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.



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.



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

SQ 91 Parting Words

Entry 91: Parting Words- The amiable Duke of Gloucester, upon being presented with thea-duke-image second volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall… exclaimed to the author, Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon? So, you see, Prince Phillip is far from being the first aristocratic dolt when it comes to matters cerebral.

I must confess, dear listener, that the punk inside can’t help but whoop with glee: How dare people be so talented! I aimed for mediocrity and fell short… Words, words, words. I wonder what Gibbon would have made of Bo Burnham’s YouTube routine? Rather than an exploration of words, this entry narrows it to first words, last words and parting words.

First words need not detain us long as they do not overly whelm, do they? Mama, Dada, Goo-goo, Gaga. Last words are a bit more entertaining: Lady Astor, awakening briefly during her final illness to find her family gathered around her inquired, Am I dying or is this a-bogart-imagemy birthday? Cautionary notes are sounded, too: I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis, Humphrey Bogart warned before shuffling off this mortal coil in 1957.

For those who prefer a more tragic tone to this most tragic of outcomes will reflect upona-oscar2-image the final words of Caesar, Et tu, Brute? Aficionados of wit will find it hard to go past Oscar Wilde’s final observation: Either that wallpaper goes, or I do. The cats among us will relate to the Italian Renaissance painter, Pietro Perugino, the teacher of Raphael, who explained why he refused to allow a priest to hear his final confession, I am curious to see what happens in the next world to one who dies unshriven.

And so, to parting words. Some are spiteful, such as those of Malvolio, the pompous ass who has been made a fool of in a-malvolio-imageShakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you! If you are a romantic soul, you will nod your head slowly and sing along to Nat King Cole’s 1949 recording of the wonderful For all we know, we may never meet again/Before you go, make this moment sweet again/For all we know, this may only be a dream/We come and go like a ripple on a stream.

 How often have you been afflicted by staircase wit? You know, someone hits you with a zinger and you only think of the telling retort when it is tooa-diederot-image late. The phrase, staircase wit, comes from the French of philosopher, Denis Diderot who encountered such a situation at a soiree in Paris, “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the words levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again when he reaches the bottom of the stairs”.

 Winston Churchill, for all his weaknesses, was not prone to this one. A famous exchange involving the great man and Lady Astor is well-known but worth repeating, Winston, you’re drunk!/But I shall be sober in the morning and you, madam, will still be ugly./Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your tea./Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it. Another British a-disraeilipolitician, Benjamin Disraeli, was heckled by an opposition MP, Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease./That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress, was Disraeli’s response.

And now to the inspiration for the song: The Moon and Sixpence, a novel by Somerset Maugham, one of my favourite authors, published in 1919. I am tempted to introduce the thing with a profound-ish quote such as, Money is the string with which a sardonic destiny directs the motions of its puppets, but self-awareness insists upon the use of one aimed, it seems, at me, the ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.a-maugham-image

 Ouch! The Moon and Sixpence deals with a protagonist, Charles Strickland, who abandons wife and children, is oblivious to the sufferings of others in the pursuit of his art, and who dies of leprosy in Tahiti leaving paintings of genius but whose magnum opus was painted on the walls of his final habitation, a native hut, which was burnt to the ground on his orders after his death. Although the title was not explained in the text of the novel, Maugham provided the following in a letter dated 1956, If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.

a-north-imageThe song was written in 1979 and I was writing and drinking furiously. I was re-reading the poems in North by Seamus Heaney and in the final poem of the collection, Exposure, I found something that spoke to me as I put together the words and music of Parting Words. I was feeling cut off and uncertain of direction, and Heaney’s verse seemed particularly apt:

How did I end up like this?/ I am neither internee nor informer;/An inner emigre, grown long-haired/And thoughtful;/ Who, blowing up these sparks/For their meagre heat, have missed/The once-in-a-lifetime portent,/The comet’s pulsing rose.a-comet-image


Parting Words

SQ 92 I’m Not a Merry Ploughboy

Entry 92: I’m Not a Merry PloughboyWhat you’ve just heard is an example of an incipit– nota-incipit-image to be confused with insipid which is an adjective meaning weak or tasteless. This sonic confusion may be the reason that many choose to pronounce it in- kip – it. An incipit is the first few words of a text that serves instead of a title and they are found on some of the earliest examples of writing.

In ancient Sumeria, clay tablets containing incipits were maintained by the official scribes so that they might more easily locate tablets relating, for instance, to the number of livestock. Eight hundred years ago Pope Honorius III issued a papal bull, Religiosam Vitam -its first words in Latin translated as the religious life– establishing the Dominican Order. In modern times incipits are still used to identify untitled poems, songs and prayers. Emily Dickinson, in particular, comes to mind.

a-dickinson-imageA literary game to pass an idle afternoon involves selecting a number of first lines to create a “new” Dickinson poem, a feather from the whippoorwill/a face devoid of love or grace/a faded boy in sallow clothes/ a doubt if it be us. One doubts that such games would have been played in the literary salons of 18th Century Paris or London given their more serious aims of educating and enlightening but I like to think that the following anecdote (possibly apocryphal) concerning Samuel Johnson might have occurred as he was seeking entrée to one of the London salon evenings of that severely moral bluestocking, Lady Elizabeth Montagu,

Dr Samuel Johnson, the great eighteenth-century lexicographer, once showed up at a social eventa-johnson-image hosted by an aristocratic lady with his clothes in disarray. Here’s what allegedly followed: Aristocratic lady: “Dr Johnson, your penis is sticking out!” Dr Johnson: Madame, you flatter yourself. “It’s HANGING out.”

You have to admire the learned doctor’s insistence on lexical exactitude, whatever you might think of this lapse in decorum. Not that appearances ever particularly worried Sam Johnson who, upon walking to the top of a hill on one occasion decided that he wanted to roll to the bottom declaring that it had been some time since he had indulged in the pastime.

a-blind-mans-buff-imageUnlike the learned doctor, we are unlikely to gain admittance to a literary salon, if for no other reason than we lack a functioning time machine. However, most of us have indulged in parlour games of one sort or another. Some, such as blind man’s buff go back millennia, others merely centuries such as charades. But I am happy to report that ingenious games continue into modern times.

One I learned about only recently, was created by an American member of Mensa, Jan Carnell. It’s called Carnelli, and is a title association gamea-carnelli where players must link to a previously uttered title of a book, film, play or song. For example, A Tale of Two Cities can elicit the response Great Expectations (the link being Charles Dickens, author of both novels). The response, Tea for Two, a song from the film, No No Nanette, is permissible because of the link work two. Links employing puns, the more groan-worthy the better, are allowable also. For example, the Eagles’ song Tequila Sunrise, can prompt the response To Kill a Mockingbird, provided it’s pronounced Tequila Mockingbird!

 a-pp-imageFamous first lines from novels, plays, and songs are a fertile source of harmless parlour activity. Can you identify the novel and author of the following? It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Or a-clock-imagewhat about, It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. The next example is a bit longer, but I’m sure you’ll nail it, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it a-tale-of-two-citieswas the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

 I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you the answers… but will test you now with a riddle poem by Emily Dickinson. It’s known by its incipit, Some Things That Fly There Be, It’s also known by one of two numbers, 89, if you follow the numbering system used by Thomas H. Johnson in his variorum edition of 1955 or 68 if you prefer the number assigned by R. W. Franklin in his variorum edition of 1998. So, here’s the poem. 

 Some things that fly there be –/Birds — Hours — the Bumblebee –/Of these no Elegy./Some things that stay there be –/Grief — Hills — Eternity –/Nor this behooveth me./There are that resting, rise./Can I expound the skies?/How still the Riddle lies!

 Perhaps only time and eschatology will solve this one.


I’m Not A Merry Ploughboy

SQ 93 Looking at Pictures

Entry 93: Looking at PicturesDo I have to draw you a picture? If you’ve ever been the recipienta-hiddeen-image of such a remark, you’ll- rightly- assume that your perspicacity has been called into question. And yet, how unfair! Steganographers regularly conceal nefarious texts within innocent-seeming pictures. Pictures do not always tell the truth. People who delight in deceit, obfuscation, puzzles, riddles, conundrums and sleight of hand are drawn to this practice.

The art of camouflaging what is true goes back a a-spartan-imagelong way. (A note to Gen Y: photo-shopping is not really a new idea.) The Spartan king, Demaratus, sent a warning to the Greeks of an impending Persian attack by writing the message on the wooden board under an innocent wax covering upon which was written innocuous material. Tricky, eh? But not as tricky as Demaratus himself when he eventually switched sides and served as an advisor to Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 480 BC.

Spies, black-hat hackers and those shadowy forces who seek to create covert elite groups for arcane purposes all think that steganography is the bee’s knees. One group, Cicada 3301, has posted puzzles on the internet from 2012. Who are they? Speculation runs from recruiters to government espionage agencies such as the NSA, to alternate reality gaming tragics, to big bank mavens messinga-hermetic-image with cryptocurrency testing. But they are probably a small group of tech-savvy anti-establishment geeks who would have been Rosicrucians in medieval times or members of the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn a century ago.

I’m with Homer Simpson as far as trying to crack any code such groups might concoct is concerned, if at first you do not succeed, give up. And get on with your short life. Instead of hunching over plasma screens, chasing electronic chimeras across the wilderness of mirrors that is cyberspace, get yourself out of your room and into an art gallery- there you will find puzzles enough to titillate your senses and mind.

a-gallery-imageFor my part, I cross the Nepean River to the Penrith Regional Art Gallery or travel by train to the Art Gallery of NSW or drive down to Canberra to the National Gallery- especially when there is a touring international show. Should my- generally prevailing- inertia prevent so much activity, I listen to music, say, Mussorgsky’s  Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s magnificent orchestration, as played by the Chicago Symphony under Solti.a-gnomus-image

And I see the people and places depicted by Hartmann which inspired the musical work: among them, Gnomus the small frightened man I identify with, Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch whom I encounter after exiting the gloomy Catacombs but, finally, I ride in triumph through the Great Gate of Kiev- the finale of which had me levitating, or so it seemed, when first I heard it as a student. Another reason that I value this a-mussorgsky-imagepiece so much is that it is a testament to friendship.

Mussorgsky wrote the suite as a memorial to his friend Victor Hartmann who died at age 39 in 1873 from an aneurysm. After visiting an exhibition in his memory in 1874, he composed the suite rapidly during June of that year. However, he hit the skids and died in 1881 shortly after his 42nd birthday. Had it not been for his friend Rimsky-Korsakov, whoa-rimsy-korsakov-image published an, admittedly, flawed version in 1886, it, arguably, would have been lost to posterity. It makes you wonder how many masterpieces have sunk without trace because of the lack of a friend to pull it from oblivion.

a-muss-imageLike Mussorgsky, I place value in drinking as an aid to inspiration, and during one bibulous late night alone I found myself surveying the living room: first, a wedding photograph in a silver frame, next, a family tree with photos of grandparents, us and the kids, followed by a wooden warrior with a shield from New Guinea. A ceramic Taoist philosopher made by my daughter sat on the cathode-ray TV which we still possessed then on which a muted re-run of Twin Peaks was showing.

At this point I stepped on a hand-mirror reaching for another drink, cracking it. Lifting my eyes in exasperation, I looked anew at a watercolour of a scene from the Glens of Antrim by a noted local artist- a gift from my brother who had visited the year before. Slumping to the floor, I noticed a bell-jar containing an exotic moth mounted on a faux flower, behind which the wedding photo of my wife cutting the cake distorted weirdly- or perhaps it was just the whiskey.

Beside me was a cane-chair holding an indoor plant with green tendrils covering the cluesa-intox-image to a partially completed cryptic crossword. Picking up the pen lying beside the paper, I jotted down a few ideas which, a day later, I worked up into this song. As Nietzsche so cogently observed, for art to exist… a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication


Looking At Pictures