SQ 94 Central Story

Entry 94: Central StoryTomorrow is St Patrick’s Day and I have not had a single drink fora-st-pats-day-image three days now in preparation for the feast. For the first time since it was inaugurated in Sydney, the St Paddy’s Day parade will not be held. The reason? Money. The organisers discovered the debt too late to do much more than pass round the begging bowl in the hopes that next year it will be reinstated.

a-1916-imageOne would have thought the fact that this year is the Centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, a not inconsequential event in Irish history, might have concentrated the minds of the committee. Ah, well. So Irish.  And so much for thinking ahead.

When I returned from North Queensland to Sydney in 1995, I helped form a group we called Banter, and we landed the gig playing Irish jigs, reels, hornpipes and ballads on a float through the city centre. We repeated the gig in 1999 and then we called it a day. But what a day. The song celebrates the anarchy and the craica-st-pats-sydney-image of the gathering in the park near Central station in the mid-to-late 90s. In the years since, the celebration moved to another, enclosed, location and it has gone up-market with the tight security and ballooning expenses that goes with such a move.

Radix malorum est cupiditas, hisses the Pardoner to the congregation in Chaucer’s great tale: the a-rmec-imagelove of money is the root of all evil. When we started, we were a knock-about group playing in small rooms in the back of pubs and clubs. Then we got ideas. What about getting better equipment? Mics, a PA, stands, cables? But to pay for these? Charge the venues. And slowly and inexorably things changed. A mate who was OK in the more relaxed atmosphere of an informal session, found he could not fit in to the more disciplined requirements of the new regime. So, he left.

Those paying the piper felt, increasingly, they could call the tune. Can you play fora-duo dancing? Not really, having neither a bass nor a drum-kit. But if you can stomp a hornpipe or reel or double jig- go for your life! Now, seeing how musicians, however accomplished, have become merely part of the backdrop, a blood-and-guts juke-box over which the audience discuss loudly the minutiae of their lives or consult constantly their digital devices lest they miss out on the latest ephemeral tit-bit chiming through the ether, I am glad that I don’t have to endure the ignominy that is par for the course.

a-pardonerSome don’t seem to mind; a duo playing along to backing tracks with vocal enhancers makes more economic sense than having to divvy up the meagre spoils among five or six. Still, radix malorum est cupiditas. Chaucer’s tale of three young drunken revellers who set out to murder Death, who had claimed one of their friends that very day, is a masterpiece of storytelling.

Encountering an old man, they are directed, to fynde Deeth, turne up this croked wey,/ For in that grove I lafte hym, by my fey,/ Under a tree, and there he wole abyde;/ …Se ye that ook? Right thera-pardoners-tale-image ye shal hym fynde. And under the oak tree, instead of their quarry, they find bags of gold. They draw straws to determine who should go back to the tavern to get wine to celebrate their great fortune. The youngest draws the short straw and sets off.

His fellows determine to kill him and split his share between them. However, the youngest has a similar mind and soul and so poisons their bottles of wine. He is killed upon returning and his murderers drink the poisoned wine. The drunken revellers are, indeed, successful in their search for Death. So, I am not going to the city to the parade this weekend, but am travelling up the Blue Mountains to Katoomba for the 21st music festival held there.

a-bmmf-imageI was there for the inaugural event in 1995 and returned for quite a few years but have not been there for at least a decade. On a whim, upon learning that there was no parade, I decided to book my wife and myself into accommodation there. I reckon that I must have got just about the last room going in Katoomba and I reckon that I paid about five times the normal tariff. Silly me. Radix malorum est cupiditas is alive and well.

The immutable law of supply and demand sounds so much more acceptable, though, doesn’t it? Kurt Vonnegut puts it this way, thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.” But it would be wrong to leave the rotten stench of cupidity as the end ofa-goethe-image this account; instead, let Goethe have the last word, One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.

So, I intend to hear a little song or two and take with me a book of poetry as well.


Central Story

SQ 95 A Packet of White Powder

Entry 95: A Packet of White Powder– You would really like Rat Park, if you were a rat. And-a-rat-image actually- it doesn’t look too bad from a human perspective. Lots of friends and things to do, plentiful food and diverting activities including the odd hit of stimulating substances such as cocaine: what’s not to like?  In Rat Park there is no war on drugs and hence no multi-billion-dollar organised criminal rodent cartels corrupting the institutions of society and spreading misery and mayhem through every level of Rat Park.

a-ratcageThe rats are free to have a blast whenever they feel like it. But, surely then, there are hordes of addicted, drug-addled rats committing all sorts of dastardly rat-crimes all over the place? No… Back in the 1970s a perceptive psychology professor from Vancouver, Bruce K Alexander, questioned the accepted protocol of placing lone rats in a bare cage and offering them drug-laced water. The outcome of such a protocol was: heavily addicted rats who would take the drugged water repeatedly until death intervened.

He and his colleagues built Rat Park as described before and, guess what? Because the ratsa-bruce-image lived in a healthy, harmonious community, they partook of the stimulants offered- but did not become dysfunctional. I read an article (or it may be a transcript of a speech) of his from July 3 2014 which begins,

Herewith, I confess to the charge of attempted murder. My intended victim was – and still is – the Official View of Addiction, sometimes known in the field by its aliases including, “the brain disease model of addiction” or “The NIDA model”. The presentation below contains irrefutable evidence of my guilt. However, it also expresses my plea to the High Court that ridding the world of the Official View of Addiction is justifiable.

His thesis is simple and compelling: addicts are not brain-damaged creatures in thrall to their substance of abuse in an otherwise well-functioning society, but rather, in modern times, most addiction arises because of the dislocation caused by fragmented societies. In a-chasing-imagefragmented societies, addiction leaves few people untouched. This dislocation thesis is eloquently elaborated by Johann Hari in his book, Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

Now initially, he, like many of you, felt the glowing reports from Rat Park were, well, rat-o-centric. But, as he writes in a Huff Post article in 2015, I discovered that there was – at the same time as the Rat Park experiment – a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War.

The American forces in that conflict used heroin habitually: 1 in 5 becoming addicted. There were some professionals back in the good old USA who were terrified of the prospect of hordes of addicted, drug-addled G.I.s returning home to commit all sorts of dastardly crimes all over the place.

Bated breath now, as Johann Hari reports what happened next, but in fact some 95 percent ofa-viet-vet-image the addicted soldiers…simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more. WTF! All this was known forty years ago?

How much money has been misspent, how much misery has been inflicted, and- yes- how much dislocation has been visited on societies and communities throughout our world over the decades since the war on drugs was declared by powerful forces in the US long, long ago?

Sort of reminiscent of the war on terror that exercises the bulging craniums of the great and good in our contemporary world, don’t you think?  Now, I could be privy to the secrets of deeply imbedded whistle-blowers and reveal here incontrovertible evidence that would support the professor’s thesis.

But it would be in vain. The only force that can break through the immovable object which is the world’s received wisdom is…(drumroll)…Poetry! Music! Literature! Art! Who knows!

But I sit and sip my shiraz and feel the fan swirling the humid midnight air around me and I thank God that I can still tap, tap, tap on the keyboard as I try to negotiate a way through this thicket before I have to go to bed and plug in the earplugs that will deliver to me a-quartet-imageBeethoven’s late quartets as I toss and turn in the sheets and try to imagine a sun rising sometime soon when I can re-join the world of birds and buses and busy, busy, busy people.

Our addictions are legion. And I am grateful for those artists who have negotiated the shoals and reefs of their pain in order to show us what it is like to be on the edge of agony: and here, I would like to pay homage to Anne Sexton,

I’m the queen of this condition./I’m an expert on making the trip- …Then I lie on my altar/ elevateda-anne-sexton-image by the eight chemical kisses./What a lay me down this is/with two pink, two orange,/ two green, two white goodnights./Fee-fi-fo-fum-/Now I’m borrowed./Now I’m numb.


A Packet Of White Powder

SQ 96 The Muso’s Lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Muso’s Lament

SQ 97 Autumn Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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



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



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


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

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

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

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


Autumn Road

SQ 98 Fleurs du Mal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fleurs du Mal

SQ 99 Over and Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that!


Over and Over

SQ 100 Dumb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



SQ 101 Mr Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mr Brown

SQ 102 Roscoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



SQ 103 Manolito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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