Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Poem: For Harry



FOR HARRY


The old woman who lived in the corner house
on my route to school used to frighten me.
Her legs bowed out at angles from each other
when I saw her go to get the morning paper.
The gap was big. You'd kick a football through it.
Her spine curved forwards, and her clothes hung off her;
they were dark clothes, the fabrics worn with age.
Her skin, when I dared to look, was yellow,
and stretched across her hollow cheeks like paper;
it might tear if you didn't touch it gently.
She was creepy to a young boy, spider-creepy.
Those legs, with their knees bent wide--I'd seen
old people walk, but none had walked like that.
Mum told me poverty had wrecked her bones,
but that rickets, in the Seventies, had gone for good.
I think that she was giving comfort only
to a scared, small boy. Mum voted Tory then,
but she joined the Wellingborough Communists,
and talked of class war, just a few years later.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Library Wants Me After All. Well, Sort Of.





I just got an email from Northampton Central Library inviting me to interview for a volunteer post.

I applied to be a volunteer at the Library before I saw the permanent vacancy. I then applied for that, and, as my regular reader will know, I didn't get it. The cynic in me says my offer to work for them for nothing probably didn't advance my cause terrifically well.

The email about the volunteer post says I might not get that either. I have to discuss with them my interest in the post, and they have to decide whether they can match me to a particular role.

It feels like I'm applying for the secret service. The Library is about book-lending, IT, education, and arts events primarily. I'm a published poet and erstwhile tutor and arts event curator writing my arts blog on a Lenovo laptop. How much more suitable for a job could a person be?

But it doesn't matter, because I'm not going to the volunteer interview anyway. I am too proud to run the risk of being turned down twice by the same employer. I don't want to give them my hours for free, either, when they weren't prepared to pay me.

I'll go and volunteer somewhere else while I have a little time on my hands, somewhere they won't make me jump through hoops for the privilege of doing them a favour.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Signing On



It's signing on day again. This afternoon I have to go to the Job Centre and have something called a work booklet inspected by a Job Centre employee, who sits on the other side of a desk in an open-plan office where everyone nearby can hear what you say. As usual on signing on day, I woke up this morning with a dark mood hanging over me like those personal thunder clouds in the old cartoons. I hate signing on. I don't know anyone who likes it.

I have been writing in my work booklet for the last two weeks. The first section I wrote in is called 'I will'. In that, I recorded my plan of action re: 'jobseeking' for the fourteen days between appointments. The second section is called 'What I did and what was the result'. It's like primary school all over again, except I'm no longer a child.

If the details I have entered into both sections are approved, the Job Centre employee signs their name in an indecipherable squiggle at the bottom of the page and I am awarded less money for a week than I was earning for one shift at the warehouse.

It's usually very civilised, as long as you play the game, keep your temper, don't give in to the sometimes overwhelming feelings of embarrassment and shame caused by the situation you're in. If you let it get to you, or if, as I have seen on a couple of occasions, sheer desperation drives you over the edge -- some people in there are hungry, facing homelessness, some actually are homeless -- there are always plenty of security guards on hand to bounce you out of the building.

The system protects itself. You, unless you're docile and obliging, are on your own.

But, according to a man I heard in a hospital waiting room earlier, people like me are lazy and work-shy, content to let everybody else keep the country running while we lay in bed until the afternoon and smoke and drink all day. So if we find the fortnightly signing on appointment a bit of an ordeal, we bring it on ourselves.




Saturday, November 24, 2018

Is Decency Dead in Modern England?

HOW THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY DECLARED WAR ON THE POOR




When I got off the bus beside the BBC building this morning, the first thing I saw was a group of young people wrapped up against the cold looking up at the Christmas decorations that have been erected over Abington Street. I presume that's what they were doing. Somebody might have been gesticulating at them from an upper floor of the Beeb.

It's too early in the year for me to feel in the festive mood. I was turned down for a job at Weston Favell Library yesterday as well, and the sense of rejection I have from that still smarts a bit. Obviously a First in English Lit, ten years experience of team leading, two years experience of tutoring and my famous charm weren't what they were looking for. Or perhaps they were looking for someone not in his fifties and without epilepsy.

Homelessness is my major festive buzz kill in Northampton, though. Abington Street's vacant shop doorways, abandoned by businesses that collapsed in the safe fiscal hands of the Tories, are filling up with people who have nowhere to sleep. I counted three under blankets or inside tents and two sitting upright on the wet ground asking quietly for spare change.

Across the street from the church I saw two more homeless people. One looked delighted just to be acknowledged by a little girl who passed with her mum. He said, 'Have a nice day.'

Meanwhile hundreds of us, including me, walked by with our bags-for-life full of shopping, half-price bargains picked up in the Black Friday sales, Argos packages containing new televisions, trees for Christmas.

The disconnect between the have and the have-not is not as severe as it seems, of course. We were going to buy a tree, but neither of us is working. The money for it comes from an unexpected tax rebate, and from the need to have at least a few days of pleasure in the middle of the struggle to keep our heads above water financially. I bet a few more of those shoppers drawing discreet circles around the rough sleepers are only a paycheck away from penury themselves.

So what is going on? I've been unemployed before. It's almost inevitable when your only true commitments are to love and poetry. But I've never known a time, in nearly forty years of political awareness, when a town as small as Northampton had become so poor, when the social fabric had broken down so completely, that little girls had to learn about homelessness before they were old enough to go to school. That sort of shit was supposed to have been on the way out in the generation before mine.

The present government, it's clear, has declared war on kindness, decency, civility, morality and any notion of society that acknowledges our responsibility for one another. Why? Because all of those qualities and ideals get in the way of profit and diminish their individual power. And I'm really worried about where it's going to end up, because as bad as it has become, there's still no sign that the British people are getting the message in large enough numbers to remove the Tories from office and toss them on the political dumpster where they belong.

Which is fine, in a way. It's your democratic right to be the sort of suicidally gullible jackass who signs his own death warrant. But when you do, you take me and everybody I love down with you.

Monday, November 19, 2018

BOOKS: I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career




In amongst the other activities that have kept me from this blog for a while, I've been reading 'I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg' (City Lights). This book was published in 2015, but I've been waiting for it to come down in price before I bought it.

I found Ginsberg's correspondence with Gary Snyder, published a few years earlier, curiously uninteresting given that I love both poets. But this book really sings. Ferlinghetti, after all, was the man whose head was on the block for putting out Howl and Other Poems. We get his first-hand account of the Howl trial in these pages, and it creates a palpable sense of how thrilling and frightening it must have been.

Unexpected, for me, was Ferlinghetti's insecurity about his own craft. I'd always taken him, no questions asked, to be a great, quirky, eccentric poet. I thought everybody felt the same. But the other writers in his orbit put him down and more than once he asks Ginsberg for reassurance about his work. Allen, in his replies, is more than a little perfunctory, and condescending too, offering suggestions for edits that actually don't improve the poems at all.

One area in which Ferlinghetti isn't insecure, however, is in his own intellectual judgement. He yields to Ginsberg's pressure about publishing Antler, but refuses to concede that Antler is the genius Allen insists he is. And about Chogyam Trungpa, who I have always considered a charlatan, Lawrence is openly scornful:

I agree with Merwin, I agree with Peter Marin, I agree with Gary, I agree with Rexroth---what are you doing defending this petty dictator, and who needs experiments in monarchy at this point in the U.S.?

(Ferlinghetti to Ginsberg, February 24th 1980).

Ginsberg resented the suggestion, made by a biographer at the time, that his poetry was better before he became involved with Chogyam Trungpa. To whatever extent it did decline, I'd say the reasons were far too complex to be laid at the shiny shoes of one alcoholic phony dharma lion in a business suit. Allen had had a history since Columbia of defending the indefensible and seeing genius in the behaviour of his friends where other people saw only selfishness, crudity and mental illness.

Friday, October 05, 2018

John Clare, Poets and the Booby Hatch

Went last night with a group of poets, a playwright and some interested onlookers to a public reading of John Clare's poetry in the dim light of the Guildhall Courtyard in Northampton. We stood or sat around the Clare statue there, the group about ten strong, and most read poems either by Clare, or work in the spirit of the so-called Peasant Poet; someone who's appearing in a play about Clare at the Abington Park Museum on Sunday recited part of that. You could tell he was accustomed to the stage: his voice projected powerfully over the noise of the traffic and the group on the steps at the other end of the courtyard loudly chattering.

I mention no names because the only person I knew there was Jimtom Keith Thomas James, Northampton's best living poet (myself not included). Jimtom, in kilt and red Cymru jacket, shuffled next to Clare's statue to read, demonstrating rightful kinship maybe, then picked a poem at random and read it beautifully. I declined when the organiser looked at me. I stopped reading in public a long time ago, and it's bad for my epilepsy if I read in poor light.

The discussion at the beginning of the reading gave a rather sentimentalised view of Clare and his mental health problems, I thought. He had seven children to support, according to the source I consulted, with little money to support them. He drank too, and seems to have had a complex relationship with the peasant life he is supposed to be the lyrical embodiment of. While stating that 'with the old dish served to my forefathers, I am content', he also dismissed his neighbours as 'insensible to everything but toiling and talking of it and that to no purpose.' That's a baseless snobbery I have been guilty of more than once in my life. Another poet with no money and no recognition (at least he'd had it once) living among the commoners.

As for Clare's illness, he was probably a little bit 'mad', as even polite people said in those days, from the very beginning. All creativity comes from a dysfunctional relationship with what is presumed to be reality. Artists in all mediums sit, think, imagine, dream, play, re-invent, while life is going on around them; they absorb the world around them through different processors. There is always a part of them not in the physical space most people occupy. Or I imagine they occupy it; I wouldn't know, being a lifelong fantasiser and not remotely connected to that mysterious multitude considered 'normal'. But what happens when dreams and fancies collide with the brute realities of the world?

Then you have confusion.

Then you have anger. Or the suffocation of anger in depression.

Then you have breakdown.

Then you have imagining you're Lord Byron and ending up in the crazy house. 

This may not be the textbook definition of the stages of mental illness, but it's been my experience more than once.


Wednesday, October 03, 2018

To The Bookcave!

I was walking down Market Street in Kettering with Michelle this morning, remembering my friend Salvatore who worked in a long-gone clothes shop there in the early 80s, when I noticed a bookshop I'd never seen before. 'Bookshop!' I said to Michelle. I'd thought there were none this side of Leicester, Waterstone's branches excluded.

Bookcave Limited is situated inside a shopping district called the Yards, which looks like it would literally have housed, long ago, yards; it's an open space off Market Street with buildings on all sides. But the buildings have been redeveloped, adapted and beautifully painted, so that the space feels more like a haven than a commercial area.

The shop itself, near the entrance to the Yards, sells second-hand books, specialising in horror, science fiction and fantasy. But there are also comics (great covers from the 'Dracula' comic on the walls), graphic novels, children's books and classic literature. I bought this while I was there, as well as a great old copy of 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' to replace the one I've lost:

Michelle bought a nice edition of Hardy's shorter poems too. We thought about buying some of the fantastic, full-colour vintage horror movie pictures on sale -- they would make great presents -- but decided we'd better save some money and come back another time. And we will go back; second-hand bookshops are the only place for real booklovers to be, and they are quite a rarity these days, at least in our fair county. Use them, as the saying goes, or lose them.


Friday, September 28, 2018

Ex Libris Dan Davin


This book is a 1962 Oxford University Press edition of Dostoyevsky's letters, edited by Jessie Coulson. Michelle found it in a charity shop yesterday; it was about to be sent to Africa but the manager, knowing my predilection for old literary books, sold it to Michelle instead.

I'm glad she did. When I checked inside I found a glued-in bookplate bearing the motto 'Fortiter et Fideliter' (Bravely and Faithfully) and Ex Libris D.M. Davin. (Ex Libris meaning 'from the books of..', signifying, therefore, ownership.)

As I always do when there's a name inside a book, I did a little research online; and I'm almost certain I found this book's owner. Let me, as a fan of the Inspector Morse books and programmes, explain the reasoning behind my near-certainty before I give you the big reveal you are undoubtedly waiting for with trembling anticipation.

The book's owner had an interest in literature, whatever his or her feelings about popular fiction may have been.That's obvious. This person was a serious reader, if that word isn't too snobbish.

The book's owner had a connection to a school, college, association, press or family of some status, as the bookplate bears a coat of arms with the Latin inscription already mentioned beneath it. (I haven't located the coat of arms yet.)

The book's owner may have had a classical education. He or she at least grew up, lived or worked among educated people. I have seen older bookplates without an ex libris. I have books from 1910 and 1912 inscribed simply, and in pencil or ink.

The book's owner may have lived and worked not too far away from Northampton. Second-hand  books can travel long distances when the original owner lets them go, but a closer connection does establish probability (or at least possibility) of ownership.

None of the above, singly, or all of them together, provide cast-iron proof about who may or may not have owned a book 56 years ago, but after much googling, my belief is that the D.M. Davin who once owned the book I now own was Daniel Marcus Davin, New Zealand author, Rhodes scholar, WWII soldier and intelligence officer, fellow of Balliol College, author, literary critic and long-time employee of the Oxford University Press.

How many others are there to choose from? Well, precisely none. Google, in its infinite capacity to seek out obscure, lost and forgotten information from the dim recesses of the past, could produce only one D.M. Davin for me. And he met, and exceeded, all of the criteria I outline above.

There may be another Dan Davin out there, or a Dawn Davin, but if this beautiful OUP edition of Dostoyevsky's letters wasn't this man's, I'm a Nobel Laureate.

Davin's career as a novelist, according to different internet sources, began promisingly with 'For the Rest of Our Lives' in 1947, but failed to flower into something enduring and substantial. I don't know; I've never read the books, though I might, now a little piece of his life has come into my possession.

As a man, and an intellectual, Davin squandered his talent and his creative energy, so these sources say, on critical writing and his tendency to give too much of himself away to younger writers while holding court in his favourite Oxford pubs. especially the Gardeners Arms. The picture of Davin shows him outside the Gardeners. Am I alone in thinking he looks a little merry?

Not remembered in England, still 'cherished' in New Zealand.

Camerado, this is no book.
Who touches this touches a man.

(Walt Whitman 'Leaves of Grass')




Monday, September 24, 2018

Mac Flecknoe: My First Encounter with Poetry



Michelle noticed John Dryden carved in stone on the front of Northampton Public Library a few days ago. Neither of us had ever noticed it before, but it turns out that Dryden was born in our fair county, in the miniscule village of Aldwincle. As far as I'm aware he's the only Northamptonshire poet to become Poet Laureate, not that that is an accolade most of us would seek.

Reading Dryden's history I remembered how I first came across him. It was in my English A Level class at Tresham College in Kettering. The year would have been 1981 or '82. Dryden's 'Absalom and Achitophel' was one of the set texts. I have learned, subsequently, that the poem is considered very important; I, however, couldn't follow it, and consequently I was tremendously bored by it.

'Mac Flecknoe', though, worked instantly for me, partly because it was easier to understand, but also because it was so joyously malicious:

All human things are subject to decay,
And, when Fate summons, monarchs must obey:
This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young
Was call'd to empire, and had govern'd long:
In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute
Through all the realms of Non-sense, absolute.

These are the six lines that open the poem, which is a sustained
satirical attack on the poet Thomas Shadwell, whose name, at least
in the text we studied, was rendered 'Sh----'. Mr. Hassett, our
teacher,who knew how to pique the interest of teenagers,
encouraged us to believe that this was what a commentator I read 
years later called a 'faecal innuendo'. It might have been, but since
'shit' and 'Shadwell' are syllabically different, I doubt it.

Still, we loved to believe it then. Mr Hassett wanted us believe it, 
and he laughed along with us. He treated the rest of the poem, with 
its savage wit and scatological detail, as a celebration of something 
delightfully illicit too, like smoking your first joint with a grownup;
and by doing so, he made the poem seem so much more immediate,
so much more interesting, so much less of an irrelevant old
museum piece, than it might have been in someone else's hands.

I began to pay attention to poetry because of that encounter with 
'Mac Flecknoe'. It primed me for my great awakening only a year 
later when I bought a Bob Dylan album and heard 'Kaddish' for the 
first time. After that, as I've written before, my world was
completely changed. But even today I love the satirical poets of the
Restoration and the Augustan period. I haven't gone back to Dryden
yet, but I might one day; I have 25 unread books on the floor by my
sofa, so I'd better get through those first.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Latest First Anniversary



The other day it occurred to me, with a smirk of satisfaction, that I haven't had a seizure for a year. Of course, these anniversaries are meaningless in a way. I could have one ten, twenty, thirty seconds from now and be right back where I started. I have gone for longer than a year without seizures too. Once I lasted eighteen months and thought I had beaten the condition, to whatever extent a permanent condition can be beaten. But last year, in the space of a few months, I had three very bad seizures; once I might even have died had my partner not been with me when it happened. So I will allow myself a small moment of celebration.

I have not gone without my brushes with the condition this year. I've had multiple warnings -- auditory and visual hallucinations that can precede a seizure. They often came when I was over-tired, or when I watched television in the dark, or looked at a computer screen for too long without a break. They came when I was feeling under pressure too. Only yesterday, on the bus going to a meeting I didn't want to attend, the warning happened, and as usual I thought a seizure might be seconds away. Fortunately, it wasn't; I just had to sit through the meeting with a headache and the nausea that warnings -- one might call them false warnings -- leave you with.

Today, on my latest first anniversary, I am feeling good, if a little tired after waking up early and getting no fresh air since. Will I go another day without having a seizure? Will I go another month? Another year? I don't expect anything from my condition except surprises, so we'll see what happens. As Raymond Carver once (beautifully) wrote, as part of a longer poem:

After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don’t forget it.”


'Gravy' by Raymond Carver


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Casting Out the Devil: Living with the Stigma of Epilepsy



Recently I lost my job. I'd been working at House of Fraser's Wellingborough warehouse for four years. Last year we began hearing whispers about its financial problems. Then DHL lost the contract to deliver the service for House of Fraser; it was won by XPO, who, we all presumed, had promised to deliver the same service for less money. But whatever was happening in the offices over our heads didn't work. House of Fraser went into administration and was bought by Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, where the abuse of workers was so infamous Ashley was called to explain himself in Parliament. (As far as I'm aware, not much changed.) Ashley, as the new boss at House of Fraser, immediately fell into a dispute with XPO, who wanted some assurance that he would make good on the millions of pounds they'd invested in automation to make the service more 'efficient'. He said he would pay them nothing; he was under no legal obligation to pay, so he wouldn't. It was war. And we, the ordinary workers, were the victims. Everybody at the warehouse employed by an agency -- the number ran into the hundreds -- was told with only a couple of days' notice not to come into work anymore. My agency promised to find us all other jobs. I expressed an interest in a certain warehouse on the outside of Northampton, my choice dictated by amenable hours and the accessibility of the place by bus. I'd had enough of the four-hour commute I'd put myself through every night for the last four years just to get to Wellingborough, only ten miles from my house. And everything seemed to be set; at a jobs fair I'd attended they said the company were desperate for new staff. I even spoke to the agency man who supervised that particular contract, asking him if he knew when I might be starting. 'I'm talking to the manager this afternoon,' he told me. 'He'll tell me what sort of volumes he needs and when, and I'll get back to you.' (People are 'volumes' now in the workplace.) That call happened six weeks ago and I've had no reply. Why? I can only guess. When the agency staff were laid off at House of Fraser, the supervisor there said our personal files would be passed directly on to the supervisor in our new workplace. And on my file there is one word that, in the years since my diagnosis, has changed everything: EPILEPSY. The same agency knew about my epilepsy at House of Fraser; but I'd already been in the job for two years when I was asked to make a health declaration by either the agency or DHL, so I lied and said I'd just been diagnosed. I knew what would happen if I didn't. I'd been treated like a pariah by employers since I started having seizures. It makes you guarded about what you say and to whom, and it cautions you always to expect the worst. The worst, after all, usually happens. But since, as far as they knew, my epilepsy was a recent discovery, they couldn't fire me because of it. That, of course, would be discrimination. Hiring someone who you know to be epileptic, of course, is quite a different matter. And you can have all the anti-discrimination laws you like, but if an employer doesn't want you because you're black, or a woman, or you have a learning difficulty, or you're in a wheelchair, or you have a long-term medical condition like I have, all they have to do is say, 'We went with someone with more experience,' and nobody can contradict them. Unless you can afford to go to court.
When I tell prospective employers I have epilepsy it's like the kiss of death. You can see the horror in their faces as they try to calculate how to respond to my disclosure without landing their company in a lot of legal trouble. One care work company actually had their lawyers on me, and insisted I give the company directors access to my medical records.And I have informed another agency in the last six weeks about my condition and despite my experience, my qualifications and my immaculate (ironic, isn't it?) sickness record, they can find nothing for me either.
Is this a coincidence? Have I become, in the last few years, mysteriously unemployable? Perhaps, but I don't think so. All of which leads me to an obvious solution. If I want work, I will just have to lie about my health as I did before to get work. But then, every company I've worked for in the last decade does random drug testing. If something you're taking is detected in your urine sample, and you haven't declared it, you will be instantly dismissed. As an epileptic I have to avoid stress. I can't be fearing, every day when I go to work, that I won't have a job before my shift is finished. I've got my seizures under control now, more or less; that kind of anxiety would put me on the floor again in hours. I can only hope that something good comes along, and while I'm waiting for that to happen, do a little retraining. Warehousing was all I could do when my epilepsy barred me from continuing in care work. Maybe if I learned how to do something else, I'll find less fear, more open-mindedness about what is, after all, a condition which many of us can have and lead perfectly normal, safe and productive lives. After being seizure-free for a certain amount of time a person is allowed to drive again; if you are considered safe behind the wheel of a car on a busy road, where could you, with any justice, be considered a danger?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Shipwrecked in Trumpland

There's a poetry page I've recently discovered that's doing something I think is really important. It's called Winedrunk Sidewalk: Shipwrecked in Trumpland and as the name suggests, it publishes a lot of poems about Donald Trump. I don't know if it has ever published any poetry in praise of Trump; I'd be surprised if anyone had written any, at least any that were publishable. But the anti-Trump poetry is fierce. So are some of the other pieces, all of which the editor, John Grochalski, selects to build a picture of life in Trump's America. Don't like messages in your poetry? Think writers should stay out of politics? The quality of the work in Winedrunk Sidewalk makes those objections redundant anyway, but as I'm sure John would agree, there are times when intellectual detachment just isn't good enough. The leader of the most powerful nation in the world is a racist, a homophobe, a self-confessed sexual predator and an enemy of the free press. Only weeks ago a socialist bookstore in London was raided by fascists. Can we continue to turn our backs and pretend everything's dandy when the world we grew up in, as fucked up as it was, is collapsing around our ears?

Saturday, March 31, 2018

What's Going On: Keeping It New in my Fifties

Leah Song of Rising Appalachia

Poetry is my vocation but music is my love. Music even gave me poetry, in a sense. I'd read one poem I loved before, but only one: Dryden's 'MacFlecknoe', which succeeded where others failed because it had fart jokes and a reference to people chucking their poo into the Thames in the morning. But listening to the words of Bob Dylan, I woke up to poetry's incredible possibilities. I also first encountered Allen Ginsberg in Dylan's movie 'Renaldo and Clara'.

I don't listen to Dylan anymore. There seems no need, I exhausted my appetite for his take on the world a long time ago. Other musical heroes have faded (Neil Young, for example) while on certain days I still listen to some. When Willie Nelson has a new one out, I always try to hear it. Partly that's because of Willie's amused detachment from the business he's in. He doesn't need fame for personal completion.The other reason is that he doesn't do the same thing repeatedly. In the last few years we've seen a reggae album and duets with Snoop Dogg interspersed with peace songs and dark meditations on death.

My creativity and my sense of personal well-being rely on my involvement with other artists; not as much as they depend on my relationships, but art is significant. Music, however, has changed. Just not in the way we think. Some younger people I've spoken to say it isn't as good as it used to be. And people in their forties and older, many of us, are convinced it's not. 'In our day you could see the Sex Pistols and the Jam on the same edition of "Top of the Pops",' they say. 'Now everything is Ed Sheeran and Adele.' I've even expressed that view myself on occasion and retreated into old musical habits to hide my mind from the over-produced commercialised garbage played ad nauseum on the radio. Crosby, Stills and Nash are vastly more appealing to my ears than anything I've heard on Heart Extra.

The thing is, you won't hear anything on the radio that will shake you up or thrill you or liberate you, not anymore. (There wasn't that much of it in the old days either.) It's true what the jaded nostalgia buffs and old cynics say about the music business being swallowed by the capitalist ethos of (in Jim Morrison's words) 'money beats soul every time'. If the record companies can't make money from an artist they won't sign him or her; and if artists doesn't bring a radio station listeners, it won't play them.

What those of us of an advanced vintage often forget is that we no longer need radio stations, or even music shops, to act as our intermediaries when it comes to music. The internet has been unwelcome, in a way, for artists with multi-million dollar recording contracts. Columbia police YouTube like Chinese secret police in Lhasa and insist every upload of a Bob Dylan song (Dylan, the scion of Woody Guthrie) be deleted for copyright reasons. Artists without contracts, or artists recording on tiny labels, however, can put their music online and be heard, potentially, almost anywhere in the world. And as listeners we can hear almost any musician in the world, if they have access to a camera.

So lately I've been doing just that, going online to see what, and who, I could find. There are probably a hundred different platforms I don't know about, but YouTube is the one I've been using for my investigations. The results have been extraordinary. It turns out there is a whole generation of young artists who I'd never even heard of making fresh, honest, soulful, brilliant new music. You will never see most of it on tv, and if some of these men and women get within five miles of a giant concert venue it will be when they are busking for pennies from Sheeran fans. But that isn't important. It's the music that's important. Which sounds dreadfully purist and not at all the sort of sentiment you're supposed to indulge in now, but I think people should be purists about their art. Power subjugates and controls first by making us cynical.

Here's one band I found during my searches for new music online. Even their name would prevent them from being played on the radio, unless 'on the rag' means something different on the other side of the water. Seeing how they rattle out 'Something Smells Like Fish', though, I have a feeling that exclusion from mainstream radio wouldn't bother them a bit. They look like they're having a party out on the street.


The most polished and realised of the bands is Rising Appalachia, at least from the searches I've made. They have had some success already, and they come with a complete environmental and spiritual vision for the world. I thought they were my discovery until Martyna, a hippie friend, told me she listened to them every morning. Then I found out one of my other Facebook friends was an admirer too. They do have music out. I've looked for them on Amazon to see if they had a cd I could buy. Unfortunately, they're all in the £15-25 range, which is a little out of my league. 

I could go on for much longer about the fantastic music that's being made right now, and how inspiring it has been for me creatively to find it. But I don't want to tax the reader's patience. I'll end with one more video, this one featuring the most raggle-taggle gang you'll ever see knocking out a great performance on the street. They're the Rail Yard Ghosts and they kick serious musical arse.









Sunday, March 18, 2018

Discovering India


This is Gaurav Maurander. I bought a cd of his for 50 pence in a Northampton charity shop yesterday. 'Neemrana: A Musical Journey in India.' I didn't know anything about him, but I liked the image on the front of the disc. It had several people seated on a stage playing traditional Indian instruments: the sitar, the tabla, the sarod, the tampura. There was no evidence anywhere of anything remotely modern or intrinsically Western. It was unlikely, therefore, to be one of those ghastly cds you buy in alternative shops which drown traditional Asian music in soporific synthesisers and rain sounds as a relaxation aid. It was also, as I've already mentioned, only 50 pence, so if I'd guessed incorrectly I wouldn't be too much out of pocket.


The album, I'm happy to report, is a joy, although the liner notes reveal that there's a strong Western connection. The collection of musical pieces that comprised the tour from which 'Neemrana' derives were all composed by Gaurav, but he was asked to write them by two French musicians, and most of the musicians on the tour were French. The last track 'Pahadi-Dhun' was recorded in France too, although the rest are from performances in India. 


Musical criticism isn't my forte, as readers of Suffolk Punch will know. Largely this is because I haven't got a clue about the technicalities of musical composition; if I knew the vocabulary of music, in other words, I might be able to talk about it better. And I understand that traditional Indian music is extremely complicated. Watch, as I have, Ringo Starr and George Harrison discussing how maddeningly elusive mastery of Indian rhythms is in the Scorcese documentary 'Living in the Material World'.


All I can say about 'Neemrana', then, is that it sounds like the India of my mind (I've never been): I don't know how, but the music evokes great heat, flat landscapes and slowly winding rivers, the air pregnant with ancient deities; it also captures the busy-ness of teeming cities. Which is precisely what I want from Indian music. The dance beats that I hear on the BBC Asian Network give me nothing I can't get on mainstream English radio; and I've rarely danced in the fifty three years I've been on the planet.

With time to spare, and curious enough to know more about Gaurav, I entered his name into the search bar on YouTube; unsurprisingly, perhaps, he's there. Each video of his also suggested numerous other traditional Indian musicians I was equally unaware of. This made me realise something interesting. I'm a relatively intelligent, open-minded and culturally aware man. But there are whole areas of the arts I know nothing about, and the determining factor in my ignorance, other than laziness (which would prevent me from digging for information hidden by the cultural selections made by an ethnocentric media), is obviously race. The only sitar players I could have named before yesterday were Ravi and Anoushka Shankar. Perhaps I need to stop expecting that my artistic inspirations should like quite so much like me?

Here's Roopa Panesar, a musician who, my research this morning shows, is well known enough to have been featured on Radio Three - not that I had a clue. I'll be on YouTube again tomorrow looking for more.









George Orwell: When the Etonian Reared his Head

Reading Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' for the second time, I notice something I didn't see the first time around: his upper-crust Englishness. I'm no Orwell expert, but like everyone who grew up in the political Left, I have a certain sentimental view of him as a champion of the working class; as a libertarian; as an egalitarian; as someone who crusaded for the binning of the old world order.

'1984' and 'Animal Farm' certainly show us a man opposed to totalitarianism, and only a dogmatist would believe that was the province of politics in the East. But traditional English values seem to run through Orwell, at least pre-war Orwell, the way a seaside town's name runs through a stick of rock.

You can see the Old Etonian in his generalisations about race. He expresses a peculiar belief, for example, that Americans know nothing about 'good' food:

They would stuff themselves with disgusting American 'cereals', and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner [...]. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.

Another pearl of wisdom is that women aren't given the job of chef in Parisian hotels because they are less able to co-ordinate the preparation and delivery of multiple simultaneous orders. The most surprising comment, however - at least for me - was this one about waiters:

[...] They work fifteen hours, seven days a week, in many cafes. They are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.

Only an old Etonian, or the equivalent, could believe that. Hard work and long hours might be congenial to those who are amply rewarded, but no one who's getting paid a pittance wants to spend the best part of every day working his arse off for someone else, even if he or she does think it might be an investment in the future. 

None of the above observations diminish either my enjoyment of the book or my respect for Orwell (perhaps my respect for him is diminished a bit). He was a man of his time, and in any case, I feel I know him a little better by reading them. Many offspring of the upper classes have felt compelled, in the last 200 years, to take up the cudgels on behalf of the worker.

In the current climate of the Labour Party, however - the party which lionises Orwell traditionally - I think about the comments I've quoted, and other, frankly rather racist ones that I couldn't find as I leafed back through the book, and wonder what the reaction to them would be from Labour members if he were alive today, and he posted them on Twitter. The anti-Americanism might meet with tacit approval; even Americans have had the gravest doubts about their country since the election of Donald Trump. But I suspect there'd be considerable public condemnation and expressions of regret by party members about the rest of his remarks, even if they did fall short of calling him a Blairite, which is the usual, habitual response.



Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Lynching of Radclyffe Hall





Radclyffe Hall may be the least remembered of all the Western writers, poets and playwrights whose life and works were pilloried and forced to endure protracted legal battles in the last couple of centuries. Every person with an interest in the arts knows about Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg. But Radclyffe Hall? My own guilty confession is that I didn't even come across her name until Ginsberg mentioned her in a BBC interview in 1995 or '96. 

Why is she lower on the literary radar when her book 'The Well of Loneliness' caused a scandal and was prosecuted, and ultimately banned, under the Obscene Publications Act? One answer leaps to mind. Any man whose novel was condemned by the Home Secretary, now or historically, as 'gravely detrimental to the public interest', would be celebrated for all time. Radclyffe Hall was a woman, though, and a lesbian. Or, as she liked to call herself, an 'invert'. The book, which I haven't read, seems to have been a plea for these inverts, presenting them as suffering outcasts who deserve tolerance and understanding rather than the condemnation of the upright heterosexual world.

Can't argue with that, you might think, sitting here in the somewhat brighter light of 2018. But 90 years ago lesbianism, while not strictly against the law like male homosexuality, was seen as vile and corrupt, a degenerate practice that went against nature and would certainly lead astray any impressionable young woman who was exposed to it. So when Radclyffe Hall, already a successful novelist with a public profile, wrote a book on the subject, the moral guardians of the age went into overdrive, using tactics that wouldn't have been out of place in Soviet Russia to suppress it.

Hall had intellectual opinion on her side, but only in the sense that the academic and creative heavyweights of her day generally supported her right to publish. According to Diana Souhami's biography 'The Trials of Radclyffe Hall', Leonard Woolf didn't like the book, Cyril Connolly thought it 'brave' but humourless and boring, and Virginia Woolf thought the campaign to defend it a distraction, and wished it had never been written.

Woolf would defend 'The Well of Loneliness' in court, however, which H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both avoided even promising to do by announcing that they had left the country. John Galsworthy, who amusingly was the President of the PEN Club, said he was too busy to go to court and that anyway, literary freedom of expression was not at risk from the Government's attempt to ban Radclyffe Hall's book. The only notable author of the time who agreed to appear for the prosecution, supporting thereby the view that its content was obscene and all copies in existence should be burned, was Rudyard Kipling, creator of Mowgli and Baloo. Kipling also wrote 'The White Man's Burden', one of the most racist poems I've ever fouled ten minutes of my day with, so perhaps there should be no surprise.

At the trial, despite the presence of Woolf, E.M. Forster and 'almost every author of repute', in Sheila Kaye-Smith's words, the case was lost. Sir Chartres Biron, the judge, responding to a reasonable request by the defence to call expert testimony, made the outrageous declaration, 'I am here to decide whether this book is obscene or not.' And perhaps to no one's great surprise, after an appeal that was also lost, 'The Well of Loneliness' was 'consigned to the King's furnace.'

The extracts I've read from Hall's book have more in common stylistically with the writers of a previous age than the experiments and innovations of her contemporaries; by all accounts extremely conservative (quite an irony), only a few years later she developed a virulent anti-Semitism and a naïve infatuation with Mussolini. She was, however -- not that such things are excusable -- molested as a child, and forced to live in a world that regarded her natural sexual orientation as perverted and sinful. That would do great damage to most of us. Being different, or feeling different (sometimes not the same thing), in a society that favours conformity is a well of loneliness that drops very deep into the ground.

Do you remember a time when you sat down and decided whether you were going to fancy boys or girls? No, me neither. What worries me, when I read about Radclyffe Hall, or I consider what happened to Oscar Wilde, is that the tides of political reaction sweeping across the world may take us back to the days when people could be brutalised by the state, as they were, for loving in a fashion proscribed by the authors of a 2000 year old book. Which is the more offensive anyway, a novel that celebrates the diversity of love, or a spirit manual that calls it an abomination when the participants in the exchange can't populate an already over-populated world with more children?