers, of course, and we placed then in a large wicker basket in the centre of the lounge room. We had cake and snacks and we played silly games, as kids do on such occasions. Then came the gift exchange. There was a musical chairs sort of game where, when the music stopped, the standing child was able to choose a gift from the basket. The music was traditional Christmas carols.

The only rule was: you couldn’t choose your own gift. Sorry, there was another rule- youa-flask could exchange gifts with another child if you hated your gift and the swap was agreeable. My gift was a quality thermos flask. I hated it on sight. An older child, whose name I will supress to protect the guilty, suggested a swap with his gift- a plastic ray-gun that made a snazzy sound and had sparks. Of course, I made the swap!

When I reported the exchange to my father, he responded in words similar to those at the top of this journal entry. My Dad was tough, a-gunand he had respect among the hard men, Rusty’s Dad included, on that enchanted desert island. But I loved that space-gun for the two days that it worked. And, do you know, even at this remove in time of over half a century, I do not regret the choice I made on that hot, tropical afternoon. Two days of pretend wars in space! How could a thermos flask compare?

But, through the years, I still remember Rusty’s, mother, and I wonder how things turneda-toughen-up-image out for her, that subversive believer who delivered to me a ray-gun that sparked my imagination for two whole days. As you can imagine, I remained mute in the face of my father’s scorn at my ill-advised deal with the older boy. Of course, he was only trying to toughen me up for the real world, of which he knew a great deal. I’ll dedicate the remainder of the content of this entry to the courage of the woman who defied her husband to bring to kids like me the joys of sharing gifts.

I’ll start OT. There is some ambiguity as to whether the prophet, Ezekiel, was struck dumb or if he just held his tongue for several years by the a-ezekiel-imagerivers of Babylon. Whatever the case, no one suggested that he was stupid. There can be no doubt, though, if you choose to accept the testimony of Luke 1: 18-22, that Zacharias, priestly husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptist, choosing to disbelieve the tidings of the archangel Gabriel, was, in fact, struck dumb from the moment of doubt through the duration of his wife’s pregnancy and was not released from his mute state until he had written on a wax tablet, at the ceremony of circumcision of his son, that his name was to be John, as mandated by the archangel and not Zacharias, as custom dictated.a-zacharias-image

Now, although it is never advisable to bandy words with an archangel, no one suggested a lack of intelligence on the part of Zacharias. So where do you stand? Does dumb mean mute or stupid? Acres of pedantic tedium could scarcely contain the volume of material generated by this dispute. Just accept both as being OK. Dictionaries will give first position to the former while common usage will favour the latter. Me? Oh, I’ll go to the poets, every time. Report for duty now please, Robert Graves,

a-graves-imageChildren are dumb to say how hot the day is,/How hot the scent is of the summer rose,/How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,/How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by. Robert Graves knew about childhood and he tells us of the cool web of language and how we are trapped in its sticky essence as we grow older:

…we have speech, to chill the angry day,/And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent./We spell away the overhanging night,/We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

Yes we do, and I thank the poet for reminding me that the awkward butterfly has, a justa-butterfly sense of how not to fly:/He lurches here and here by guess/And God and hope and hopelessness./Even the aerobatic swift/Has not his flying-crooked gift. Another of God’s dumb creatures.



SQ 101 Mr Brown

a-roseEntry 101: Mr BrownWhat’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ by any other name would smell as sweet, Romeo famously declaimed. What’s in a name, Romeo? Quite a lot, actually. He was not the sharpest tool in the shed even if he was, arguably, Verona’s most eligible bachelor. Suppose, taking a leaf out of Romeo’s book, you decided that a rose was to be called a stench. A dozen stenches just for you, darling! Does not sound as sweet, and I dare say, the connotative transfer would attenuate somewhat the perfume perceived by the recipient of your well-meaning romantic gesture.

a-iagoConsider the flipside of this, where honourable words cloak dishonourable intentions as in Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Othello, where Iago draws the naïve hero down into his devilish trap by pretending to withhold, for noble motive, the name of the person rumoured as having seduced Othello’s wife, saying, Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,/Is the immediate jewel of their souls./Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; /’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;/But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed.

In The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witchcraft trials of 1690 as aa-proctor-image commentary on the poison of McCarthyism in 1950s America, John Proctor, the play’s flawed protagonist cries, Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them you have hanged! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

The magistrates, who had hanged a dozen innocent people on the word of hysterical girls, were desperate to get his confession because of his stature in the community and, thinking that they had succeeded, a-crucible-imagebring him the paper to sign so that they might display it for all to see on the church door. But Proctor, ultimately, refuses to blacken the names of the others by denouncing them as witches and, with them, is led to his death.

Naming rituals have been important in all cultures and at all times. Christians confer names at baptism, and some at Confirmation. Hindus, Jews and Muslims all name their children within days or weeks of birth. Many non-believers, too, have secular naming ceremonies. If you’re into secret names, you may wish to join a Wiccan coven where you will receive your Craft-name to be used only among others of your faith during ceremonies performed away from public gaze.

Other secret names are to be found in a variety of sub-cultures; and let us not forget loversa-hidden-name who would be discomfited if their pet-names of, say, Snugglie-poos and Cuddle-cakes were widely known. Not only people, but place-names are causes of dissension: in the province of my birth- Ulster- it is still possible to witness apoplectic arguments over the proper name of the city on the River Foyle- is it Derry or Londonderry? Or Stroke City as local radio presenter, Gerry Anderson dubbed it, as wry acknowledgement of the clunky but widespread usage Derry/Londonderry as a compromise solution to the conundrum.

a-colonial-imagePost-colonial renaming of African and Asian countries and cities has proceeded apace since the mid-twentieth century: are you enjoying a cup of Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka, perhaps as an accompaniment to your tasty Peking duck, a delicacy prepared in Beijing since the imperial era- or do you like something stronger -Bombay Gin, mmm? Even at a parochial level, tempests rage in innumerable tea-cups over the naming or proposed renaming of streets and parks.

And the imbroglio extends to the metaphysical: naming the Deity has been a no-no fora-tetragrammaton pious Jews from Biblical times who refuse to pronounce the ineffable name of God or G-d, as they prefer to put it. It is rendered as the four consonants YHWH or YHVH (known as the tetragrammaton) which transliterates to Yahweh or Jehovah.

It is also unwise to bandy about the name of the Adversary or Devil: the harmless-seeming idiom, speak of the devil! when someone you a-devils-namehave just been talking about puts in an unexpected appearance derives from an earlier saying, speak of the devil and he doth appear.

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night./A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,/And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,/I started with A, So begins The Names, a poem by Billy Collins and he proceeds through the alphabet: it wasn’t until he reached X that I twigged that this was a special poem: (Let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound). The last line, so many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart, underscores the sorrow: a naming of some of those lost on 9/11.a-names-image

So, what’s in a name, Romeo? Quite a lot, actually.


Mr Brown

SQ 102 Roscoe

Entry 102: Roscoe– What would you do with the ring of Gyges? The story goes that Gyges wasa-gyges-ring in service to King Caduales of Lydia as a shepherd when he discovered a ring in a cave after an earthquake uncovered its entrance. The ring conferred invisibility on the wearer so he made his way to the palace where, with the aid of the magical ring, he seduced the queen and murdered the king thereby securing both throne and queen.

Wikipedia takes up the story, In Plato’s The Republic, the tale of the ring of Gyges is described by the character of Glaucon who is the a-glaucon-imagebrother of Plato. Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice. Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate…. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot.

 The ring of Gyges is the basis for The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Rings of power are alsoa-ring the subject of Wagner’s Ring cycle and Tolkein’s, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Of course, the rings symbolise absolute power, and, as Lord Acton so famously observed, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With the corruption attendant on power comes injustice. Injustice is much easier to apprehend than justice, just as evil is more tangible to us than goodness; although, paradoxically perhaps, the most satisfactory outcomes in fact and fiction are when good triumphs over evil.

a-plato-imageAnd, to return to Plato’s Republic, where Glaucon gave the cynical and widespread view that the tendency to evil when one can act without impunity is universal- what did Socrates have to say on the matter? He argued that one who used the ring unjustly was slave to his appetites whereas the just man who refused to use the ring was rationally in control of himself and therefore, happy. But away from the rarefied atmosphere of philosophical speculation, I’m pretty sure the framers of the constitution of the US got it right with the separation of powers. The checks and balances of democratic systems of governance are much preferable to any of the alternatives, however efficient they may, supposedly, be.

I read David Yallop’s, The Day the Laughter Stopped back in 1978 and   I was incensed enougha-roscoe-image by the fate of the silent-film era comedian, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, to write an atypically lengthy song. Atypical, also, in that its content was based on a close reading of another text. Usually my inspiration comes from something fleeting or ephemeral: was it George Eliot who could concoct a complicated narrative from just a glimpse through a doorway of a mundane domestic scene?  At any rate, not only did I write a six-minute plus song but I gave headings to each of the verses utilising Roman numerals: I THE SETTING, II THE PARTY, III THE TELEGRAM, IV DEATH AND THE DOCTORS, V THE POWER GRAB, VI THE TRIALS, VII THE ACQUITTAL AND REACTION OF THE JACKALS, VIII ROSCOE’S FIGHTBACK AND IRONIES OF THE END.

a-starfish-imageWhat really got to me about the Arbuckle story, was that such an egregious instance of injustice took place in the land of the free where the rule of law and separation of powers were supposed to guarantee the liberty of the citizen. Yes, I was rather naïve and idealistic way back then. Now I just weep as I view, and read about, the manifold injustices of the world even as I am being assured that things are getting better all the time. Oh, go on! Tell me the parable of the starfish- you know, where a man asks a child, who is on a beach throwing back into the sea one starfish even though the beach is covered with thousands, what difference will it make? The child answers that it will make a difference to this one.

But what if the child is throwing a crown-of-thorns starfish back onto the Great Barrier Reef? Still, the urge to do something active seems a better response than that of passivity. And, again, I look to the poets to bring into clear focus the issue about which so much has been written, discussed and fought over.

Langston Hughes speaks for all of the oppressed when he says, That Justice is a blinda-blind-justice goddess/Is a thing to which we black are wise:/Her bandage hides two festering sores/That once perhaps were eyes. Israeli poet Yehudi Amichai observes, Out of three or four in the room/One is always standing at the window/ Forced to see the injustice amongst the thorns,/The fires on the hills.

Thank God for the minority who stand at the window and make an effort to correct injustices: who see, and act.



SQ 103 Manolito

Entry 103: Manolito– Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua festered in the heata-central-american-map of Central America during the 70s and 80s. Belize was insulated from the conflicts endemic to the region by the British presence and Panama, as a strategic asset of the US, thanks to its canal, also escaped the worst of the killings increasingly creating headlines in international newspapers.

Costa Rica was a relatively peaceful anomaly; without a standing army and possessing robust democratic institutions, it was spared the horrors of civil conflict and destabilisation by shadowy American forces. Indeed, because of the moral authority bestowed by a country that puts public welfare in the place of military spending, its President was able to address the US congress in in 1987 in these terms,

a-costa-rican-presidentI belong to a small country, that was not afraid to abolish its army in order to increase its strength. In my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter…. Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbours. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed.

 He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize two months after this address. This, was a slap ina-contras-image the face to Ronald Reagan, who had attempted to strong-arm the country into re-militarising and joining in the fight with the right-wing Contras, which he continued to fund covertly in the face of congressional blocks in 1985 to further financial assistance, against the legitimate Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

To all who glorify armed conflict as the art of war, a-denise-imageas a righteous response to ideological threats, I would refer them to Denise Levertov’s poem Misnomer, which refutes this appellation, They speak of the art of war,/ but the arts/ draw their light from the soul’s well,/ and warfare/ dries up the soul and draws its power/ from a dark and burning wasteland.

The darkness, to this day, blankets much of Central America, and the burning wasteland that is the lived experience of millions as we speak, is a screaming indictment of the corruption and violence which drives desperate people to seek refuge across the Rio Grande. As Jude Webber writes in his FT review dated April 6, 2016, of A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America by Oscar Martinez,a-c-a-refugee-imagejpg

 …every day, in an endless stream, more than 1,000 people flee Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras staking everything on a perilous journey north to escape a peacetime now proving more deadly than civil wars that ended two decades ago. The book is a series of extended essays based on his reporting for El Faro, an award-winning Salvadoran online newspaper, and the unflinching cameos it paints offer a chilling portrait of corruption, unimaginable brutality and impunity.

a-killing-imageThe cameos include heart-wrenching stories of sex slavery and merciless retribution when victims who sought help from officials were handed back to the gangs. And this testament to the bravery of an individual who cannot look away,

For Israel Ticas, El Salvador’s only forensic investigator, the quest to dig murder victims out of a well turns into an 805-day nightmare. He has dived into its murky depths and discovers bones and body parts, corroborating testimonies from two turncoat gang members that at least four (but probably many more) victims they had, in gang slang, “taken for a walk”, had been thrown in. It is a race against time: not only must he get the bodies out before rains flood his tunnel, he also needs to do so before the maximum pre-trial detention is up for 43 gang members arrested in connection with the four known bodies. The government lends digging equipment, but swiftly takes it back. The excavation is doomed.

Meanwhile Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican Party in the US, promises toa-trump-image expel 11 million undocumented migrants and then build a wall to keep them out. I can’t believe we’re living in the 21st Century!

 The song, Manolito, emerges from the shock I experienced at witnessing, on the TV news, in late June of 1979, the brutal slaying of American journalist Bill Stewart. I watched as he was a-killing2-imagemade to lie down on the roadway; then a member of Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza’s, National Guard kicked him in the side and shot him in the head killing him instantly.

The outrage following this atrocity led to the fall of the corrupt regime and Somoza’s flight to Paraguay after, of course, he had looted the Guatemalan treasury. There, a Sandinista commando squad assassinated him. The song, written during July, 1979, shows that burning wasteland from the point of view of a young wife speaking to her husband who is visiting his village home for a short while before resuming the guerrilla campaign.



SQ 104 Rosa

Entry 104: Rosa– What do Reinhard Heydrich and Rudolf Hoess have in common aside froma-nazi-image being among the most loathsome exemplars and promoters of the ‘final solution”; that Nazi euphemism for the genocidal mass murder of at least six million Jews between 1933, when Dachau concentration camp opens, and 1945, which is termed the Holocaust, and is one of the darkest events in the history of the world?

Heydrich was the architect of the final solution and Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz. Both cut their teeth, so to speak, as members of the Freikorps- a paramilitary organisation, active in a-nazi-image2the wake of the first world war, in anti-democratic and anti-socialist agitation and assassination. Much has been written about this group and their activities but I came across a rather unusual approach to the subject matter when I read a review by Paul Robinson, a professor of history at Stanford University, of a book entitled, MALE FANTASIES Volume One: Women, Floods, Bodies, History. By Klaus Theweleit published in West Germany in 1977, which had something to say about the psychopathology of men drawn to the Freikorps.

Robinson’s review, published in The New York Times, June 21, 1987, entitled, The Women They Fear states, Klaus Theweleit’s distinctive contribution is to examine the fantasies of the Freikorps soldiers, under the assumption that their intellectual and emotional predilections would explain their behavior. He does so primarily through a close reading of the autobiographies and novels of a select group of Freikorps members… In particular, he draws our attention to the ideas they entertained about women and sex… His central contention is that thea-nazi-image3 Freikorps soldiers were afraid of women. Indeed, not just afraid, they were deeply hostile to them, and their ultimate goal was to murder them. Women, in their view, came in only two varieties: Red and White. The White woman was the nurse, the mother, the sister. She was distinguished above all else by her sexlessness. The Red woman, on the other hand, was a whore and a Communist. She was a kind of distillation of sexuality, threatening to engulf the male in a whirlpool of bodily a-nazi-image4and emotional ecstasy…the Republic had to be destroyed because it empowered the lascivious Red woman, while it failed to protect the White woman’s sexual purity.

 While not entirely convinced by Theweleit’s thesis, Robinson concludes, that in the end he asks us to believe that their hatred of women and fear of sexuality were merely an exaggerated version of what all men feel, or have felt for the past two centuries. And, furthermore, he may have captured a glimpse of our souls.  Good Lord, I hope not mine! What about yours?

And what about Rosa? Today, Rosa Luxemburg seems a quainta-rosa-image fictional character. But she was real; murdered in Berlin on 15 January 1919 by members of the Freikorps. With Karl Liebknecht, co-founder with her of the Spartacist League, which was the forerunner of the Communist Party of Germany, Rosa Luxemburg was captured by the Rifle Division of the Cavalry Guards of the Freikorps. Its commander and deputy questioned them under torture and then gave the order to execute them.

Luxemburg was knocked down with a rifle butt by a soldier, then shot in the head. Her body was flung into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.  In the a-liebnecht-imagenearby Tiergarten, Liebknecht was shot and his body, without a name, brought to a morgue. While not sharing her revolutionary political beliefs, I like Rosa for having written, Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.

 Notice that the male body, although not identified by name, was brought to the morgue while the female body was thrown into the canal without further ado: there may be something in Theweleit’s thesis, after all. I am in a dark section of the journal and I pray for something made from light to help me conclude this distressing entry.

Sometimes, prayers are answered: In 1932 an American housewife and florist, Mary Elizabeth Frye, was moved by the plight of a young Jewish girl, Margaret Swartzkopf, who a-frye2-imagewas warned not to return to Germany to see her dying mother because of the anti-Semitism of the time. Frye wrote these lines to console the weeping girl who, upon the death of her mother, lamented that she could not stand at the graveside and shed a tear. It was only in the late 1990s that the authorship of the following poem was established,

Do not stand at my grave and weep,/I am not there; I do not sleep./I am a thousand winds that blow,/I am the diamond glints on snow,/I am the sun on ripened grain,/I am the gentle autumn rain./When you awaken in the morning’s hush/I am the swift uplifting rush/Of quiet birds in circling flight./I am the soft star-shine at night./Do not stand at my grave and cry,/I am not there; I did not die.



SQ 105 The Morrigan

Entry 105: The MorriganMordor, in J R R Tolkein’s great Lord of the Rings trilogy, is thea-celtic-goddess place of horror. Tolkein, as a philologist, knew that Mor probably derives from an Indo-European root connoting terror and monstrousness. The Morrigan is the phantom queen of Irish mythology- a war goddess who takes on the appearance of a crow over battlefields.

Wikipedia notes that, in one version of Cúchulainn’s death-tale, as Cúchulainn rides to meet his enemies, he encounters the Morrígan as a hag washing his bloody armour in a ford, an omen of his death. Later in the story, mortally wounded, Cúchulainn ties himself to a standing stone with his own entrails so he can die upright, and it is only when a crow lands on his shoulder that his enemies believe he is dead.

a-belfast-firejpgSectarian strife had been building throughout 1969 in Northern Ireland and in August of that year, it became the burning wasteland beloved of war gods and goddesses as riots swept Belfast and Derry and houses went up in flames displacing those whose misfortune it was to live on sectarian interfaces. Among the more problematical things I have done in my lifetime was agreeing to drive, in late August of 1969, a car full of people I did not know but who were termed as refugees from North Queen Street, Belfast, to County Donegal, where there was an Irish Army camp at a place called Finner.

I had been approached by a person who supplied snack machines for the students’ uniona-b-specials-image and he seemed a regular guy; besides, he told me he would be making the humanitarian journey as well. I drove over country backroads, scared shitless that I would be stopped by the B-Specials, a Protestant militia still in force. After getting lost a couple of times, I left off a woman and two children at the camp but, to my surprise, not all the passengers agreed to accept the hospitality of the Irish Army.

a-moira-imageThere were two twenty-something year-old men who decided they were not going to stay in Donegal but would return with me to Belfast. On the way back, the rust-heap, which was the car I had driven for so long, broke down on the M2 on the way back into Belfast.  The naïve student, a.k.a.me, ran to the nearest phone-box and asked for help. Now, I didn’t know that the motorway phones were linked to police stations, did I? When I heard a voice declaring, Moira police, how can I help? I dropped the phone and started to gulp like a fish out of water- oh, I was, I was!

While I was floundering on the shoulder of the motorway who should turn up, but thea-m2-night-image vending machine salesman who told me I was as stupid as a sack of shit. In no time he had tied a rope to our stricken vehicle and towed it to an off-ramp and into the outer suburbs where it was abandoned on a side-street. He later drove me to the city centre and told me he never wanted to see me again.

a-bedsitAt the beginning of the academic year 1969-1970, I rented a bedsit near Carlisle Circus in Belfast and quickly settled into a diet of beer and potato crisps. My cousin, Elizabeth, who was working in the city, had a flat up a flight of stairs from me and, occasionally, would arrange to feed me something more substantial. A journalist with The Belfast Telegraph occupied the flat across the landing from me and books were piled everywhere, overflowing tables, chairs and bookcases. He drank a lot, too, and we often talked about the scuttlebutt swirling around the streets: were black taxis containing British assassination duos real or part of the general paranoia?

And, just before I left for a visit home at Christmas that year, were the IRA really going toa-belfast-stree split in two, with a more militant faction gearing up to escalate the conflict?  The city that I had been visiting for several years as a teen because it was vibrant, music-filled and exciting became a shadowed place of menace where a once open and inclusive nightlife shrivelled into closed, claustrophobic sectarian venues controlled by paramilitary groups.

Following my restricted diet, I became less and less well and my girlfriend, now wife, prevailed upon me to seek medical advice. I was a-mater-hospital-detailadmitted to the Mater Hospital on the Crumlin Road in July of 1970. My reception was frosty, to say the least. I had bulging protuberances on my neck which were assumed to be evidence of mononucleosis by the Nuns of the hospital. When they were told, that, far from being a kissing bandit, I was a victim of sarcoidosis, their demeanour warmed remarkably.

During my weeks in hospital I was visited by friends and family. Among my visitors were a couple of musos from the College who had followed the trail laid down by the Beatles by gigging in Hamburg, too. We played a few riffs and shared a few laughs, and, at that time, I started to write the song that would later be entitled, The Morrigan. This is one of my earliest apocalyptic songs.


The Morrigan