Sail Away

click here for lyrics and more
I can’t remember the train of thought, or musical musing, which led me from Laurie Anderson to Randy Newman. It may have gone in the other direction. I ordered “Sail Away” on the 10th of Jan., then posted the piece about Laurie (O Superman) 2 days later. They patently have much in common, being led by ideas, with the music often an ironic accompaniment. They both subtly invoke America as a favourite butt for their satire. Moreover,

[their] best songs implicate the listener *

and

[they] presume an intelligence and literacy in [their] audience *

as I do too, with visitors to this site. Accordingly, I present without further comment God’s Song (that’s why I love mankind). It opens in a new window or tab. Here are the lyrics:

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why / For if the children of Israel were to multiply / Why must any of the children die? / So he asked the Lord / And the Lord said: Man means nothing he means less to me / Than the lowliest cactus flower / Or the humblest Yucca tree / He chases round this desert / Cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be / That’s why I love mankind / I recoil in horror fro the foulness of thee / From the squalor and the filth and the misery / How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me / That’s why I love mankind / The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree / The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV / They picked their four greatest priests / And they began to speak / They said, “Lord, a plague is on the world / Lord, no man is free / The temples that we built to you / Have tumbled into the sea / Lord, if you won’t take care of us / Won’t you please, please let us be?” / And the Lord said / And the Lord said / I burn down your cities—how blind you must be / I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we / You all must be crazy to put your faith in me / That’s why I love mankind / You really need me / That’s why I love mankind


* See article in Popmatters: “What does Randy Newman say when he talks with God?” which includes this:

Greil Marcus suggests that “His best songs implicate the listener” (Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. New York: Plume, 2015. p.108), while Kevin Courrier argues that Newman “presumes an intelligence and literacy in his audience” (Randy Newman’s American Dreams. Toronto: ECW Press, 2005. p.xvi).

The article also saves me from trying to set down my own thoughts after listening to the “Sail Away” album, and goes beyond them. I particularly like its use of the word “maltheistic” which cannot be found in the OED. Wiktionary is helpful though:

maltheism: The belief that there is an evil God or gods.
Etymology: macaronic nonce coinage from mal-, from Latin malus (“bad”), + theism (compare misotheism and dystheism). Attested in Usenet discussions from 1985

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Featured post: Human animal

mywaterfallIt’s less than a week since I posted last but seems longer; and then it gets harder to try and distil the impressions and thoughts of several days into a short space. One thing: I wanted to lead you by the hand and show you “my” waterfall (100 yards from my door) but a photo must take the place of that childish gesture. I have no garden, just a rented flat but like Diogenes, the less I have the more I can claim as my own *. He was the originator of the Cynic philosophy, not cynical in the modern sense of denying the goodness of human nature; but cynic as in κύων, cyon, dog. He and I have in common that we rejoice in man as animal, though I don’t live in a barrel and perform acts of grossness in public. My writings unlike his are preserved so you can know me directly, whereas we only have salty anecdotes about him.

Another philosopher was on my mind today, René Descartes. If I recall correctly—anyone can check the Net but I prefer the distortions of memory—Descartes was holed up in Holland far from home one cold winter, huddling up to a stove behind which could be heard the sound of crickets wintering in crevices. He eschewed the baggage of traditional concepts and tried to reason everything from first principles, famously proving his own existence through the observable fact of his “cogito”. I’m less impressed by reason and try not to rely on it. What interests me is instincts and feelings, particularly those which show that the “spiritual” is an outgrowth of human life’s full-time preoccupation: how to get by.

It seems to me that civilisation has tried to take us away from “brute” existence; tried to show that we are above the beasts. It’s part of my method on the other hand to reject all culture in order to rediscover how we become what we are, whether above, below or equal to the beasts.

What is it to be human? That is my quest. If I have to behave eccentrically to get there, so be it. I consider my own lifelong tendency to rebellion and solitude, a perennial sulky teenager outcast in a wilderness of his own creation. Has it been a self-imposed penance or was it simply the best I could do at the time? Everyone’s behaviour is adaptive, a way of trying to get by. The philosopher is no exception when he thinks and publishes. What we all do from birth onwards is carve ourselves a space in this world enough to sustain life. Hunters did this in forest and plain. Peasants succeeded them, holding land for pastoral and arable farming. Nowadays this has become “virtual”, a handy word: we have learned to deal with tokens, not real things.

Red deer on Exmoor

The core of my philosophy is to convey that intellect is not the organ for discovery of truth, but a useful weapon as well as an overdeveloped excrescence for display purposes. The human cerebral cortex has got so sophisticated that we can’t cope with it. To understand overdevelopment, consider the antlers of the red deer stag.

If you have reached this far, I am sorry to burden you with such a heavyweight thing as a philosophy: yes, heavy like antlers! We know that thinking hurts but we have to go to school anyhow and learn it, because life in this world is a permanent rutting season, and male or female, we are forced to grow unwieldy antlers to compete and display. What else is blogging?

But lest my philosophy sound top-heavy, a story of alpha-male dominance, I protest it’s the very opposite. I’m about to present its core secret. The drums roll, the fanfare sounds, and you would expect at this point a collection-plate to be passed around for contributions before the magician performs his most astounding trick. But no need for that: we’re family here, share and share alike in trust.

Everyone’s special, therefore everyone’s ordinary.

Not seeing the intrinsic glory of being human, we try to be special. We compete and get stressed and have beliefs, and before you know it we are hooked on elitism and prejudice without being aware of it. Don’t think that with these words I am promoting a political correctness agenda. No, no! The opposite.

What I celebrate is the ordinary: acceptance of the given. Not to change the world or escape from it, but to submit to its embrace. Like Diogenes, I want to point out that our needs are simple, even though we carry the burden of beliefs and culture on our heads and get entangled in thickets. Let us not get mired in scholarship either, saying, “Oh this sounds like the Tao te Ching!” or some other philosophy. We don’t need books. (It takes a bold writer to say that.)

We already have all the equipment we need to discover what it means to be human, and no one “out there” can tell us.


* See also this post.

Featured post: Pedestrian

I first published this post on 28th February 2007, soon after starting a seven-month stint working full-time in a computer company I called “MaxiRam”, in “Babylon Town”. It wouldn’t matter to give real names now, but the pseudonyms were a piece with the nicknames I gave to the people I worked with there: Al Pacino, Ludwig van Beethoven, Kevin, EvilC, Colin Heffer, whose real names I’ve long forgotten, with one exception. I signed my posts with a made-up name too, I thought it was Yves Rochereau, taken from an album of African music, but it was the singer Tabu Ley Rochereau, commemorated in the URL of this WordPress site. I realized it was time to change from Yves to Vincent when I realized that Paul Maurice Martin thought I was a girl §.

Changing the blog title to A Wayfarer’s Notes marked a new awareness of the power of aimless walking in my life: a benign escape from mundane to transcendental. I submitted to this miracle every lunchtime break from work; used it as a standard of wholeness and sanity to evaluate office interactions, and find them wanting. The open air reminded me I was free. Walking was the symbol of freedom. I could go everywhere unhindered. There were footpaths and stiles.There was even some recreation land for the amenity of Hewlett-Packard employees at Amen Corner on either side of Beehive Lane, reached from MaxiRam across Peacock Farm and over a little footbridge decorated with delightful graffiti. If you carried on you were in Nike territory. I’ve only just realized that the skating rink, ski slopes, hotel and other buildings concentrated in this outlying part of Babylon Town were developed by an Englishman, John Nike, who had nothing to do with the Nike brand of footwear. 

With my head in the clouds, intoxicated by such magical places within easy walking distance, I treated my office job as a purely technical task; at which I was slow and in various ways out of date. I guess I was seen as socially disdainful, but that wasn’t exactly true. I disdained the politics and the pulling of rank. I was ready for I-Thou encounters regardless of status, but those who’d play that game were very few. There is more to add by way of introduction to this Babylon Town phase of my life. But for now here’s that post as promised


The idea came to me whilst walking, as all my ideas seem to do. Actually they don’t start as ideas at all. They are impulses or feelings. The conversion into words is a mysterious process, and none more than yesterday.

My daily sojourn in Babylon Town, code name for where I work, is beginning to feel less like exile, and more like just another part of the planet where I feel at home. This is a far cry from how I felt about it on first arriving, as this blog faithfully records, for a blog has this virtue, that whether fact or fiction, it has chronological integrity; I mean it says what was felt at the time.

My midday walks have lately been little more than a necessity for health and sanity, a break from the incessant demands of MaxiRam, my temporary employer. But yesterday something changed that prompted this blog, formerly As in Life . . . to change its name.*

Walking has defined my life from an early age. My mother used to tell a story of how she left me at two years old in a playpen in front of the bungalow in Bassendean where we had our lodgings at the time. When she returned from her errands, I was gone, and mysteriously so was the playpen, designed to fence me in and keep me safe. I was seen by passers-by using it as a walking-frame, determinedly pushing it before me as I aimed straight for the Swan River, which in that Perth suburb was meandering and reedy.

In its every square yard, Babylon Town bears evidence of the planner’s zeal, for its shape was determined on the drawing board, rather than evolving chaotically like most other towns in England. The planners clearly envisaged that the motor-car would be the residents’ main means of transport and the lorry, symbol of industry, the most respected. Overlaid on a structure of fast roads are more recent politically correct cycle-paths weaving through underpasses and across hinterlands of grass.

But where do the people walk? Yesterday in the drizzle I stepped carefully on rain-sodden narrow grass verges, recently disturbed by molehills, and wandered at random till I discovered an underbelly of Babylon Town: a deserted park and lakes and managed wild-life habitats and crumbling steps and piazzas and walls of graffiti—much-needed decoration in some desolate corners. I was glad to see the evidence of humanity, however scruffy, overlaying the tidy intellect of town planners, however well-meaning.

The beauty of walking is that you can get almost everywhere. Most of the “Keep Out” signs apply to motorists. What greater joy than to roam the earth on foot?

I immediately think of those denied this freedom, including my own self for more than ten years, till recently: those in jail, or so immobile they need to be turned to prevent bedsores; or those shut away in a house because their parents are ashamed of their deformities and handicaps. To be sad on their behalf won’t help them. I’ll walk joyfully and be mindful of all my brothers and sisters especially Paul.


Postscript 30th January, 2018:
* changed its name to A Wayfarer’s Notes
as I saw in Sabah, Malaysia, sometime in the Nineties, visiting some relatives of my then wife.
Author of Original Faith, who had been confined to his room with a mysterious illness from the age of 23. Before that, he’d been a lover of wandering & jogging out of doors, and recalled these experiences in his book. His illness got worse. Around 2011 he reported that his blog with all its comments had been accidentally overwritten, though parts of it can still be traced on the Internet Archive. Today I trawl the Net to discover a report of his death.

When I started this blog in 2006, he was the first reader to comment. He also appended a comment to this post.

§ This is what he wrote in a comment on 26th March 2007:

Well, all I can say is I’m glad I didn’t fall in love, LOL! “Yves” is not a common name here in the States. I guess it brought to mind Yvonne if that’s how you spell it—and Eve, which are both female names, not too common either.

I had one other experience like this but it was set to rights faster. I had a physical therapy appointment with a therapist named “Jan” who turned out to be about six foot three & probably around 230 pounds. Pronounced “Yahn” in the Netherlands and the equivalent of John…

O Superman

O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad. O Superman. O judge. O Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad. Hi. I’m not home right now. But if you want to leave a message, just start talking at the sound of the tone. Hello? This is your Mother. Are you there? Are you coming home? Hello? Is anybody home? Well, you don’t know me, but I know you. And I’ve got a message to give to you. Here come the planes. So you better get ready. Ready to go. You can come as you are, but pay as you go. Pay as you go. And I said: OK. Who is this really? And the voice said: This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the hand, the hand that takes. This is the hand, the hand that takes. Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America. Smoking or non-smoking? And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. ‘Cause when love is gone, there’s always justice. And when justice is gone, there’s always force. And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom! So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms. In your arms. So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms. In your electronic arms.

In homage to the avant-garde diva and prophetess whose song reached #2 on the British pop charts on this date, October 17th, 1981.

I used to have a cassette of her album Strange Angels. I liked it so much that I gave it to my elder daughter as a generous gesture; her tastes being off-beat and eclectic, even more so than mine. She was horrified as if I’d given her a live scorpion. My younger son had a trick greeting card once. I think he got it in Malaysia. When you opened it, a dried scorpion leapt out on a concealed spring.

I’d place Laurie Anderson in whatever pantheon houses Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, only her irony is more acerbic. I don’t see Americans in general or the Nobel Prize committee taking her to their hearts.

Here are the lyrics to her “Hiawatha”. To listen to her unearthly rendition, click here (opens in a new tab).

By the shores of Gitche Gumee
By the shining big, sea water
Downward through the evening twilight
In the days that are forgotten
From the land of sky blue waters

And I said: Hello Operator, get me Memphis Tennessee
And she said: I know who you’re tryin’ to call darlin’
And he’s not home he’s been away
But you can hear him on the airwaves
He’s howlin’ at the moon
Yeah this is your country station
And honey this next one’s for you

And all along the highways
And under the big western sky
They’re singin’ Ooo oooooo
They’re singin’ Wild Blue
And way out on the prairie
And up in the high chaparral
They hear a voice it says: Good evening
This is Captain Midnight speaking
And I’ve got a song for you
Goes somethin’ like this:

Starlight Starbright
We’re gonna hang some new stars in the heavens tonight
They’re gonna circle by day
They’re gonna fly by night
We’re goin’ sky high. Yoo Hooooo hooo
Yeah yoo hooo Ooo Hooooooooo
So good night ladies
And good night gentlemen
Keep those cards and letters coming
And please don’t call again

Geronimo and little Nancy
Marilyn and John F. dancing
Uncle took the message
And it’s written on the wall
These are pictures of the houses
Shining in the midnight moonlight
While the King sings Love Me Tender

And all along the watchtowers
And under the big western sky
They’re singing Yoo Hooooo
They’re singing Wild Blue
And way, way up there, bursting in air
Red rockets, bright red glare
From the land of sky blue waters
Sent by freedom’s sons and daughters

We’re singing Ooo Hoooooooo
We’re singing Wild Blue
We’re singing Ooo Hoooooooo Ooo Hooooooooo

And dark behind it rose the forest
Rose the black and gloomy pine trees
Rose the firs with Cones upon them
And right before it beat the water
Beat the clear and sunny water
Beat the shinning big, sea water

 

Rooted here

kwithwidetree
Sunday July 29th 2007, near the prehistoric Ridgeway Path in Saunderton Lee: Karleen in front of a single beech tree, once part of a much-pruned hedgerow, then left to grow on its own

I’ve been hors de combat for a few days, still not fighting fit but enough sometimes to let my fingers walk across a keyboard. It’s time to explain what’s going on here at Wayfarer’s Notes. Some weeks ago I realized that its words, reader comments, links and pictures belong nowhere else but here. No e-book, no anthology in paper or hardback.

I’m slow to grasp what may be obvious to others, ever proceeding * by trial and error, obstinately persisting in mistakes.The fool who persists in his folly, that’s me. It’s the only way I know, but seems to work  in the end.

Just as man and all his fellow-creatures evolved specifically to live in the climates and land-masses of Earth, to migrate, mingle and multiply on terra firma, so did these writings evolve as a blog, discrete pieces each written to stand on its own, published across intervals of time. Occasionally they’ve reflected the seasons, or even world events; but I don’t see them as being anchored in time, merely parts of an ill-defined whole. They are rooted where they are: any attempt at transplant will only denature them. Why bother to migrate? Hannah Arendt asked a similar question, when space travel became a possibility:

The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly nature, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move and breathe without effort and without artifice.

There’s vanity in being a book-writer, I’ve not been immune to it, and see no reason to call it a vice, but a legitimate spur and provocation to take up one’s lance, to joust at the lists, or vie for a place on the best-seller lists. There’s ambition: to be rewarded for one’s labour with a bid for fame or fortune. Maybe a shot at immortality, a means toward the denial of death, as I proposed when reviewing Ernest Becker’s book of that name:

. . . he succeeded in repressing death himself, by attaining personal distinction, proving superiority to the others and attaining a kind of immortality. What else is a Pulitzer Prize?

I prefer to be realistic, and admit that I do this for immediate satisfaction. One committed reader is spur enough. Failing which there’s my own self.

I’ve loved printed books from an early age, sometimes in loco parentis,  when left with them in lieu of a baby-sitter. They have a longevity which we mistake for permanence. They have a physical presence: you can use them to decorate your walls, recall their content by scanning their spines. And then again, there is the Internet, accessible from a small device which can fit in your pocket. I imagine it’s here to stay.

So, having decided to stay here, on this WordPress blog (just as Karleen and I have long decided to stay here, in this house, this neighbourhood, these Chiltern Hills), the thing to do is to improve the place and make it more welcoming. It wasn’t till I’d transferred every post, plus many illustrations and comments, into a single formatted Word document§, that I started to grasp a clear sense of its existence as a kind of unity. There are certain themes which run through its lifespan. They are its life-blood. They convey meaning and intent, as veins on a leaf convey water and nutrients, rising from the roots of a tree through myriad capillaries.

hosptree
From the local hospital, October 2010

I’ve never been constrained by any sense of what this blog is supposed to be about. It’s always arisen from the urge to write a post, in the context of this moment in space and time. The topics have been innumerable, but after all these years I’ve realized there’s no need to index them, when you can search a word or phrase. Come to that, WordPress offers the option to feature links to related posts, determined without human intervention.

Recently I set up a “console” showing a set of themes which in my judgement have permeated the writing of every post since the first in April 2006. They weren’t consciously chosen, but discovered retrospectively. Together I think it’s fair to say they are the reason I write. They link my life in an Ariadne’s thread of meaning.  Until I started, I had no idea where my thoughts would go. Following your nose like an excited dog takes you places you might not reach by other means. When you have no plan, and go where the feet take you, or let your fingers do the walking on the keyboard, you find answers to the question “Who am I?”. This gets us to the heart of true knowledge, as opposed to the hearsay we are taught. Ramana Maharshi says it’s the only spiritual path needed. When I know who I am I can be it more single-mindedly, not waste my life trying to be someone else. Nor should I side-track myself into pursuing any other ambition. Let my loyalty be to the moment. There can be nothing more strenuous. The reward is freedom. Everything else is escapism.

Freedom allows us to start again as often as we wish. As I proposed in a recently updated post ^,  true learning requires us to set aside preconceived ideas, and begin afresh. Every day a new beginning.


* in “Adaptation
from her prologue to The Human Condition, 1957, quoted in “Hannah Arendt on Action
from “The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker
§ 2,500 pages, 682,000 words, 416,000mb. Couldn’t upload it to Kindle Direct Publishing. It frequently crashes during updating. Compared to the native blog, it’s riddled with compromises.
Console
^Beginnings

jotted psalm

We cannot own love, only glimpse, feel it touch us, pass through, dwell in us.
We are more or less feeble receivers, picking up signals from an unknown transmitter.

Science is a petty thing before love, for it wants to know,
grasp, possess, dismantle to fragments
harness, claim, proclaim.
Yet science is a thing: wonderful, intricate, quasi-infinite in its macro- and micro- reach.

The fool has said in his heart, there is nothing, no one, no power greater than I.
When this “I” becomes small, it can enter through the eye of a needle
to see what has always been here, hidden in plain view.

What has to be done? No more and no less
than what you and I can do.
We are creatures. Yet in making
we can be raised up like prophets.

Something comes into being
that was not there before,
the miracle of creation re-enacted.
It is seen through the eyes, heard through the ears,
tasted, felt.

It is lauded and sung
through voice and writing hand.
It is described through the dancing of limbs.

If we are not grateful, we know nothing.
If we are grateful, we know how little we know.

Adaptation

consoles
I wasted some time crafting a graphic: a virtual keyboard for mouse or touch-screen, fingertip-ready for the curious adventurer. The idea was to provide a console, like an array of organ-stops—or a dashboard, in current IT jargon. In this way, I would offer the reader the choice of themes running through this blog like the multicoloured threads of a tapestry.

Tapestry 1966 by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi 1924-2005
Tapestry, Edwardo Paolozzi, 1966 (reproduced sideways)

Favouring a retro design, I thought of the circular keys on old-fashioned typewriters, but there wasn’t enough space to fit the theme names. Anyhow, the software I use to draw hotspots on graphics does rectangles by default. So I ended up with a simulated computer keyboard, getting a single blank key and then cloning it; splicing parts of another to make a space bar.

keys on the top row have been linked. I welcome feedback on whether this works on your device
angels animals beginnings the Bible blessings books & films the Chilterns

Many of the best pics on the Web come from stock image suppliers who protect their property with watermarks, so as not to give them out free. A little tweaking using my Windows 95® version of CorelDraw—better the retro you know, clunky as it may be—was enough to wash out watermarks from the fragments I needed. I’d forgive myself this peccadillo, but the international company  I “borrowed” from is based a mere 30 miles away, northwest of the Chilterns (one of my principal themes, see top-right key). The sin, if it’s that, seems greater when the victim is almost in my backyard, as opposed to say California. Not that I’ve regularly cheated Microsoft, in case you’re wondering.

It strikes me that geographical loyalty goes back to tribal pre-history and shouldn’t be judged harshly by global-liberal* standards. I’m primitive in this way, but since my closest neighbours come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Poland and Romania, this localism doesn’t have the chauvinistic connotations you might imagine.

I digress, for my point is that the virtual keyboard, lovingly crafted as it was, doesn’t work. It’s all right on my desktop but not on my tablet, so it wouldn’t work on a smartphone either because the graphic would be resized leaving the hotspots unshrunk. I’m sure there’s a way round this but in any case the thing isn’t adaptable. Takes hours to set up and then you want to change the theme-set. For example I soon realized that “muse” was redundant, not meriting a theme on its own. All in all, my efforts were “a waste of time”. One makes the judgement retrospectively. It’s easy to beat ourselves up about all the wastes of time and money that have filled our years. How otherwise would we have passed the time? In my case, I’ve made such a speciality of trial and error, it could be a theme for this blog.

It’s common for offspring to blame their parents for bad example, or bad genes. I know my children do that to me—in joke, I should add. I’d take it further and blame our characteristic behaviours on our entire line of ancestors and cosmic antecedents stretching back to the mythical Big Bang. Or Eden, if you prefer. One characteristic is to get it wrong and gradually learn from mistakes. God was not exempt. His Humankind project had to be rebooted more than once. It made a bad start with the expulsion from Eden. Then things went so wrong there had to be a Flood, and an Ark, to see if that would fix it. Unfortunately it’s never yet been right. Evolution is littered with extinctions. Are they failed projects? No, they are simply part of the universal modus operandi, known as “survival of the fittest”.

Nature is resourceful, tries all kinds of mutation. Adapt or die. In the case of my virtual keyboard, it was condemned by its rigid carapace. Creatures with exoskeletons, such as  crustaceans, are disadvantaged compared with us vertebrates. Did we not evolve from fish?§

There can be no moving forward without some falling by the wayside.

A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.

Nature is imperfect. What makes us think we can do better? Still, we do. And I’m glad. It’s our built-in reason for living. We can adapt individually, this is what life is for. And then we die, anyway.


* “Globaliberalism” gets only two hits on Google, so it’s not a word yet.

“Spirituality” is a dubious word, in my opinion. I’m not sure it’s really a thing—it’s more of a bin to throw things in. But that will have to wait for a sequel. Angels, God, blessings, eternity, on the other hand—these have subjective existence in a person’s experience, disregarding any beliefs attached.

I’ve made it a theme now.

§ See “Do Fish Have Souls?

Farewell Christine Keeler

CKdeath
Click for the personal obituary I wrote a year ago

I’m no fan of the Daily Mail: neither its headlines nor its content. Christine and I  met one afternoon and had an interesting conversation. I was a gauche boy of seventeen with no experience of girls but there she was, ready to be chatted up. We were exactly the same age, but she was already entangled in the connections which were to bring her downfall, with wide-reaching consequences in British politics. According to journalistic cliché, her influence spread wider, as in this from today’s CKchairobituary in the Telegraph:

The scandal somehow defined a generation. When Philip Larkin wrote that “Sexual Intercourse began in 1963/ Between the Lady Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP”, it was to Christine Keeler and John Profumo that he was assumed to be referring. A devastating, leggy beauty, Christine Keeler became an icon of the times in her own right through a famous (and much parodied) Lewis Morley photograph in which she sits, naked and pouting, astride a Jacobson butterfly chair.

I remember the gist of our conversation. She was a bright girl from a fractured family background. I believe they lived on a low-life caravan site (trailer park)*. She’d already found her escape route. It was all too easy to see herself as a one-trick pony, a fascinating bait for rich and powerful men. Not that I had the perspective to grasp this at the time. I remember we talked together as equals—Innocence meeting Experience. Solemnly, almost like a concerned parent, I offered the opinion that she couldn’t simply rely on contacts in high places. She needed marketable skills to fall back on. But no, she had to fall back in her own way.

And did she fall! I feel no sadder than I did last year when I wrote “The Girl Who Rocked the Government”. Somehow, she died long before she died.


* “Christine Keeler was born on February 22 1942 in a converted railway carriage on the edge of a gravel pit at Wraysbury, Buckinghamshire. In the absence of her real father, who was away in the Army, her mother took up with a man whom Christine was told to call ‘Dad’, and who, she later sometimes claimed, molested her.” (from today’s Telegraph obituary)

The Damage was Done

Karleen was going into town, it’s fifteen minutes’ walk, and as usual asked me to check the weather. The Met Office said 10% chance of rain, so she didn’t take an umbrella.

I thought it was time to write something, it often starts with dictation then you can just say whatever comes and I started with this:

What I have been given is what I can give back. In order to know what I’ve been given, I need to know who I truly am. If I am alive at all, I have been given something. To give back provides a purpose in life.

Dictation goes with walking, and so I went out the door, only to discover that it was drizzling slightly. OK, so I would take Karleen’s umbrella and meet her in town. As giving goes, it was the tiniest thing. On my way, I passed down Ashridge Road, at the end of our road. Nothing ever happens there—except sometimes extreme parking, all over the sidewalks, double yellow lines, corners, making it risky, whether driving or on foot. We have parking wardens to catch these things so it’s only a hazard on big days at the mosque, when godliness claims special protection and the authorities are more indulgent.

I say nothing ever happens, but there was an incident there once which still makes me feel guilty. A huge truck, so long it had difficulty going round the corners of these short narrow streets, stopped to ask me the way to Ashridge Road. “Do you know it?” said the driver. “Sure, I’m from round here”, I confidently replied, while confusing it with Linsey Avenue, which runs parallel fifty yards away. It’s one-way only, so my instructions were rather involved, as I thoughtfully took into account the truck’s inability to do a U-turn. The driver was grateful and it was only after he’d gone that I saw the road sign behind where the truck had stood: Ashridge Road. If only I’d told him, “This is it! You are here.” But the damage was done.

Anyhow, this time, on this road where not much happens, I beheld a man coming my way. His face was hideously disfigured. He was wearing an old-fashioned fawn raincoat, which I found incongruous because you see all kinds of people and outfits round here, from several far-flung corners of the globe, but that kind of coat signified elderly white middle-class. You never see them. Unless other people think I am one.

When I got close to the man, I saw the “disfigurement” was actually a set of tattoos, most prominently three horizontal bars on each cheek. All in a deep black. There were more in other places but my glance was oblique and hasty. At all costs I didn’t want to stare, even though it’s fair to assume that flamboyance desires to be looked at. So it was the swiftest of glimpses, before he could catch my observing eye. What I saw in him, unless it’s my imagination, was regret, grim and inconsolable. There’s something in us, I’ve found, which presses us to live up to the way we look: to meet the expectation of others.  So I guessed he felt pressured to address the world with aggression, or at least defiance. Thus to carry the results of some drunken bravado for his whole life, stigmatized at his own hand. The damage was done.

From this, I see that it’s easier to forgive our enemies, or to accept the cards dealt us by Fate, than to deal with what we have done to our own selves. Strangely enough, I’ve written before about a man with a tattooed face, eleven years ago, almost to the day. At a certain stage of his life, he owned a tattoo studio in Minnesota. Now he devotes his life to giving back. He changed his name officially to “The Scary Guy” and preaches the abolition of bullying, across the world, starting in England with presentations to schools.

It’s taken me all my life to see that there’s little difference, if any, between the damage we do to ourselves and the knocks that life gives us. Either way, there is a choice: succumb or transcend. A theoretical choice: we cannot do these things on our own.

What I have been given is what I can give back. In order to know what I’ve been given, I need to know who I truly am. If I am alive at all, I have been given something. To give back provides a purpose in life.

I wonder what the tattooed man I saw on Ashridge Road will do with the rest of his life. Or did I imagine it? Either way, shit can turn into fertilizer. It’s nature’s way.

“outnumbered by blessings”

It was one of those “whisperings” that I get occasionally when the conscious mind is quiescent. The brain can do funny things. Shostakovich had a fragment of shrapnel lodged in his, left over from WWII. When he held his head at a certain angle he heard music. All he had to do was write it down, or so the legend goes.* In the Bible, long before neurology was a word, the whisperings would come from angel or devil; sometimes the Lord himself.

Thus I woke up in a strange bed with a phrase in my head: “outnumbered by blessings”. I recalled we were staying in the Blue Piano Guest House, on Harborne Road.

It was the first time we’d slept away from home since our trip to The Island at the end of January. We meant to visit Jamaica on September for a special occasion, but were forced to give it a miss. If we’re going to make it early next year I’ll have to get used to being away, for days at a time, far from the security of these four walls. My doctor thinks I should be OK for it, but I have to assure myself and get into training. So we decided on a tentative venture: two nights in Birmingham.

Aunt Avis lives there, she’s actually Karleen’s cousin. With looks like that, you wouldn’t think she was eighty. Being black helps, the skin doesn’t wrinkle. She’s frailer of late, less mobile, but still her blessed self. We didn’t stay long, didn’t let her fuss and treat us as guests. Before leaving we held hands while she prayed over us, invoking God to keep us safe comprehensively and in many detailed particulars. I do not mean to make fun of her religion and its mannerisms. She is living witness to the blessings of grace, radiating from her to other souls far and wide, the hundreds she has practically helped. Yet in earlier life she endured hardship, after being grievously wronged. When Karleen asked about an aspect of this, she said it was not to be spoken about; there being no good in digging up bad memories.


Her words stuck with me as we crossed the city back to Edgbaston, to visit the campus where I’d been an undergraduate from 1960-63. I had some good memories of the place but they were eclipsed—outnumbered indeed—by others; whereof I shall not speak. Five years ago, when we’d come up for Aunt Avis’ 75th birthday, we’d done the same thing. The campus had changed so much it was like an archaeological dig to try and uncover relics which had survived the years. The most moving thing for me that time was the Arts Faculty building where my studies had been based. Most importantly, it had smelt the same, fifty years later. I’m guessing that for our pre-human ancestors, what we call “memory” was little more than a hard-wired encyclopaedia of aromas. It had made me feel almost that I’d left something of myself there. Suddenly I’d thought that some molecules of my DNA remained in the building, dust fallen into crevices that generations of cleaners hadn’t succeeded in hoovering up. The nostalgia of that visit five years ago was deep-dyed in sadness. I’d gone to wrestle with ghosts but couldn’t find enough of them.


This time was quite unlike five years ago. I’ve embraced everything, and seen how tired and tawdry the university had become by 1960, despite the new buildings that had recently sprung up even then. It’s a Birmingham thing: half the city centre has been razed, yet again. As you weave around the barriers, along temporary paths between earthworks and constructions sites, sometimes the only way to guess where you are is the lie of the land, from memory, as not much of it is level.

citycentre
the city centre earlier this year

To embrace everything. I’m tempted to list the wonders and beauties of our trip in detail. The vibrant energy leading to visible renewal in every aspect of the university. Wonderful encounters with strangers. The way they’ve made everything better but kept the best of the old. I’m glad they razed the old library: many good reasons, some personal. 

campusmap2
[click to enlarge] The new library is up and running. The old building has been demolished. The space left will be absorbed into a landscaping project, see bottom pic

The Arts building has been completely refurbished. The nostalgic smell has gone. The Students’ Union has been transformed. I see now that the changes I hated five years ago had to be made, though you could not see the full result. Now there has been further progress. It dazzles with brilliance.

Entrance to the “Barber”

Finally, we went round the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, a gallery and concert hall on campus opposite the Union. This is one place whose changes are few and imperceptible; where the past is cherished and illuminated with insights and scholarship. We loved it so much, I wished we lived near. I’d go once a week, and eat at Joe’s Bar in the Union. It felt like a second home, Unfortunately it’s 86 miles away. .

Union1
at the mermaid fountain

Then on Sunday evening I got a phone call from a student there, inviting me to participate in a project—their 10,000 Lives Appeal. As if my desire to participate, to reconnect, to dwell there in spirit, had been heard. I’ve volunteered for their mentoring scheme & signed up for a regular donation.

a pint of Guinness in Joe’s Bar

That whispering in the night : “outnumbered by blessings”. My unconscious mind was touched by Aunt Avis and her prayers for us. have What that meant to me was: the blessings are more than the curses. This immediately struck me as wrong. I don’t see blessings that way. Other than blessings there is nothing. Curses are all in the mind. Where we can’t see blessings, it’s a kind of darkness, emptiness, vacuum, something we cannot understand. There is much of this void in the world, always has been. It will drag us down if we let it.

projected view of the campus when current works are complete

* About Shostakovich and the shrapnel in his head
I discover new inspiration from this reborn university daily, for example here

When the Past Haunts the Night

spire3
Spire atop a local church, built perhaps 40 years ago. No more worship is on offer. It was recently turned into a day-nursery; leaving only this wordless symbol on its roof, clad in verdigris copper, giving at least one person in the neighbourhood a sense of unfocused nostalgia

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night …

I’m surprised to discover that the boarding school I was so glad to leave in 1954 is still open for business, run by the same headmaster and his wife. Monty and Norah Brummell-Hicks haven’t aged at all. Old boys are invited to come and visit. “Do come and stay a while, as guests. A pleasure to see you again.” After all these years! I never thought it possible. My memories have worn thin and I’ve managed to contact less than a handful of survivors from those days. They remember even less. I just have a set of mental snapshots, especially of various punishments meted out, often unjustly. And, to help with the timeline, hearing occasional news on the radio: events in  the Korean War, the announcement of King George VI’s death. Not a single photo of those years, in school or out. Almost erased from history.

It’s not till I step across the threshold that it dawns on me that the terms and conditions for coming back as a guest are not different from those which applied then to boarders—perhaps staff too. There is no escape: the commitment is binding. In return for their hospitality and care, I am to give them my precious years. I had a day or two in mind, at most. Now I’m to be a student teacher, an “usher”, to do whatever they want of me. I entered like a curious and unwitting animal, now to find myself trapped.

What can I do? Accept. Knuckle down. Try and see it their way. There must be some good in all this.  One day I’m in a corridor outside the class I’m supposed to taking for a lesson. Staff and boys roam back and forth chattering. I hear an angry shouting, an hysterical rant. I’m shocked to realize it’s coming from me. It must be the start of a nervous breakdown.  Everyone scatters, only to glare with disapproval from a distance as they hurry past. This was a kind of home for six years, sometimes a welcome refuge from other forms of grimness Now they too are cutting me adrift. I want to  cry. I want to collapse in a heap, make them come forward with words and deeds of comfort. But no tears come, no friendly arms.

I’ll have to brave it out, there’s no other choice. I go my room, find a good new suit I don’t remember acquiring. It’s made of a fine tweed, a dark ginger, plain with no pattern in the weave. I put it on. Now I can pull myself together, go back  to these people, show them I can walk tall and aloof. Back in the corridor, I see it doesn’t work. I see sniggers, derisive looks. I look down at myself: the suit trousers are of the same cloth but a clashing colour. Dark grey doesn’t go with ginger. I change back into the most casual clothes I can find

Back in the corridor, the classes have broken up. A bustling throng goes to and fro. Someone says “Aren’t you going to help with the Project? We’re all on that now.” I know nothing of this. “You know—the Labour Project.” I follow the throng into the Hall and see them painting huge murals, or maybe posters, which pretty much cover the walls. I quite like the bold brush-strokes, the contrasts of colour, the bigness of it all. I can’t decide whether the wildness of these daubs  shows passion or merely ineptitude. There are slogans: a pervasive theme: plight of the workers, iniquity of their bosses, general outrage and activism. Boys and masters are united in this outlet for their energies.

Now I see what I want to do. Now I have a clear role. I want to tell them that this is out of balance. “Bosses” and “workers” are just people. Children shouldn’t be taught to take sides. They should learn to see through their own eyes, and appreciate all points of view. This is why I’m here: not to be trapped, but stand as a beacon of enlightenment.

Except that I wake up suddenly before I have the chance to set them straight. I strongly desire to go back to the dream, and tell them.

Awakened properly I ask myself whether the headmaster and his wife, as I knew them in real life between 7 & 12 years of age, could have embraced left-wing values. I remember a lesson which spoke of communism in a theoretical sort of way, without mentioning the USSR. I also remember one of the older boys giving a lecture about the salt mines in Siberia, and prisoners being sent there. There was nothing to connect these two things. When I was asked to give a lecture, I chose Greek Architecture, based on the limited information offered in the Children’s Encyclopaedia, edited by Arthur Mee.

Ours was an ordinary “prep school”, designed to culminate in the Common Entrance exam. Passing this was the necessary ticket for entry to a “public school”:

Public schools emerged from charity schools established to educate poor scholars, the term “public” being used to indicate that access to them was not restricted on the basis of religion, occupation, or home location, and that they were subject to public management or control, in contrast to private schools which were run for the personal profit of the proprietors. . . . Public schools have had a strong association with the ruling classes. Historically they educated the sons of the English upper and upper-middle classes. The sons of officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated in England while their parents were on overseas postings. In 2010, over half of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at public schools; by contrast, most prime ministers since 1964 were educated at state schools.*

There is one thing I do remember, from rare visits to the headmaster’s study: copies of a magazine called Encounter lying on his desk. Now I’m curious as to whether it was indicative of any political attitude he might have had. I learn that it received secret funding from the CIA, as part of a bulwark of intellectual resistance to the lure of Soviet Communism.

Published in the United Kingdom, it was a largely Anglo-American intellectual and cultural journal, originally associated with the anti-Stalinist left.

I was recently reminded of this magazine while reading a biography of Cyril Connolly —which I’ve now abandoned as a self-indulgent waste of time. Connolly was flawed as a person and writer too; something less than a laudable character. I was tempted to chase up back numbers of the mag, relive the Fifties that I never knew properly from being too young at the time. I absorbed plenty though, especially from those who’d lived through the Great War, 1914-18, and survived. Like Monty Brummell-Hicks himself. He’d been a telegraphist, tapping out Morse code. He lost an eye, gained a permanent tremor.

I discover that Encounter can be downloaded free, in facsimile.§ Praise be! But that would be another time-wasting self-indulgence. I may have worthier things to do. Dreams are another matter, out of my conscious control.

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_school_(United_Kingdom)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encounter_(magazine)
Cyril Connolly: a life, by Jeremy Lewis
§ http://catallaxyfiles.com/2012/10/26/encounter-magazine-1953-1990/

Back to the Front

saluting

We just got back from the Remembrance Day Parade in town. There was a biting wind. In previous years we’ve attended the church service, but today it was enough to watch the march-past, the saluting of and by the senior officers;  to see the Mayor, aldermen, bigwigs, old soldiers and uniformed youth. We were dressed soberly, wore poppies on our lapels; consciously commemorated those who died defending our country from real  or imagined threats; listened to the Last Post played on the bugle; observed a two-minute silence; glimpsed the laying of wreaths; heard and and felt the gusts of wind through the streets, a weird roaring and moaning which shook the trees and reminded us that for all our fancy dress and posturing, untamed nature still rules. The only human sounds were restless babies. It was worth going for the dignified silence, the sense of unity, the respect, the lack of discordant incident. While hurrying home to warmth and comfort, we reassured ourselves and one another that it was worthwhile coming. We’ll go on doing it while we can. The year before last, an elderly woman laid her wreath at the war memorial in the churchyard, along with all the others. Immediately afterwards, she collapsed and died. I don’t know who she was, but it was as if she’d stayed alive by willpower for this one last deeply personal thing. Thus we construct our own meanings, in life and in death. Like those who fell, in every war.


Till yesterday I thought I’d done with blogging. The idea was to edit these writings into a series of books. It became clear that they would have to be e-books, because the colour pictures, some of them at least, were important to their author. I did at least complete the task of saving every post, and some of the comments, in a single Word document of half a million megabytes*, which I’ve called omnibus.docx. Unfortunately, it crashes quite often when edited. Even when divided into twelve parts, Kindle Direct Publishing refuses to accept it as a manuscript. Smashwords, my fallback option for e-book submission, won’t accept manuscripts more than 10mb each.

I conclude that these writings are in the right place where they are, in a WordPress blog. In any case it’s been a kind of deprivation not writing any new posts for so long. Or, to see it more positively, a fruitful retreat or sabbatical. Watch this space as more old posts appear higgledy-piggledy, spruced up with edits and fresh categories.


* erm, half a gigabyte, thanks Bryan for spotting the error (see comments)

Along the Ledborough Road

No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in the morning.*

“Ledborough Road has, in recent times, become a mythical place to me. Though often empty of humans, its pavements are occasionally trodden by those who realise that walking is the only way to know the world; and by those who have never heard of the Tao, but nevertheless follow it instinctively. They walk, shamble, or shuffle along, stopping from time to time in order to peer over a tumbledown garden fence, at nothing in particular. Or get curiously waylaid by a trail left by yesterday’s snail or slug. They are also cognisant of how events in life are often beyond their immediate control, and willingly bow to the unknown’s greater power. An ageing cat appears from beneath a stationary car and demands attention by winding itself around the Ledborough wanderer. Or the fellow from number ten pops out to buy his loaf of bread, and tells anyone within earshot about the state of the skies, his wife’s sore throat, and the price of potatoes.

“Please don’t tell me that the ‘real’ Ledborough Road is nothing like that. Although, in all honesty, I won’t mind too much………”

I was very glad of this, from Ian T, author of “Pale Green Vortex“, . If a reader can carry away such impressions, I feel justified in withdrawing the source material from public view to let it ferment in memories.

What I have to do now  requires unlimited seclusion:

Art which is directly produced for the Community can never have the same withdrawn quality as that which is made out of the artist’s solitude. For this possesses the integrity and bleak exhilaration that are to be gained only from the absence of an audience and from communion with the primal sources of an unconscious life.*

Is there a ‘real’ Ledborough Road? Google Street View thinks there may be something similar. Distortion from its van-mounted cameras turns mean streets into grandiose boulevards.
led01a The wayfarer steps out from here, goes east toward the horizon
Then a short footpath to the street behindled05
Says IanT: “ I spotted a couple of Taoist sages standing and talking beneath a tree in one of the pictures. I say that, but who is to predict what a Taoist sage will look like?”—Too right. I could count up to six candidates in this pic aloneled07Ledborough Road proper starts here. The Second hand Furniture Centre used to be an “International Club”, whereby hangs a tale
led07a
. . . now it sells used furniture, as does the white building next door (for charity)
led09
at left, the computer shop which helped me lose my data, and find it again
led10
here you can get a chapel of rest, car spares, fireworks, hardware & ironmongery
led11
The Step-in Café begs loiterers to stay away, but they spill over from the sidewalk congregations at Mo’Fro barbers & the Coral betting shop bus Station & shopping mall in background. Buildings in the middle still await demolition—pic enlarged below

this is the eastern end. After a multi-storey car park, you go past the new university, police station, municipal offices and thence to a public park which will take you via the pedestrian route I’ve christened “the Valley Path” to Loudwater

From now on specialize; never again make any concession to the ninety-nine percent of you which is like everybody else at the expense of the one percent which is unique. Never listen to the False Self talking. Le néant d’avoir quarante ans* [on attaining his 40th birthday]


*excerpts from The Unquiet Grave, by Cyril Connolly (1944)