SQ 110 Now We’re 64

Entry 110: Now We’re 64– It’s strange how the gravitational pull of the stellar personalitiesa-beatles-image in our youth, no matter how fast and far we thought we had travelled in the years since, draw us into an orbit of obeisance, or, at least, sincere acknowledgement of influence.  As I lurched through the barrier of sixty, I began to think of eschatological matters with a little more attention: I mean, even with the most optimistic and deluded of outlooks, one would have to agree that the past was more packed with incident and longevity than the years ahead.

So I wrote a song which touched upon matters encompassing the fifty years I have known my wife.  As my inspiration, I took a song from the Beatles’ St. Pepper’s album, Paul McCartney’s, When I’m 64. Although the theme is “ageing”, Wikipedia informs me, it was one of the first songs McCartney wrote, when he was 16. It was on the Beatles playlist in their early a-beatles2-imagedays as a song to perform when their amplifiers broke down or the electricity went off. Lennon said, in his 1980 interview for Playboy, “I would never even dream of writing a song like that.”

But, I did, at age 63. And I’m not Robinson Crusoe, in this regard either. Lots of other people, riffing off the McCartney song, have registered in song or verse or prose, reflections on reaching age 64. And almost fifty years before the Beatles set the song in vinyl, T.S. Eliot, in one of his finest poems, explored age in a poem, the title of which, means old manGerontion.a-gerontian-image

…Vacant shuttles/ Weave the wind.  I have no ghosts,/ An old man in a draughty house/ Under a windy knob.// After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now/History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities./ I was neither at the hot gates/ Nor fought in the warm rain/ Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass… I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:… These with a thousand small deliberations… multiply variety in a wilderness of mirrors…

McCartney was only 16 when he wrote his song; Eliot was twice his age- 32- when he wrote his poem. But neither, by any stretch, could be considered old. Are our senior poets, then, so immured in their senescence, that we can learn nothing from them?

a-cad-imageNot so! Carol Ann Duffy, that redoubtable poet (and laureate) wrote, introducing a selection of poems from senior British poets in The Guardian back in 2010, I invited the poets here to write, in any way they chose, about ageing. Our society, I believe, is turning gradually away from its obsession with “yoof” and “slebs”. We are beginning to realise that we face, at the very least, an uncertain future, one in which wisdom and experience – and respect – will need to be accorded a more important role. Nice thought, Carol Ann, if only it were true.

All the old gods have become enfeebled,/mere playthings for poets. Few, doze or daft,/frolic on Parnassian clover, wrote Dannie Abse, a notable poet, who died at age 91, in 2014. For Ruth Fainlight, aged 85, and close friend of Sylvia Plath in the years before that poet’s suicide,a-fainlight-image ageing, means no more roller-skating./That used to be my favourite/ sport, after school, every day:… When I saw that young girl on her blades,/wind in her hair, sun on her face,… racing/her boyfriend along the pavement:/– then I understood ageing.

Interesting, and amusing, is Roger McGough’s re-working of his famous 1967 poem, Let Me Die A Youngman’s Death, where he spurns the decorous, fading-away-like-the-smoke-of-a-blown-candle sort of death for one that is full of incident, violence, lasciviousness and noise- a-mcgough-imagealthough not before the age of 73 at the earliest! Now, at age 78, he admits, My nights are rarely unruly. My days/of allnight parties are over, well and truly./No mistresses no red sports cars/no shady deals no gangland bars/no drugs no fags no rock’n’roll/Time alone has taken its toll.

I guess, that for Roger and me and so many others in- what do you call them- our golden years, a dose of Lily the Pink’s medicinal compound would be just what the doctor ordered! I’ll finish by reference to a poem by erudite British-baseda-porter-image Australian poet, Peter Porter who died in 2010, aged 81, shortly after submitting, Random Ageist Verses, for inclusion in the Guardian article.

In this short poem of ten quatrains rhyming abab, he ranges wittily across age-related themes, citing Churchill, Auden, Hardy and Hyden, with insights such as, Immersed in time, we question time/And ask for commentators’ rights/The amoeba has a taste for slime/ Among its range of appetites concluding with these lines that surely only the wisdom of age can craft,

The greyness of the sky is streaked/Along its width with shades of red;/The pity of the world has leaked/ But who are these whose hands have bled?


Now We’re 64

SQ 111 Sidekick


Entry 111: SidekickWhat do Porky Pig, Tonto and Dr Watson have in common? The entry title gives it away, I guess. They’re all the sidekick to the protagonist they support: Daffy Duck, The Lone Ranger and Sherlock Holmes respectively. Defined by Wikipedia as a close companion or colleague (not necessarily in fiction) who is actually, or generally regarded as, subordinate to the one he accompanies, the sidekick has a special place in our hearts.  

 By asking questions of the hero, or giving the hero someone to talk to, the sidekick provides an opportunity for the author to provide exposition, thereby filling the same role as a Greek chorus. Sidekicks frequently serve as an emotional connection, especially when the hero is depicted as detached and distant, traits which might make it difficult to like the hero.


 Of course, every hero needs the opposition of a villainous antagonist. The villain often mirrors the hero by also having a secondary accomplice. But these are not dignified by the label, sidekick.

A villain‘s supporters are normally called henchmen, minions, or lackeys, not sidekicks. While this is partially a convention in terminology, it also reflects that few villains are capable of bonds of friendship and loyalty, which are normal in the relationship between a hero and sidekick. This may also be due to the different roles in fiction of the protagonist and the antagonist: whereas a sidekick is a relatively important character due to his or her proximity to the protagonist, and so will likely be a developed character, the role of a henchman is to act as cannon-fodder for the hero and his sidekick. As a result, henchmen tend to be anonymous, disposable characters, existing for the sole purpose of illustrating the protagonists’ prowess as they defeat them.


This truth can be amply demonstrated by viewing Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy and even more so, The Hobbit films: how many orcs, goblins and assorted ghoulish monsters perish under the axes, swords and spells of Tolkien’s heroes. Far too many to adequately sustain suspension of disbelief, in my experience. I remember not playing Cowboys and Indians as a kid in Aruba because no one wanted to be one of the Indians, fated to lose every encounter; so we were each our own hero, pe-yoo, pe-yooing mouth salvos as we invariably avoided the fatal bullet, conceding only wounds to the left shoulder, leaving our deadly right-hand fully functioning into the descending dusk or until some other diversion attracted our attention.


Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,/Al ful of fresshe floures, whyte and reede;/ Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,/ He was as fressh as is the monthe of May. This is The Squire, from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, and he is my ideal for the youthful sidekick. Nameless, he shines from the fourteenth century as a template of the type, Wel koude he sitte on hors, and faire ryde./ He koude songes make, and wel endite,/ Juste, and eek daunce, and weel purtreye and write./ So hoote he lovede, that by nyghtertale/ He slepte namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale./ Not only was he passionate and accomplished in all the knightly arts, but humility and loyalty were also part of his repertoire, Curteis he was, lowely, and servysable,/ And carf biforn his fader at the table.


 Now past the mid-point of my sixties, it is futile to aspire to this template and so I must look to a more mature example of the species. Perhaps Sancho Panza, the sidekick of Don Quixote may serve. Panza means paunch in Spanish, so this bit fits. The online Britannica notes that his gross appetite, common sense, and vulgar wit serve as a foil to the mad idealism of his master. This, too, induces sparks of recognition but in the end fails to start a fire.


Ultimately, perhaps, there is no single template that will do because so many of us are, in fact, only sidekicks within our own narrative. To aspire to be a named sidekick outside of our own story is too lofty an ambition for most: who would be so big-headed as to compare themselves to Sam Gamgee? Robin, The Boy Wonder? Or even, Donkey from Shrek? Some may find an image of themselves in the poem Sidekicks, by American poet, Ronald Koertge,

They were never handsome and often came/with a hormone imbalance manifested by corpulence,/a yodel of a voice or ears big as kidneys.

 Of course, as we all know, the most important attributes are not those of physicality but those of character, as the poem makes clear,


But each was brave. More than once a sidekick/has thrown himself in front of our hero in order/to receive the bullet or blow meant for that/perfect face and body.

In this song, stanza one looks at the home life of the sidekick and stanza two takes the longer view, while the coda emphasises their essential equality…where not even heroes get to go to heaven.


SQ 112 BMD (Births Marriages Deaths)

Entry 112: BMD (Births Marriages Deaths)– Back in the mid-eighties, I collaborated with ana-cushendall-coastal-path ex-student of mine from Ballymena Academy to compose a jazz suite as part of his honours music course at Queen’s University, Belfast. I came up with the idea of a set of lyrics based on parts of the newspaper: the headline, the horoscope, the page three girlie shot, and so on. We met over the summer months in the pleasant coastal village of Cushendall and hammered out a draft- I handled the lyrics and he composed the music.

a-whitla-hall-imageAll went well until, in the autumn term, I received an urgent telephone call one Friday evening: the suite was not long enough as drafted and the deadline for submission was looming. So that night, I stayed up until about 2:00 a.m. working on the lyrics and music. The next day, I drove to Belfast with my guitar and lyrics and we worked in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s as he sat at the grand piano and composed a jazz score of the song I had written. It sufficed, and we later recorded the suite at BBC Northern Ireland for radio broadcast with the Desmond Harlan Quartet and Candy Devine as singer.a-candy-image

In the thirty years since, I wrote a number of songs that seemed worthwhile keeping and, having well over a hundred examples, thought it time to gather them together. Here is text from the introduction,

I’ll start with a banal assertion: there must be defining moments. The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the assassination of JFK, Sept 11, 2001-in our era- are  big moments prompting questions such as where were you? when that happened. But that’s history. In our own lives, Births, Marriages and Deaths used to be those a-bible-imagejpgRed (or Black) Letter days recorded in family Bibles (or analogous familial archives). Now, those time-honoured milestones are increasingly quaint, it seems. Our personal histories are now far more idiosyncratic, tied to the minutiae of a day-to-day existence that is often driven by a fear of missing out.

 So, that is what The Summa Quotidian is: defining moments, captured in song, which forms a quasi-chronicle of my life and musings. I had tried to keep a diary, as so many do. It didn’t go anywhere, though. At one stage I kept a record of the books I had read and my reactions to them. At other times I tried to chronicle in prose my responses to the TV shows, music and films I was avidly consuming. Sometimes I evena-journal found the energy to write for TV, Radio and the Stage. And several of these effusions found an outlet. All worthy, but limited in time to a matter of months as writing projects, and limited, too, in their range.

 Songs, taken as individual works, might seem to be even more limited- and, indeed, they are, until you see them as a larger grouping linked by a unifying (and an ageing, if not evolving) sensibility. Then they form a larger picture. A gestalt of the zeitgeist, perhaps? What I have held on to consistently over the decades, and what I could carry in my head, retrieve, and reconstruct after a time, was the minor art-form of song. From my early teens I inhaled the melodies and the words of popular song. Before I could play an instrument I knew that this was something I could (and would) do as naturally as I breathe: write songs.

a-caraqvel-image And, as I live and breathe, that’s what I’ve done. For better or worse, for most of my life. Here assembled, are ten collections of twelve songs. They are not strictly sequential. I think of a reef, off a stormy shore. Ten caravels, one after the other, are wrecked on the stony spines and the currents and vagaries of wind and weight wash the cargoes ashore to be caressed by the tides into figurations that are found, at a later date, by beachcombers. They may speculate on the provenance of each trove and, who knows, they could be right (or wrong) as they piece together a putative chronology.

 If you entered the world when I did (and this would put your date of birth about the midpoint of the 20th Century), then, a lot of the references and terms will be second- nature to you: especially if, like me, you were a product of the postwar West and you found the reading of books to be a harmless but consuming addiction. So, what’s it all about, really? The answer is- not very much. You live day by day. You take stuff in. You go to the pub or club or bed or wherever… and you talk…to someone…(or no one?) And they say, what do you think about…? and you say whatever occurs to you . Or it’s the other way round. And it’s important. At the time. Sometimes, though, you’re only blowing smoke. Sometimes a song gets written.

 The Summa hangs together by gossamer threads such as these. And the shape it is is what it is. It’sa-gossamer-thread just…stuff! But as the incomparable Bard wrote at the conclusion of his last play, We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.

But not just yet, still a few songs to go.


BMD (Births, Marriages, Deaths)

SQ 113 Slow Burn (a title for this song)

Entry 113: Slow Burn (A Title For This Song)– 1963 was a memorable year: especially for poeta-larkin2-image Philip Larkin, as he records in Annus Mirabilis, Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, became a cause celebre at the start of the 1960s, and according to some, began the deterioration of faith and morals that attached, somewhat unfairly and inaccurately, to that decade.

The release of the Beatles’ first LP, Please, Please Me, in March of 1963, a-beatles3-imagemarked a musical revolution- here was a group that wrote its own songs and played its own instruments. Exploding out of the blocks with McCartney’s, I Saw Her Standing There, She was just seventeen, you know what I mean…(Yes, Paul, we know) and wrapping up with Lennon’s hoarse rock version of Twist and Shout, I was one of the first kids in Aruba to hear this phenomenal group, thanks to my older brother, who brought the LP out with him duringa-beatles4-image his bi-annual visit for the summer holidays, courtesy of the oil company my father worked for.

Music started to permeate our lives as we attended the Seroe Colorado High School hops of a Friday night: I recall Tornado by the Telstars, Walk Like a Man by the Four Seasons, It’s My Party by Lesley Gore and My Boyfriend’s Back a-angels-imageby the Angels. Roy Orbison, Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys were on high rotation at these popular functions as we shimmied, shook and twisted under the tropical night skies. Some of the cooler kids came back from trips back to the States with talk about the protest music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan- but this music never made the playlists for the hops.

As I was thinking about those distant dances, Edmund Blunden’s The Midnight Skaters poppeda-blundel-image into my mind. How incongruous! was my initial reaction. A poem which describes a rustic pre-war setting among the hop-fields of Kent on a frozen pond seems a million miles from the affluent bubble that was the expatriate community of Aruba in the early sixties.

The hop-poles stand in cones,/The icy pond lurks under,/The pole-tops steeple to the thrones/Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder;/But not the tallest thee, ’tis said,/Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

 But as I pondered the intrusion of this poem into my reverie, I realised that the distance of age gave me perspective, as it did, with so much more effect, this wonderful English poet,

a-blunden-scenethen is not death at watch/Within those secret waters? /What wants he but to catch/Earth’s heedless sons and daughters? /With but a crystal parapet/Between, he has his engines set.

 Aren’t we all earth’s heedless sons and daughters? And don’t you, like me, fall on your knees in thankfulness for our poets who tell us our innermost secrets and reveal to us a common language that we did not know we owned until they shared it with us? Over the years, I have heard the bell toll for so many of those who have shared that dance-floor. And not only my companions on that Caribbean crystal parapet, but those who have shared the dance with me in Ireland and Australia,

Then on, blood shouts, on, on, /Twirl, wheel and whip above him, /Dance on this ball-floor thina-ice-skater and wan, / Use him as though you love him;/Court him, elude him, reel and pass, /And let him hate you through the glass.

As I grow older, I become more grateful for the largesse bestowed upon me by those artists, present and past, who grow my soul. Of course, 1963 was known for darker deeds than racy song lyrics. JFK’s assassination in November of that year casts its pall over much of what was note-worthy that year: who now remembers the final project of NASA’s Mercury mission where,

a-faith7-imageThe Faith 7 spacecraft carried astronaut Gordon Cooper into space for about 34 hours during which he orbited the Earth 22 times. The purpose of the mission was to test the limits of the Mercury space capsule. Cooper’s flight was about three times longer than any other human space flight that had been completed at that point in history. It also marked the final time that NASA launched a solo orbital mission.

That year also saw important landmarks which have not been forgotten, I Have a Dream, by Martin Luther King, was delivered earlier that year, the rhetoric of which still echoes down the corridors of history. And not wanting to push the from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous button too often, can I report that the release of the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand, onea-i-have-a-dream week after Kennedy’s assassination, was destined to chart at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and cause all of the tweens and teens in Aruba to throw theirs arms in the air in chorus as they joined the less-than-profound shout, I want to hold your ha-a-a-a-a-nd?


Slow Burn (A Title For This Song)

SQ 114 You Ask How Much I Love You

Entry 114: You Ask How Much I Love YouYet another incipit; the entry title comprises thea-lear-image first seven words of the song. A tricky question, as King Lear was to find out when his two eldest daughters responded in hyperbolistic terms to his demand to know the quality and quantity of their love for him:

Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter,/Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,/Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,/No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor,/As much as child e’er loved or father found—/A love that makes breath poor and speech unable./Beyond all manner of so much I love you.

 a-lear2-imageThis is Goneril, his eldest. Regan, the second-born sister, not the be outdone, claims, I find she names my very deed of love—/Only she comes too short, that I profess/Myself an enemy to all other joys,/Which the most precious square of sense possesses./And find I am alone felicitate/In your dear highness’ love.

 This tsunami of flattery prompts the ageing monarch to gift to each of these fulsome daughters a bounteous portion of the kingdom, though still reserving the quality cut for his favourite and youngest daughter, Cordelia. As you may guess, if you do not already know, it all ends in tears. Nothing, she responds, allowing her personal distaste for her sisters’ hypocrisy, to cruel her chances for her father’s affection and largesse.a-lear3-image

Just as well, I hear the aesthetes among you murmur, otherwise we would have been deprived of one of the greatest tragedies of world literature. But pre-Christian Britain was not the only locus for love gone awry: the intemperate geriatric autocrat who rejects his loving daughter and banishes his faithful counsellor, Kent, for attempting to defend her, seems quite a placid, level-headed sort of fellow when compared to a-shahriyar-mimage ruler of the Sassanid Empire who, upon learning of the infidelity of his wife, had her executed and then, in a stratagem to prevent further infidelity, married and murdered a succession of 1000 virgins after the consummation on the wedding night.

Now, even a great empire will run short of virgins in such circumstances, and the vizier, whose job it is to provide the daily delivery of young and innocent flesh for Shahryar, reluctantly gives into his daughter’s plea to offer herself up as ransom. Scheherazade, for such is the minx’s moniker, has a cunning plan: she regales the ruler with a story and a half each night, using the impending dawn as an excuse for failing to finish the second story.

Shahryar, a true fan of narrative, stalls the execution until he can hear the conclusion ofa-scheherazade-image the story from the night before- and so it goes for a thousand and one nights and days until he grows besotted with the wily storyteller and she can relinquish her increasingly wearisome gambit for survival. So, to all you creative types who moan about impending deadlines for the dross you are obliged to provide for a jaded public palate, reflect on the story of Scheherazade and- why not?- filch one of her life-saving tales as a template for your tedious  and thankless task.

Rimsky-Korsakov shows the way in his enduringly popular symphonic suite of 1888 entitled Scheherazade. Chosen by many competitive skaters, including 2010 Olympic Gold medallist Evan Lysacek and 2014 Gold a-rk-imagemedallists, Charlie White and Meryl Davis for their free skating routines, this music is an ever-enchanting accompaniment. Hyperbole is the default setting for expositions about love in any genre: bodice-rippers, in particular, would be lost without it.

Auden’s justly famous Funeral Blues, uses it to exquisite comic effect, The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,/Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,/Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;/For nothing now can ever come to any good. Yes, the intensity that rages in thea-auden-poem2 blood, driven by hormones coursing through the bewildered brain, lends itself to excess in everything- including language. And Shakespeare knows full well how to play this card time and again in his drama and poetry- but he can also, consummate show-off that he is, turn it on its head and create a splendid example of litotes, as in sonnet 130:

a-eye-imageMy mistress eyes are nothing like the sun./ Coral is far more red, than her lips red:/If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;/If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head./I have seen roses damasked, red and white,/But no such roses see I in her cheeks;/And in some perfumes is there more delight/Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks./I love to hear her speak, yet well I know/That music hath a far more pleasing sound:/I grant I never saw a goddess go,/ My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:/ And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,/As any she belied with false compare.


You Ask How Much I Love You

SQ 115 I Wish I Never Was

Entry 115: I Wish I Never Was– Sometimes, when you witness the glories of this earth, as, fora-creation-image example, you do, when viewing something like David Attenborough’s trilogy on the Great Barrier Reef, you sing hosannas to whatever forces have produced such splendour. All of my life, I have been entranced by films, exhibitions and documentaries on nature. From deep-sea fumaroles to deep-space imagery of unimaginably distant galaxies; from those infinitesimally small strings that, perhaps, may harmonise our existence to the immensity of all the possible multiverses, I have been enthralled by the mysteries of creation.

a-blessings-imageKnowing that I will never pierce the inner workings of any of these arcane mysteries, I content myself with just saying: thank you. Glad to be here. Hope I get to stay a bit longer. Lately, I have been counting my blessings. In youth and mid-life, I raged a fair bit about the injustice of it all. Particularly as it applied to me!

Now, I just sit on my back veranda and watch an old friend’s pigeons wheel in the sky above as he prepares them for a competitive flighta-bird-image next weekend; or sipping a glass of shiraz, I watch a neighbour putting in a new roof as I listen, on the radio, to Richard Glover talk about stuff that only people in Sydney and, at a stretch, New South Wales would care about.

And I laugh. It is just so great to be alive and part of this quotidian existence. Notice that I have used the word just a couple of times? I have used it, in each case, as an adverb meaning simply, but there is an underlying hook here. How is it just?

a-lake-imageWhile living rather modestly in the outer west of Sydney for the past twenty years, I am aware that my lot is so much better than that so many others who live in this relatively wealthy country of Australia. In the world, most people alive today are living in more straitened circumstances than I.

Most times, driven by the relentless round ofa-street-scene getting and spending, I have been able to push this reality to one side. But there are times when something lodges and refuses to be dislodged.

Lodgement One, New Year’s Eve, Singapore, 1978, in a taxi going back to our hotel, I see an old Chinese woman dragging a load of cardboard behind her: the taxi slows for traffic lights, and our eyes meet.

a-grocery-imageLodgement Two, it’s 1981 and I have just cashed a cheque from RTE radio in Dublin who have bought a radio play and I go into the supermarket to stock up on some luxuries. Ahead of me, a young woman in threadbare coat, trying to soothe a squalling infant, pushes her trolley with basic necessities to the checkout and rummages through her purse for coins to cover her meagre purchases. She glances at my basket of superfluous goodies and then up and into my eyes.

I could go on to enumerate a dozen such instances- but you get my drift. It’s not sufficienta-homeless-image merely to intone, there but for the grace of God go I. What do you do? And is it enough? In 1990, I watched a documentary film which was prompted by a report by Human Rights’ Commissioner Brian Burdekin into youth homelessness.

was shocked at the idea that there were up to 15,000 people under 18 in such circumstances. In 2007 Brian Burdekin raged at the lack of government action in the intervening years. Now, the figures stand at nearly 30,000. How’s that for progress?

a-burdekin-imageIn 1991, I was commissioned to write a musical play for a theatre in North Queensland. The play was to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the theatre’s establishment. A friend, visiting from Ireland, had been having a few drinks with the theatre’s director and casually mentioned that I had written plays in Ireland.

So, I was asked to provide a draft that would involve various arts groups. I came up with a memory play that involved a young guy, homeless from childhood, who had travelled north from Sydney with his girlfriend, picking up infrequent odd jobs.

They cross paths with indigenous people and also befriend a young woman, a test subject at a medical research centre, who had fled from the facility. A tropical cyclone also makes an appearance. A group of musicians played behind a scrim and it was only in the final minutes of the play that the scrim flew revealing that the audience were not listening to a backing tape, but a live group- one of several sleights of hand involved with the production. The themes of homelessness, alienation, redemption were all at play and young dancers were choreographed skilfully into the whole.

The central character, at an early stage of the play, states his feelings of hopelessness ina-millstone the song that follows. Its epigraph, if it were to have one, would be Matthew 18:6, If anyone causes one of these little ones…to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. There should be a run on millstones.


I Wish I Never Was

SQ116 The Frost or the Fire

Entry 116: The Frost or the Fire– I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituariesa-darrow-image with great pleasure- Fine words! I wonder where you stole them. Hold your horses, Jonathan Swift! If you’d given me the time, I would have admitted my debt to Clarence Darrow, a famous- some would say, infamous- American lawyer. Will you be content if I quote lines from what I consider a minor masterpiece of yours?

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.

a-swift-imageYour stinging satire, A Modest Proposal, published anonymously in 1729, in which an unnamed proposer coolly advances his plan for simultaneously relieving Irish poverty and increasing the store of protein available for consumption by the moneyed classes, places your heart in Ireland with the urban and rural poor, even though the ambitions thronging your head wished for preferment among the upper echelons in England.

Almost two hundred years later, we hear an impassioned speech in a courthouse in Tennessee, where Darrow is defending John T Scopes, a high school teacher who has run afoul of a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools,

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school,a-monkey-trial tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools…After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Both Darrow and Swift have their detractors: The Irish clergyman is often painted as a misanthrope because of the blackness of his vision, so apparent in his most famous work, a-gulliver-imageGulliver’s Travels and for his much-quoted words, principally I hate and detest that animal called man.  But then he goes on to say, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. A true misanthrope wouldn’t take the time or effort to produce polemics aimed at altering the behaviour of his fellow human beings for the better.

Darrow has been maligned for his greed for money and publicity, his lack of legal qualifications and his blind belief in deterministic science as the only lens through which the world can be revealed. A militant atheist, he claimed,a-atheist-cartoon

the purpose of life is living. Men and women should get the most they can out of their lives. The smallest, tiniest intellect may be quite as valuable to society as the largest. It may be still more valuable to itself: it may have all the capacity for enjoyment that the wisest has. The purpose of man is like the purpose of the pollywog (this is not a racist epithet but an American dialect term for a tadpole)— to wriggle along as far as he can without dying; or to hang on until death takes him.

Two very different people, Swift the frosty satirist and Darrow the fiery populist; but both, at their core, believed in the worth of the individual, however insignificant, after their own fashion. There are two poets, among many such possible pairings, that I would put forward a-frost-imageas representatives of the dichotomy between the frost and the fire: Robert Frost and Henry Lawson. Frost, in a well-know poem observes:

Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice./From what I’ve tasted of desire/I hold with those who favour fire./But if it had to perish twice,/I think I know enough of hate/To say that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.

Ever, the ironical, detached observer, in another poem, he watches people on a beach looking out to sea,

…wherever the truth may be-/The water comes ashore,/And the people look at the sea./They cannot look out far./They cannot look in deep./But when was that ever a bar/To any watch they keep?

Compare this to Henry Lawson in Macleay Street and Red Rock Lane,a-lawson-image

Macleay Street looks to Mosman,/Across the other side,/With brave asphalted pavements/And roadway clean and wide…Red Rock Lane looks to nowhere,/With pockets into hell;/Red Rock Lane is a horror/Of heat and dirt and smell…And-well, there seems no moral,/And nothing more to tell,/But because of that fierce sympathy/Of souls to souls in hell;/And because of that wild kindness/To souls in sordid pain,/My soul I’d rather venture/With some in Red Rock Lane.

And now, for something completely different: the song following was written in 1983 when I was afflicted by itchy feet and wanted to move on… At the time, I was working with a musician who challenged me to write something commercial, even if it be crass!


The Frost Or The Fire

SQ117 Wish You Could Be

Entry 117: Wish You Could Be– A definition of the noun velleity, according to Webster’sa-de-sales-image College Dictionary is, a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it or volition in its weakest form.  But what is the word if your wish is volition in its strongest form, that you wish for it with all your heart and soul- but that any effort to obtain it would be in vain because what you wish for is impossible? My curiosity about this led me, via the admirable site, Wordnik, to St Francis de Sales, who lived between 1567 and 1622.

a-scholastics-imageHe was declared the patron saint of writers and journalists in 1923 by Pope Pius XI because of his use of broadsheets and books to influence opinion. A bit of a mystic, he wrote, in his Treatise on the Love of God, we may well say: I would desire to be young; but we do not say: I desire to be young; seeing that this is not possible; and this motion is called a wishing, or as the Scholastics term it a velleity, which is nothing else but a commencement of willing, not followed out, because the will, by reason of impossibility or extreme difficulty, stops her motion, and ends it in this simple affection of a wish.

So, that’s the answer to my question- but it leaves me feeling a little let down and so Ia-pigs-image continued to explore the issue. The Indonesians have a saying, Bagai pungguk merindukan bulan, which translates as, like an owl craving for the moon meaning, to wish for something impossible. Porcine aviation is an indicator of impossibility in English- and also, incidentally, in German- Schweine können fliegen. The Greeks, Wikipedia informs me, have a word for it: Adynaton, which is a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility.

a-coy-imageAndrew Marvell, in his best-known poem, To His Coy Mistress, supplies a great example of the usage, Had we but world enough, and time/This coyness, lady, were no crime./We would sit down, and think which way/ To walk, and pass our long love’s day./Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side/Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide/Of Humber would complain. I would/Love you ten years before the flood/And you should, if you please, refuse/Till the conversion of the Jews.

 Falstaff, in Henry IV, Part 2, exclaims, about Prince Hal, I will sooner have a beard grow ina-falstaff-image
the palm of my hand than he shall get one on his cheek
, a remark he will have cause to reflect on ruefully when the prince morphs into the ruthless Henry V.

Meanwhile, folk wisdom offers the following quatrain to explicate the matter, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride./If turnips were watches, I’d wear one by my side./If “if’s” and “and’s” were pots and pans,/There’d be no work for tinkers’ hands.

The form has a vigorous life in song, too, When apples still grow in November,/When blossoms still bloom from each tree,/When leaves are still green in December,/It’s then that our land will be free, as in this example from Only Our Rivers Run Free, written by Mickey MacConnell, about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.

a-eliot-imageMy first encounter with the word, velleity, was in 1969 when I was studying T.S. Eliot as part of my English course. I felt, unlike the lecturer, a sympathy for the older woman in Portrait of a Lady  We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole/Transmit the Preludes through his hair and fingertips./ Here speaks the younger man of an older woman and we listen to his mocking imitation of her reaction to the concert, “So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul/Should be resurrected only among friends/Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom/That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”/A dash indicates his irritation as he sighs, —And so the conversation slips/Among velleities and carefully caught regrets/Through attenuated tones of violins/Mingled with remote cornets/And begins.

 Again, through his exasperated remembrance we hear her continue, “You do not know howa-bored-man much they mean to me, my friends,/And how, how rare and strange it is, to find…a friend who has these qualities,/Who has, and gives/Those qualities upon which friendship lives. We, as readers are aware of the underlying desperation of the woman but all the younger member of this drawing room drama is aware of is, inside my brain a dull tom-tom begins/Absurdly hammering a prelude of its own.

 It is clear that the liaison is foundering and will not last long. Youth and vitality are, as the poets have always told us in so many ways, fleeting and unconcerned by the travails of age. Perhaps dreams and wishes are separated by something not prey to pity and condescension, for, as Langston Hughes says in a lovely short poem,

Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.//Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.


Wish You Could Be

SQ 118 Slip-jig Philosophising

Entry 118: Slip-jig PhilosophisingIn 1964, in a club somewhere in the British Isles, a tapea-barney-image recorder started spinning and it snared a virtuoso on the tenor banjo playing one of the oldest Celtic dances, Kitty Come Down From Limerick. A little before this, around 655 A.D. an unnamed Irish monk set down on sheepskin parchment some quite modern thoughts concerning the manipulation of time in a treatise entitled, De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae.

 Listening to Barney McKenna play the banjo makes me speculate that he must have hit upon a way to manipulate space and time to produce the notes he played. And perhaps it is not too fanciful to posit something about the Irish milieu that, from time to time, messes with our reality. After all, didn’t George Berkeley, bishop of Cloynes, in the 18th Century declare that objects are only ideas in the minds of perceivers causing Dr Johnston to kick a rock in an attempt to refute this Irish philosophising?

a-berkeley-imageIn my mind, I see Sam hopping and leaping about in a painful parody of that most balletic of Irish dance forms- the slip jig. Now, George the Bish would never have resorted to the limerick as a form for philosophical exploration but a clever English scholar and priest, one Ronald Knox, wittily used the form to poke fun at Berkeley’s immaterialism,

There was a young man who said “God/Must find it exceedingly odd/To think that this tree/Should continue to be/When there’s no one about in the quad.”/“Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd./I am always about in the quad./And that’s why the tree/Continues to be/Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

Knox, also, preceded Orson Welles by a dozen years in perpetrating a radio hoax on aa-knox-image nation: one snowy weekend in 1926, he broadcast on BBC Radio the purported news of a revolutionary uprising in London where rabid malcontents lynched government ministers and destroyed the Houses of Parliament, bringing Big Ben crashing down.

He was neighbours in Oxford for a while with C. S. Lewis, an Ulsterman, who has given us The Chronicles of Narnia and the space trilogy which includes, Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis observed (wisely or not is up for learned disputation) Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. Discuss?

a-amergin-imageThe value of philosophy to survival is most clearly seen, not in abstruse, turgid tomes of which there are libraries-full, but in poetry such as the early Irish poet, Amergin who, in The Mystery, writes,

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,/I am the wave of the ocean,/I am the murmur of the billows,/ I am the ox of the seven combats/,I am the vulture upon the rocks,/I am the beam of the sun,/I am the fairest of plants,/I am the wild boar in valour,/I am a salmon in the water,/I am a lake in the plain,/I am a word of science,/I am the point of the lance of battle/,I am the God who created in the head the fire./Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?/Who announces the ages of the moon?/Who teaches the place where couches the sun?/(If not I).

 I find an echo of this ancient soul in a piece by one of my favourite American poets, Carla-carl-image Sandburg, who informs us in Who Am I?,

My head knocks against the stars./My feet are on the hilltops./My finger-tips are in the valleys and shores of/universal life./Down in the sounding foam of primal things I/reach my hands and play with pebbles of/destiny./I have been to hell and back many times./I know all about heaven, for I have talked with God./I dabble in the blood and guts of the terrible./I know the passionate seizure of beauty/And the marvellous rebellion of man at all signs/reading “Keep Off.”/My name is Truth and I am the most elusive captive/in the universe.

 a-dunbar-imageEven in the demotic voice, the resilience and wisdom of the people ring out, as here in a defiant shout by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, 19th Century African American poet’s Philosophy,

I been t’inkin’ ’bout de preachah; whut he said de othah night,/’Bout hit bein’ people’s dooty, fu’ to keep dey faces bright;/How one ought to live so pleasant dat ouah tempah never riles,/Meetin’ evahbody roun’ us wid ouah very nicest smiles./Dat ‘s all right, I ain’t a-sputin’ not a t’ing dat soun’s lak fac’,/But you don’t ketch folks a-grinnin’ wid aa-philospophy-painting misery in de back;/An’ you don’t fin’ dem a-smilin’ w’en dey ‘s hongry ez kin be,/Leastways, dat ‘s how human natur’ allus seems to ‘pear to me./We is mos’ all putty likely fu’ to have our little cares,/An’ I think we ‘se doin’ fus’ rate w’en we jes’ go long and bears,/Widout breakin’ up ouah faces in a sickly so’t o’ grin,/W’en we knows dat in ouah innards we is p’intly mad ez sin./Oh dey ‘s times fu’ bein’ pleasant an’ fu’ goin’ smilin’ roun’,/’Cause I don’t believe in people allus totin’ roun’ a frown,/But it’s easy ‘nough to titter w’en de stew is smokin’ hot,/But hit’s mighty ha’d to giggle w’en dey’s nuffin’ in de pot. ‘Nuff said.

The song which follows, inspired by the wonderful poem above, I need to set down as written text here because of its demotic idiom and 9/8 slip jig timing which may impede listening comprehension:

Skippin’ an’ skivin’ an’ slippin’ an’ slidin’ an’ keepin’ a-houl’ of my mind/Hopin’ an’ lookin’ out over the pitchin’ an’ tossin’ for somethin’ to find/Whether or not there is meanin’ in what we are doin’ here stands as the question to ask/Plato an’ some of the boyos had a go at it or so I’ve been told//Kneelin’ and’ prayin’ an’ weepin’ and wailin’ an’ cursin’ the oul’ devil to hell/Sellin’ indulgences foolin’ the culchies worked such a treat for a while/For the sins of commission and sins of omission we need now to take them to task/What some have been doin’ can’t help but just leave us all cold//Come join the rodeo- hope you like a rough ride//First mewlin’ and pukin’ then whinin’ and shinin’ as schoolwards you creep/Sigh like a furnace seeking the bubble rep your honour to keep/A big jelly belly a justice on telly round out well your fifth age/The sixth is a horror that gapes at the grave wherein the seventh resides//A man is a butterfly dreamin’ that he is a man or it might be the other way round/Such puzzles enticin’ the best minds delightin’ just leaves me on the ground/A big useless tree I’m wantin’ to be not some venerable sage/Just a rustling canopy shielding the nest where a small bird hides//Enjoy the rodeo- you’ll just be here for a while//Skippin’ an’ skivin’ an’ slippin’ an’ slidin’ an’ keepin’ a-houl’ of my mind/Hopin’ an’ lookin’ out over the pitchin’ an’ tossin’ for somethin’ to find/Whether or not there is meanin’ in what we are doin’ here stands as the question to ask/Plato an’ some of the boyos had a go at it or so I’ve been told//Come join the rodeo- hope you like a rough ride//So, enjoy the rodeo- you’ll just be here for a while

Slip-Jig Philosophising

SQ 119 I Won’t Cry

Entry 119: I Won’t Cry– Some days I wake up in a mood to refer Pollyanna to a specialist ina-pollyanna-imager depressive illnesses. Admittedly, such days are mostly in the distant past- presently, it’s the very odd day when I get out of the sunny side of the bed with a cheerful tune on my lips, just a-rarin’ to get out into the light and set the world to rights.

In popular digests, one may come across articles which extol the virtues of the optimistic outlook a-cassandra-imageas a promoter of longevity and which also counsel men to access their feminine side- but take care to channel Pollyanna’s I-am-a-happy-little-sunbeam– rather than Cassandra’s glass-half-empty vibe. If you are- what is the word?- proactive in your search for mirth, perhaps a spot of laughter yoga may be just what the doctor ordered.

I am reliably informed that there are over a hundred laughter clubs worldwide but whether you can easily join one of these yuck-fests is problematical. Evangelical Christians of a certain flavour practise holy laughter and there may be a place for you among these folk, although, a caveat: some view such levity as against the Spirit: for example; John Wesley, encountering uncontrolled laughter in his meetings, ascribed it to the action of the Devil.a-holy-laughter-image

We are all familiar with the gleeful mwha ha ha of the villain expressing malicious satisfaction at the misfortune of his victim. Still, there’s more to be said for laughing than for crying. Now, I wouldn’t have pegged the Germans as a particularly lachrymose nation, but must admit to being taken aback by the findings of the German Society of Ophthalmology published in 2009 which found that women cry between 30-62 times a year and that men resort to the blub on 6-17 occasions over the same period.

a-cry-imageI don’t think of myself as a flinty-hearted brute but I doubt that I would have cried more than once or twice in the past year- if even that! But, then, I was formed by that generation that had coped with the fallout of World War Two by not looking back and by damping down any stirrings of emotion by concentrating on, work, kids, the future- indeed anything that helped make it go away, even booze, for some.

Crying was seen as weakness rather than a catharsis and among a lot of people, men especially, this still applies. Of course, politicians have realised the humanising effects of crying and regularly shed a tear for thea-crocodile-tears cameras. Crocodile tears have a long lineage as a mark of hypocrisy in the shedder but this should not obscure the fact that certain animals do seem to demonstrate a capacity for grief that is more than a just fleeting response to mortality.

Elephants and chimpanzees among the higher mammals and mute swans among our feathered friends all exhibit signs of distress when confronted with the loss of a young one, fellow or partner.

Top of the evolutionary pile, we like to think ourselves unique in the animal kingdom- remember when we were once differentiated because we use tools? Because we communicate using vocalisations? Because we use play for learning? Because we can feel and express emotion? Because we are the only animal with a sense of its own mortality?

Looks more and more like a God of the gaps argument and just as reductionist. In a decaying world which we persist in poisoning with carbon, nuclear and chemical waste, it seems a bit futile to worry too much about what distinguishes us from the rest of creation.

I listened today, to a wax cylinder recording made at the end of the 19th Century. It was made by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898 and we hear the eerie sound of the death wail or keening.a-crying-image

The practice is found in Ireland and Scotland and also among indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. It is a link to a deep animal ache for one who is gone, and so what if, among our species, it can build into such artefacts as the Taj Mahal, Michelangelo’s Pieta or Mozart’s Requiem?

Most of us are incapable of responding to loss- either personal or vicarious- by erecting beautiful structures, carving marble masterpieces or crafting music of genius- and few have the skill to create great literary tragedies.a-crying-lear

But will we cry with Lear holding his dead child, Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of/ stone: Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/ That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!/ I know when one is dead, and when one lives;/ She’s dead as earth.

Or will we smile with Henry Scott Holland, who wrote lines that have given solace to many people a-holland-imagefrom a sermon delivered at St Paul’s in 1910 upon the death of King Edward VII: it starts, Death is nothing at all./I have only slipped away to the next room…  It concludes, I am but waiting for you./For an interval./Somewhere. Very near./Just around the corner.

 So who do we listen to: Pollyanna or Cassandra?


I Won’t Cry