SQ 81 The Holy Ground

Entry 81: The Holy Ground– It is 1816, a sailing ship limps past Roche’s Point, its rigging alla-storm-image torn. Exhausted mariners, returning after months at sea, perform their duties in desultory fashion but begin to perk up as they round Spike Island and spot the rows of terraces rising above the quay in Cove.

They swarm ashore and make for the places of entertainment for lonely and thirsty sailors in the section of town known as The Holy Ground. a-holy-ground-imageSoon they make the rafters roar with their shouts and songs, calling for strong ale and porter as the serving girls move among them, sometimes tumbling into the willing lap of a lusty tar.

Meanwhile, further to the north a popular young graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, called Charles Wolfe, is putting the finishing touches to his manuscript of a poem destined to become one of the most memorised throughout the English-speaking world.

I refer, of course, to The Burial of Sir Thomas Moore, after Corruna,  and give the opening anda-burial-image closing verses here,

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,/As his corse to the rampart we hurried;/Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot/O’er the grave where our hero we buried./We buried him darkly at dead of night,/The sods with our bayonets turning;/By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light/And the lantern dimly burning.//No useless coffin enclosed his breast,/Nor in sheet nor in shroud we wound him,/But he lay like a warrior taking his rest/With his martial cloak around him./…But half of our heavy task was done/When the clock struck the hour for retiring;/And we heard the distant and random gun/That the foe was sullenly firing./Slowly and sadly we laid him down,/From the field of his fame fresh and gory;/We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,/But left him alone with his glory.

a-cemetery-imageLittle did the poet know what an impact his poem would have throughout the world, and little did he know that just seven years later, he would find his rest in Old Church Cemetery outside Cobh, at age 31, having died of consumption.

In due course, he would be joined by Sir James Roche Verling, personal physician to Napoleon Bonaparte during his exile on St Helena, also, Fredrick Daniel Parslow, VC, the first member of the Mercantile Marine to receive the award and the remains of 193 victims of RMS Lusitania, sunk by a German torpedo in 1915 with a loss of over 1,100 lives.

This town was the first and last port of call of RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912.a-cobh-image This port also served to transport prisoners to the penal colonies of Australia. Robert Hume, writing in The Irish Examiner of March 10, 2015, explained the circumstances surrounding the first transport:

In March 1791, Henry Browne Hayes, Sherriff of Cork City, was put in charge of arranging the first transportation of Irish convicts to New South Wales. For the trip, he chose the Queen – a small, three-masted square-rigged vessel… For the next five months, prisoners and soldiers alike had to endure rancid food, and the stench of foul water and excrement. Each convict had only 18 inches of space to sleep in… within eight months, only 50 of a-coffin-ship-imagethe 122 male convicts were still alive… An enquiry into what had gone wrong unearthed scandal upon scandal. Captain Owen had purchased from Cork merchants the cheapest possible food for the crossing, but charged the Navy as much as he thought he could get away with… In April 1801, exactly 10 years after the Queen had sailed from Cork, the organizer of this monumental cock-up, Sir Henry Browne Hayes, was brought to trial for abducting a wealthy heiress. He was found guilty, but instead of the death penalty, the judge showed “mercy” – by transporting him, appropriately enough, to Botany Bay.

The Holy Ground is a powerful trope. In Exodus 3:5, the episode of the burning bush, Goda-holy-image tells Moses to take off his sandals as he is standing on holy ground.  In my mind, and in the lyrics of songs I have written, it represents a place of power, of belonging and of solace.

Variously, it has been the Glens of Antrim or Aruba, that small island in the Caribbean, but, for a long time now, almost half my life, it’s been Australia. I think, too, parents seek to “ground” their children in wisdom, sometimes by offering advice prefaced by statements such as, when I was your age.

Older children, often adults, will ask parents for insights such as, what was it like when you were a kid? When my first-born son died in 1989, aged 15, in a motorbike accident,

a-celtic-love-symbolI hadn’t had the time to offer too much in the way of sage advice and he didn’t live long enough to seek information about a long-distant past.

The phrase, when I was older than you, tells of all the years he will never experience, all the sights he will never see, all the sounds he will never hear, and alas, all the love he will never give or receive.

 

The Holy Ground

SQ 82 Saturday Night

Entry 82: Saturday Night– Want a cushy pop culture question? OK- name three songs witha-sn-image the words Saturday Night in the title? Too easy! Saturday Night at the Movies by the Drifters; Saturday Night’s Alright (for fighting) by Elton John and Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees.

The ever-informative Wikipedia tells me that Saturday, the name, was selected as a calque of the god Saturn, after whom the planet was named. What is a calque? Well, wouldn’t you know: there was a hyperlink which I clicked to discover, In linguistics, a “calque” or “loan translation” is a word or phrase borrowed from another language byliteral, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.

a-skyscraper-image One of the most common examples of a calque is the English word skyscraper. In Armenian it’s yerk-n-a-ker, or “sky-scratcher”; in German, Wolkenkratzer or “clouds-scraper”; while in Vietnam such a structure is referred to as nha choc troi  or “sky-poking building”.

But, back to Saturday: it gets its name from the Roman god, Saturn and the planet of the same name. In Roman mythology, Saturn is the god of agriculture, leader of the titans, founder of civilisations, social order, and conformity. But, before the Saturnists among you get too big a head over this, listen to what Marcus Manilius, a 1st Century poet has to say, Saturn is sad, morose, and cold, and is the greater malefic. (For those who have forgotten the basics from Astrology 101, the greater malefic is a reference to one of the twoa-saturn-image planets which bring bad luck, namely, Saturn, which, of course, leaves Mars, as the lesser malefic.)

Not to be out-done for weirdness, Claudius Ptolemy, a 2nd Century writer asserts, Saturn is lord of the right ear, the spleen, the bladder, the phlegm, and the bones. But beating them all for the Wacko Cup is a work called Sefer Yetzirah, a Jewish document dating, perhaps, from as early as the 2nd Century BC, He made the letter Resh king over Peace And He bound a crown to it And He combined one with another And with them He formed Saturn in the Universe Friday in the Year The left nostril in the Soul, male and female.

a-saturnalia-imageIn a manuscript in the British Museum, the Sefer Yetzirah is declared to be esoteric lore not accessible to anyone but the really pious. Which probably explains why I can’t make head nor tale of it. Like most, I revel in the obvious, and what’s really obvious about Saturday night is its relationship to the Roman festival which was held on December 17th – Saturnalia.

The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slavesThe poet Catullusa-cattulus-image called it “the best of days”.

 Which he had too few of, alas, dying at about 30 years of age, like so many poets. Not much survives, apart from 116 poems. We don’t know a whole lot about his life but there are at least a couple of poems, the fame of which, live down the millennia. One, addressed to his mistress, Lesbia, tells of their relationship. It starts with a brief and startling statement, Odi et amo- I hate and I love.

It continues, Perhaps you ask why I do this? I do not know but I feel it happening to me and I am burning up. Another famous three-word statement, ave atque vale, hail and farewell, provides the ending of a famous elegiac poem written when Catullus travelled to the grave of his brother, near the site of Troy.

Carried through many nations and many seas,/I arrive, Brother, at these miserable funeral rites,/So that I might bestow you with the final gift of death/And might speak in vain to the silent ash/…And forever, Brother, hail and farewell.

 a-sn2-imageSaturday night continues to embody aspects of Saturnalia: the shackles of the week are thrown off and the first day of the weekend culminates in festive darkness where possibilities proliferate. Or not! In any case, the prospect of a lie-in on Sunday before resuming the work-a-day drudgery of employment or school, will assuage, one hopes, the disappointments that are more likely than not to have been the outcome of the lottery of Saturday night.

The song recalls my early teen years in Aruba where risk-taking was de rigueur. I ran with a bunch of older kids who loved to show-off their new cars, bought by indulgent parents for their 16th. Just going to the movies, Mum! As if the celluloid facsimile could ever compare to the invitation of Saturday night itself.

As Langston Hughes put it, Play it once./O, play some more./Charlie is a gambler/An’ Sadie is a whore./A glass o’ whiskey/An’ a glass o’ gin:/Strut, Mr. Charlie,/Till de dawn comes in. Hey! Hey!/Ho, Hum!/Do it, Mr. Charlie,/Till de red dawn come.a-juke-joint-image

 Saturday night was such a good time, Saturday nights when I was young.

 

Saturday Night

SQ 83 Hiroshima

Entry 83: Hiroshima– What links Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, mystic and writer with ana-link-image international reputation; Stephen Fry, writer, TV presenter and quizmaster of the popular show QI and Jacob Beser, radar specialist on the aircraft Enola Gay and Bockscar?

They all impacted or commented upon the life and experience of , a modest Japanese engineer who avoided publicity for decades, choosing instead to raise his family away from the glare of the limelight, which he a-atomic-imagecould have claimed early, had he so chosen.

Mr Yamaguchi who died in 2010 aged 93, survived both atomic blasts; first, in Hiroshima, then, three days later, in Nagasaki. They had a big laugh about it on QI in December 2010, commenting that the bomb just bounced off his head while the host speculated about whether he was the luckiest or unluckiest man alive.

Not that any offence was intended, of course, but sometimes, with the best of intentions (see info about the road to hell, etc.), misunderstandings do arise. One of these concerns the work, Original Child Bomb, by Thomas Merton- a supposed poem (although it comprises a series of prose statements about the context, development and use of the bomb.)a-merton2-image

Here is the first statement, or stanza, if you wish, 1. In the year 1945 an Original Child was born. The name Original Child was given to it by the Japanese people, who recognized that it was the first of its kind. Except, it wasn’t: according to Wikipedia, the phrase “original child bomb” was derived from the Japanese term for the atom bomb, genshi bakudan. Genshi, which means “atom,” contains root characters which, when rendered individually, can be taken to mean “original” and “child.” Merton’s poem claims that the Japanese called the weapon the “original child bomb” because the bomb was the first of its kind. It is unlikely, however, that native Japanese speakers would have translated genshi as such, or that the phrase “original child bomb” was ever used by the Japanese.

 a-beser-imageStill, there’s a 2004 English-language documentary with that name, so it must be true. And so, to the third person mentioned in opening- Jacob Beser. He was the person of the trio mentioned who probably had the most profound effect on Tsutoma Yamaguchi.

As the on-board specialist responsible for ensuring that the electronic conditions for detonation of the bombs were optimal, Jacob Beser can claim total success. Both Little Boy and Fat Man (the names given to the devices of mass destruction) exploded over their assigned targets- Hiroshima and Nagasaki at shortly after eight fifteen and eleven o’clock in the morning respectively.

As a life-long employee working for the military-industrial complex of the United States, Mr Beser never expresseda-pearl-harbour-image any regret for his part in these historic events: I feel no sorrow or remorse for whatever small role I played… I remember Pearl Harbor and all of the Japanese atrocities…I don’t want to hear any discussion of morality. War, by its very nature, is immoral. Are you any more dead from an atomic bomb than from a conventional bomb?

 But let’s leave the last words to the survivor of both blasts, Tsutomu Yamaguchi. As mentioned previously, this unassuming employee of the Mitsubishi corporation shunned publicity for decades. In his daughter Toshiko’s words, he was so healthy, he thought it would have been unfair to people who were really sick.

a-atomic2-imageHowever, he did endure the cancer-related deaths of his wife, Hisako, and son, Katsutoshi, as well as the life-long illnesses of both his daughters before succumbing to stomach cancer himself. Gradually, he began to realise that he had a responsibility to future generations and he became engaged in anti-nuclear weapons activities.

In the documentary Nijuuhibaku (Twice Bombed, Twice Survived), screened at the United Nationsa-atomic3-image in 2006 he’s finally able to weep, in his 80s, as he recalls watching bloated corpses floating in the city’s rivers and encountering the walking dead of Hiroshima, whose melting flesh hung like ‘giant gloves.’  He resorted to poetry over the years to try to encompass his experience usually tanka, 31-syllable poems.

In 1969 he wrote, Thinking of myself as a phoenix,/I cling on until now,/But how painful they have been/ the years past. According to The Economist obituary of January 14, 2010, He wrote hundreds, each one an ordeal. When he composed them, he would dream of the dead lying on the ground. One by one, they would get up and walk past him. Carbonised bodies face-down in the nuclear wasteland/all the a-atomic4-imageBuddhas died,/and never heard what killed them.

 At 90, on his first trip abroad…in front of the UN, he pleaded for a non-nuclear world, If there exists a God who protects/nuclear-free eternal peace/the blue earth won’t perish.

 Amen, to that.

 

Hiroshima

SQ 84 …Your 32nd Birthday

Entry 84: (on what would have been) Your 32nd BirthdayPawn yo’ gold watch/An’ diamonda-juke-joint2-image ring./Git a quart o’ licker,/Let’s shake dat thing!/Skee-de-dad! De-dad!/Doo-doo-doo!/Won’t be nothin’ left/When de worms git through/An’ you’s a long time Dead/When you is/Dead, too./So beat dat drum, boy!/Shout dat song:/Shake ’em up an’ shake ’em up/All night long.

This is the middle section of Langston Hughes’ poem Saturday Night. I used the opening and conclusion of the poem to close Entry 82. The exuberant shout against mortality is one response, and one I admire. Here’s another take a-shel-imageon the matter from the song Still Gonna Die by Shel Silverstein,

Drink ginseng tonics, you’re still gonna die./Try high colonics, you’re still gonna die./You can have yourself  frozen and suspended in time,/But when they do thaw you out, you’re still gonna die.

 For a more solemn view, you may wish to visit or re-visit the great elegy by Thomas Gray, Written in a Countrya-elegy-image Graveyard, which opens, The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,/The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea/The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,/And leaves the world to darkness and to me. There are so many memorable lines in this justly famous poem, but these four lines will serve to illustrate the quality of the whole,

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,/And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,/Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour,/The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

a-donne-imageJohn Donne, in his own inimitable way, defies the grim reaper, DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so. In the sestet of his sonnet, he scorns the power of death and affirms his own adamantine faith,

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,/ And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,/And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?/ One short sleep past, we wake eternally/ And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.  

 Ah, the power of poetry, the wonder of words.a-breugel-image

Brueghel the Elder’s contemporaneous The Triumph of Death must give one pause, though. Stand, if you will, before this panorama of desolation, painted on panel measuring 117cm x 162 cm and read it from left to right, top to bottom. Two skeletons toll the death of humanity as fires pour out palls of smoke from hills and ships burning in a bay while ashore skeletal figures ride famished horses as they hunt down peasants fleeing in despair.

a-b3-imageBodies hang from trees and gallows while carrion birds wheel above. Skeleton armies swarm in the middle-ground, herding the masses into a false sanctuary marked with a cross as a pair of skeletons frame this section- one on a wagon filled with skulls, plays the hurdy-gurdy while the other beats triumphantly on a pair of timpani.

Along the bottom of the painting a king vainly tries to prevent the looting of his treasury; in the centre a hound chews on the face of a child and a skeletal assassin cuts the throat of a supine man. The feast on the right has been interrupted by the forces of desolation: the stools upended, the cards scattered, the cup overturned.

A fool tries to crawl under the table as a demon empties the flasks of wine; a skeletona-b4-image grapples with a young woman in a parody of an amorous embrace as, in the lower right corner of the painting, a pair of young lovers, oblivious, sing from a musical manuscript to the accompaniment of a lute. At last! A sign of hope, you gasp…sorry, see that death’s head reading the music over her shoulder?

The dance of death is also depicted in the woodcuts of Hans Holbein and in the music of Saint-Saens whose Danse Macabre, a tone poem written in 1874 in the key of G minor, which, despite initial critical rejection, lives on in the repertoire and in adaptations such as the theme for the TV series Jonathan Creek.

On a more personal level, people give and acquire memorabilia associated with death. In Shakespeare’s time it was not unusual to have memorial rings made to be given to the favoured few- a pity it is not still a widespread custom. We, ourselves, have a score or more memorial cards of those family members and friends we have lost over the years.

a-solstice-imageOver the past 27 years I have written nine songs specifically in remembrance of my son who died at age 15 years. They take different forms but are all part of an ongoing engagement on my part with him. If we can’t go to the pub or sit out on the back veranda and shoot the breeze, then, at least, I can let him know how things are going, as in this 2005 song where I bring him up to date on what has been happening within the family group.

I started writing it on 19th December of that year and finished it two days later on the summer solstice, his birthday. And, no, I will never get over his death.

 

(on what would have been) Your 32nd Birthday

SQ 85 Spray

Entry 85: Spray– A billion years ago, in a distant galaxy, two massive black holes began aa-black-hole-event Brobdingnagian dance. As they made mutual approach at half the speed of light, they circled one another 250 times a second before colliding with explosive effect releasing more energy in a fifth of a second than that of all the stars in the universe.

Not comparable to the big bang, but prodigious enough all the same. Meanwhile, here on earth, green algae were about to make the scene. Fast a-black-hole-musicforward a billion years and normally sedate scientists are dancing a jig because, after 44 years of trying, their super-computers detected the infinitesimal movement of mirrors in big L-shaped arrays in Washington state and Louisiana. The discovery of gravitational waves that register as middle C in the scale means that we can now listen to the cosmos and may even be able to hear the sounds of the birth of the universe at the point of creation.a-nerd-image

Pretty cool all round for the nerds among us- the meek-mannered pointy-heads are, indeed about to inherit the earth. Meanwhile, back among the knuckle-draggers, I froth and fume over macro stuff like injustice, destruction of habitat and general hypocrisy as well as micro stuff like personal regret, ageing and general dissolution.

For me, T. S. Eliot set the scene for this sort of navel-gazing with a-tavern-scenehis world-weary Sweeney Among the Nightingales, written in 1918 where his protagonist relaxes in a low bar somewhere in South America, Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees/ Letting his arms hang down to laugh. One of the ladies of the establishment makes her play, Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees/Slips and pulls the table cloth/Overturns a coffee cup. An air of diffuse menace pervades the poem as, The waiter brings in oranges/bananas figs and hot-house grapes.

 The stars above are veiled by cloud and Sweeney hears nightingales sing near a convent as they sang millennia ago when Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon in his bath. Eliot expands and elaborates on this milieu in his masterly 1920 poem The Love Song of J Alfreda-prufrock-scene Prufrock.

When I first read these poems in Belfast in the autumn term of 1968, I felt superior to and sorry for J Alfred and Apeneck. Had I bothered to attend the relevant lectures I would probably have learned that Sweeney’s appellation was pronounced Ape Neck and not Ah pen eck. For a few years I laboured under the misapprehension that Sweeney was likely the product of an Irish father and a middle-European mother, perhaps a dark-eyed fortune-teller from exotic Bratislava.

a-footmanBut I was young, arrogant, ignorant and cursed with the idea that I had some talent for writing. Not for me then, (heaven forfend!) merely the role of an attendant lord; and further still in the future, even a dim understanding of the lines,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,/ I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;/ I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/ And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.

 Let’s not forget the kicker, And in short, I was afraid.

 When did I become such a pusillanimous poltroon?

As a kid in Aruba, I explored caves and abandoned phosphate mines, snorkelled over reefsa-cave-image patrolled by barracuda, where conger and moray eels lurked, built rafts and launched out, oblivious of dangers, into the Caribbean Sea, accepted dares to leap off roofs and run buck naked along the beach road as people at the Esso Club gaped.

Today, fear masquerades as apathy- I don’t want to do that, go there, meet them or talk to you. I watch myself become more careful: careful not to drive too fast, careful not to drink or eat too much, careful not to give offence- and I hate myself for it.

a-water-imageOne of my favourite authors is Raymond Carver. Fear pervades So Much Water So Close to Home, one of the most chilling accounts of death- first, that of a young woman and then trust in a relationship. Paul Kelly, arguably Australia’s best songwriter, penned a song based on this short story. Raymond Carver was a poet as well as a writer of short stories and he wrote about fear in verse, too.

Fear this day will end on an unhappy note./Fear of waking up to find you gone./Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough/.Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love./Fear of death./Fear of living too long./Fear of death./I’ve said that.

 I hope that the explosive mating of two black holes a billion years ago where three solara-cosmic-blast masses turned to pure energy sending ripples through space-time will somehow shift the mirrors of my soul infinitesimally so that I see reflected someone still recognisably me but somehow altered for the better as I find the words to express more confidence than I presently possess, and fashion the notes to be able to sing a better tune rising from middle C.

 

Spray

SQ 86 Ballyhootry

Entry 86: BallyhootryOdi et Amo– the slogan from Latin sums up how I feel about my native land. I love its natural beauty, its literature and aspects of its history and I hate its insularity, its banality and its sectarianism.a-ireland-image

Not Robinson Crusoe there, son! I hear a chorus of ghosts shout in a variety of accents. Other people have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis, Brendan Behan bellows. Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall, notes Oliver Goldsmith, while Samuel Johnston observes, The Irish are a fair people, they never speak well of one another. One could go on, ad nauseam,

a-rain-imageSo I’ll close this quote-fest by reference to that fine novel about modern Ireland, Niall Williams’, History of the Rain, The history of Ireland in two words: Ah well… In the Aeneid, Virgil tells it as Sunt lacrimae rerum, which in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation means ‘They weep for how the world goes’, which is more eloquent than Ah well but means the same thing.

 Nativity does not equal identity, though, unless you stay where you were born. I spent mya-aruba-image primary and junior secondary years in a small island called Aruba, located just off the coast of Venezuela and close to the vast oil deposits of Lake Maracaibo. We lived in “The Colony”, a walled Caucasian enclave built by the oil company, Standard Oil of New Jersey for its white American and European employees on the south-west tip of the island adjacent to the oil refinery.

And it shaped me right down to the strange accent I still have, a puzzling amalgam of American, Northern Irish and Australian notes that often prompts listeners to enquire as to my place of origin. At times, scenes and events from those formative years’ pop into consciousness, unbidden.a-aruba2-image

One such vignette finds me at about 11 years of age, walking barefoot on the water pipes above the coral and cactus scrubland that was a feature of the Colony. Below me, sunning itself on a rock ledge, was the most beautiful snake- coiled with a pink-patterned stripe running down its iridescent blue-scaled back.

I paused to look more closely and it slipped silently away leaving me wondering whether I had dreamed the encounter. Some days later, I was out the back of the bowling alley chatting with the Aruban pin-boys. They were all young men in their twenties. They gathered the pins knocked down by the bowlers and re-set them in their cradles- this was the time before automated systems had reached the island.

A couple were on a smoking break and I told them about the encounter. One smiled anda-smoking-image said, ah, Cascabel. He went on to explain that I had seen the elusive Aruban rattlesnake, which I subsequently learned has been placed on the critically endangered list, there being little more than 200 individuals still alive in its singular habitat.

a-bowling-imageSome of the jocks and college boys returning for a vacation would visit the bowling alley for a game: not merely 10-pin bowling, though. They would send the bowling ball hurtling down the lane as fast as they could, with maximum possible spin. The result was the pins exploding off their sets and spinning upwards among the machinery.

They delighted in hearing the screams of pin-boys when hit by one of the flying bowling pins. Quick quiz: which is the more venomous, the rattlesnake with the lovely name of Cascabel or the raucous frat boys. Let’s rinse the sounds of bigotry from our ears by listening to this short poem written by Dwight Isebia in Papiamento, the musical creole language spoken by native Arubans.

KAÍDA Ta mihor nunka/ bo a bira para/ pa haña hala/y bula bai// Pasobra duru/ ta e kaída/p’esuna-falling-image ku ta kere/ ku e no por kai Now, for the English translation, THE FALL It would have been better if you had not become a bird to get the wings and to be able to fly away. As for the person thinking that he cannot fall, falling is very hard.

We flew away to Ireland at the beginning of 1979. And the dreams began. The ghost-gums, the Illawarra escarpment, body-surfing at North Wollongong, picnics at the dams, the long dusty roads of western NSW and the poetry.

Henry Kendall, in Bell-birds, captured the feeling, So I might keep in the city and alleys/The beauty and strengths of the deep mountain valleys,/Charming to slumber the pain of my losses/With glimpses of creeks and a vision of mosses.a-bellbirds-image

 Much as W. B. Yeats did a few years after Kendall’s death in the much better known, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, …for always night and day/ I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/ While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,/ I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

 Now, I want to travel to those places that provide balm for the deep heart’s core.

And if I don’t get back to the sacred sites in Aruba or Ireland, this mantra will do instead: ah well, Cascabel.

 

Ballyhootry

SQ 87 All I Did

Entry 87: All I Did- Twenty years ago, I finished writing and recording enough songs toa-cassette-tape consider putting them together on a cassette tape- remember those? Even then they were beginning to get a bit old- but, hey, so was I. All I Did was one of those songs. I decided to weave the songs into a little story to celebrate: Want to hear it?

I first heard of the Paraclete Mine when I was a boy of fifteen. Visiting my great-aunt at the Seven Pines nursing home just west of Sydney was a tedious monthly duty and we were sitting on the veranda watching the mist forming over the Blue Mountains. An elderly man was engaged in colloquy with unseen persons (a not unusual feature of the home).

 a-man-imageFrom time to time he would turn our way and include me in his circle of conversation. Pliant by nature, I found it little strain to take on a series of bit-parts in his fantasy. Indeed, it was a welcome diversion, as my aged relative was deep in the coils of dementia and was only playing reluctant host to a number of physiological functions: higher mental processes being, alas, absent.

 From what I could glean he was originally from somewhere in Central America (he had a slight accent, I noted). As a member of a paramilitary unit he was involved in reprisals against various outlaw groups. His last sortie (so he called it- I had always assumed it to be a term applied to air-strikes rather than ground action) was an act of vengeance for the ambush of a militia colonel.

 He wept as he told me of shooting a young woman in the back of the head- something he hada-mouse-image always drawn the line at hitherto. Gradually, he sank into a tangled fugue, berating politicians, calling people dancing mice and imploring the emperor to return. At this point a couple of staff members appeared and led him off. Upon reaching the door he turned and said in a clear, calm voice, “I’ll see you again, young man, at the Paraclete Mine.” I thought no more of it.

 Years passed. I got married, had the regulation boy and girl and settled down to a respectable, if dull, life as a minor academic in a small and fusty department of an unnoteworthy tertiary institution in the city. For our twenty-fifth wedding a-bag-snatcheranniversary I took my wife to a fashionable motel. As we were walking across the car-park a young lout appeared from nowhere and snatched her handbag. I gave unconvincing chase, then gave up. Have you ever noticed the way that things go wrong in series rather than singly?

 Although I had booked a table in advance, we were constrained to wait at the bar until one became available. Perched on a stool next to me was the parts-manager of a small electronics plant which had relocated to our area. It was obvious that he had been there a while and, with the facile camaraderie of the habitual drinker, he chose me as hisa-bar-image sympathetic auditor. He was frightened that he would soon be out of a job- what about his family? What was he to do? Hadn’t he had enough misfortune in life? What happened to the glories of youth with fast cars and parties?

 My perfunctory responses must have penetrated his alcoholic haze because he soon decided that he could get a better hearing elsewhere. He stumbled from his stool with: “Stuff you, mate- you’ll never find the Paraclete Mine.” And he left. Something stirred in memory but I paid scant notice to his a-bar-bandutterance and we were soon at dinner.  The local combo, The Moonglow Quintet, had been delayed and the motel had, for some reason, installed a filler act- a young man from Belfast who fancied himself as a bit of a bard.

 He regaled us with a bewildering potpourri of self-penned songs and readings from currently fashionable poets which were interspersed with autobiographical snippets in that flat, nasal drone so unlike the mellifluous brogue of, say, Dubliners. He was not a success. The patrons let him know it, ever so subtly, of course, and, as he was leaving, I offered him some advice about how to please an audience.a-mic-image

 He listened, smiling all the while, and then said: “I’ll get a better hearing at the Paraclete Mine.” I’ll confess I was shaken at this repetition of the gnomic trope but soon after, my wife grasped my hand and led me onto the dance floor as the resident band were now set up for the evening’s dancing. Then something crashed inside my head- and there was noise and confusion.

 All this took place years ago. I am told this exercise is good for me. I am not so sure; I prefer to listen to William Bonney tell me about his exploits in the a-mine-imageAmerican southwest. He is an uncommonly amusing person (apart from his predilection for coprophagy, which I do not usually share).

 The doctors keep quizzing me about the Paraclete Mine. They think it is the key to my mental state. And yet, there is so much else to tell. There is a whole universe of meaning, however constructed, out there lying.

All I Did

SQ 88 I Was Taking a Lend of You

Entry 88: I Was Taking a Lend of You Student life is good in all sorts of ways: you get to trya-scholars-image out different versions of who you might be- or at least it was like that at the end of the 1960s in Belfast. I got involved in student politics and for a couple of years I tried on this version of me.

It was a lot of fun, going to conferences, becoming part of this or that cabal, travelling, drinking, arguing hazy, idealistic positions. But politics in the real world ground to a halt with the proroguing of Stormont and the shift to a-scholars2-imagea more tribal alignment within the student version meant that my exit from this world of bubbles was more precipitate than it otherwise would have been- but I would have bailed in any event.

Politics were not for me, but I have always remained fascinated with the antics and manoeuvrings of those who seek to climb the greasy pole of political ambition. That so many aspirants remain fundamentally decent and relatively uncorrupted is one of the testaments to the democratic process although democracy seems under threat more now than ever before.

During the Cold War era from 1945-1991, when it was the democratic west opposing thea-mad-image communist east, the spectre of the mushroom cloud was in the back of every intelligent mind but the core of democratic values remained uncracked. Now, we wonder: in the aftermath of 9/11, the hunt for Bin Laden involving the invasion of Afghanistan had widespread popular support even if later polls have swung the other way. But the sequel, the invasion of Iraq was a bridge too far for popular opinion in Australia and the UK as well as in the US. The world shouted NO! And we know what happened.

While generally sceptical of conspiracy theories and subscribing to the alternative cock-up interpretation of history, I get an uncomfortable feeling that there may well be powerful forces in the background shaping events to their hidden agendas.

a-new-order-imageThat wittiest of essayists, Gore Vidal, long held that power in the US did not reside in the legislature or with the Presidents, whom he characterised as Banksmen, but with- you guessed it, the Banks. Others cite the Illuminati, the New World Order, etc. as the powers in the background and you could spend a lifetime reading all the texts exposing these deeper truths.

I choose, instead, to listen to artists for the truth: All except for Cain and Abel and thea-hunchback-image Hunchback of Notre Dame, Everybody’s making love or else expecting rain, explains Bob Dylan in Desolation Row. If the truth is Quasimodo, swinging down from the bell-tower in an, ultimately, vain attempt to save the innocence of the world personified by the beautiful Esmerelda, then, Captain Phoebus must represent the shadowy powers as he watches the execution of the hapless heroine even though he could, had he so chosen, have proved her guiltless of his supposed murder.

a-esmerelda-imageIn Victor Hugo’s novel, Quasimodo recovers the body of Esmerelda and pines away clutching his beloved. The synopsis in Wikipedia delivers the denouement, years later, an excavation group exhumes both their skeletons which have become intertwined. When it tries to separate them, Quasimodo’s bones crumble into dust.

There is another Quasimodo, however, who may shed light on the mystery that is the world. Salvatore Quasimodo was an Italian poet of some note: he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1959. During World War Two he was an anti-Fascist, not the most comfortable stance in the Italy of that time. He started as a hermetic poet, a movement that developed between the World Wars, anda-s-q-image here Wikipedia takes up the story,

Major features of this movement were reduction to essentials, abolishment of punctuation, and brief, synthetic compositions, at times resulting in short works of only two or three verses…Man lives in an incomprehensible world, ravaged by wars and enslaved by dictatorships, therefore the poet has a disheartened vision of life, without illusions, and repudiates the word as an act of communication in order to give it an evocative sense only…hermetic poetry is poetry of moods, of interior reflection expressed by a subdued and pensive tone, through a refined and evocative language, concealing direct intimations to experience in a play of allusions.

A lot of this stuff I found too hard or too obscure to bother with, but there is a poem that hooked me as soon as I read it: Quasimodo’s ED E’ SUBITO SERA: Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della a-s-q2-imageterra/trafitto da un raggio di sole:/ed è subito sera: Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world/pierced by a ray of sunlight,/and suddenly it is evening.

I wrote the song, I Was Taking a Lend of You as an acknowledgement that we are being played by those we know as well as those we know of and also those we don’t know exist. And suddenly it is evening…

 

I Was Taking A Lend Of You

SQ 89 Woman in Blue

Entry 89: Woman in Blue What is it with uniforms? Women are said to be partial… What red-blooded boy had not dreamt of being a dashing Hussara-cuirasser-image, resplendent in shining breastplate, astride a warhorse decked out in regimental colours charging the enemy line? The empires of Europe with their Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars provided ample material for dreams of glory as young men yearned for their place in the Imperial sun.

Their’s not to reason why,/ Theirs’s but to do and die:/ Into the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred./ Cannon to right of them,/ Cannon to left of them,/ Cannon in front of them/ Volley’d and thunder’d;/Storm’d at with shot and shell,/ Boldly they rode and well,/ Into the jaws of Death,/ Into the mouth of Hell/ Rode the six hundred.

a-brigade-imageTennyson has immortalised those Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars that made up the Light Brigade as they charged the Russian cannon at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War on October 25, 1854. In a wax cylinder recording of 1890, you can hear trumpeter Martin Landfried, who saw action in the battle as part of the 17th Lancers, play the charge on the bugle used on the day (and which, incidentally, had also been sounded at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815).

The recording was made, not for commercial release, but to aid the Light Brigade Reliefa-bardolf-image Fund as, by this time, many of the heroes had fallen on hard times. Not an unusual story. Shakespeare created these sorts of characters in the persons of Nym, Pistol and Bardolf who were friends of Henry V in his youth.

Let’s listen to their noble friend rally the troops before Agincourt,

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,/Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,/And rouse him at the name of Crispian./He that shall live this day, and see old age,/Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,/And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”/Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,/And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”/Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,/But he’ll remember, with advantages,/What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,/Familiar in his a-henv-imagemouth as household words—/Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,/Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—/Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red./This story shall the good man teach his son;/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,/From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be remembered-/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition;/And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 But they got scant reward for their service in his war- indeed, Bardolph is hanged on Henry’s order for stealing from a church, Nym also reported as executed for looting and Pistol vows to desert and return to England as a thief and pimp.

I read somewhere that Rudyard Kipling missed out on Imperial honours because hea-atkins-image referred to Queen Victoria as the widow of Windsor as a reference to all the men killed in her service. Nevertheless, his depiction of Tommy Atkins as the quintessential British squaddie who is despised in peace time but feted when the war drums begin to beat, steers a course between the romantic square-jawed young grenadier of propaganda posters and the syphilitic scoundrel who enlists to escape imprisonment or worse,

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;/But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,/ The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play/Oh it’s “thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play.

 
a-cardigan-imageAnd the band, indeed, plays different tunes for different dancers. Lord Cardigan, who led the charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, survived. He didn’t take time out, though, to succour the wounded heroes of the charge nor did he seek to rally and affirm those who had, somehow, survived unscathed.

No, this is what he did: he left the field of battle, boarded his yacht- which was moored in Balaclava harbour- and had a champagne dinner. No doubt, he changed into full-dress regimental uniform as he entertained a select few amidst the clinking crystal-ware and silver service.

I wrote this song in the mid-1980s when Cagney and Lacey shed their uniforms to becomea-cagney-lacey-image kick-ass detectives. I remember speculating how it would be to be the significant other of a patrol-woman of action. The uniform here adorns the female rather than the male. In the decades since lots of women, on screen and off, have taken up the burden of protecting society from the ne’er do wells who lurk in the shadows.

 

Woman In Blue

SQ 90 Where Henry Lawson Can Be Found

Entry 90: Where Henry Lawson Can Be Found– An invitation to make some music- eithera-medieval-music-image literally or figuratively- is a lot more pleasant than having to face it, don’t you agree? I have had the pleasure with reference to the former- both literally and figuratively- and have had to endure the pain of the latter, too.

The power of music transcends death, if one is to believe the Orpheus myth. You know the one, where the uber-musician charms the Lord and a-orpheus-imageLady of the Netherworld to release his wife Eurydice from the grip of death. All is well until, anxious to check that she is following him upwards to life and light and love, he turns and breaks the injunction not to look back, thereby hurtling her back into darkness.

Was this why he turned from his patron-god Dionysus who is associated with things chthonic? Was this why he spurned all other gods but the sun-god Apollo? Was this why he forswore the company of women and transferred his affections to boys?

Wherever the truth may lie, he met a sticky end: Orpheus ascended Mount Pangaion to the oracle of Dionysus to greet the dawn and pay homage to the sun-god. A band of Maenads, enrageda-maenad-image that he had abandoned their god, Dionysus, threw sticks and stones at him to break his bones and end his life.

However, so sweet was his playing, not only were animals tamed by his music-making but also the missiles deployed by the incensed women. In a frenzy now and possessed of preternatural strength, the Maenads a-head-imagelay hands on him and tear him limb from limb. His head and his lyre, still singing and playing, float away into legend.

His killers attempt to wash the blood off their dripping hands but the River Helicon, recoiling from the task of cleansing the murderers of their deed, sinks underground in horror. If you gaze at the stars above you will find his lyre set in the heavens; if you listen to the Infernal Galop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, you will hear the exuberant strains of the can-can as you envisage the high-kicking invitation of the dancers from the Moulin Rouge.

And you are under the spell of Orpheus with the rest of Western civilisation from classicala-oberon-image times onwards. Shakespeare’s recognition of the power of music is scattered throughout his plays: Oberon, King of the Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream recalls to Puck an instance where they,

sat upon a promontory And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back/ Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,/ That the rude sea grew civil at her song,/ And certain stars shot madly from their spheres/ To hear the sea-maid’s music.

Lorenzo in the Merchant of Venice, tells Jessica, daughter of the music-loathing Shylock,

The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord a-shylock-imageof sweet sounds,/Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;/The motions of his spirit are dull as night/And his affections dark as Erebus:/Let no such man be trusted.

In what is said to be his first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare writes:

Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,/ Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,/Make tigers tame and huge leviathans/ Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.

The Orpheus myth lives on confidently in the literature of the 21st Century with the novel Orfeo by Richard Powers. One hears expressions of love for music in phrases such as, it’s in my DNA! Well,a-orfeo-image Powers audaciously has his protagonist, a 70-year-old composer, attempt to manipulate the genome of a human pathogen (the bacterium, Serratia marcescens, which causes hospital-acquired infections) by splicing musical patterns into its living cells.

Having reached his allotted span, Peter Els, the aged composer, has to flee from Homeland Security and in that fugue re-lives his encounters with significant others and music from a-messein-imageMozart to Messiaen. I was drawn to listen to the music described in this novel. To encounter such sonic revelations as The Quartet for the End of Time, written in a Nazi Concentration Camp or Harry Partch’s Barstow with its strange instrumentation and musical structure made the week I was reading the novel and listening to its music the richest period of my life since the half-a-decade playing with the group in pubs and clubs at the end of the 90s.

I also identified with the anguish Els felt upon learning that his diminished joy when listening to music was probably caused by micro-strokes in thea-music-image area of the brain where sounds are processed. And here I was thinking that with me it was just the effect of listening to compressed formats. There is a magical fusion that, from time to time, arises between musicians and audience which makes me believe in the Orpheus myth and I can almost resurrect the joy sparked by such encounters when I remember such rare and beautiful times as that related in the song.

 

Where Henry Lawson Can Be Found