Friday, November 26, 2010

for st catherine's day

I am a votary of St Catherine, because this is the day when, perceptibly, my winter blues start to fade away. I guess a scientist would have a stab at explaining that - perhaps it's when, though the days are still growing shorter, this shortening has slowed down so much that it no longer upsets me. Whatever, today is Christmas and spring rolled into one, for me.

So let's write sentimentally about some Christmas songs. Because this year, instead of the usual feeling of misanthropic loathing, I'm really enjoying hearing them as we walk around the lit cities and sparkling shops. Big inspiration, by the way, from this post on Chris Goode's wonderful blog.

Judy Garland: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (1944). This is such a sad song! It's been getting gradually less sad over the years: even by Judy Garland's time some of the words had been brightened up, and with Sinatra this process went further. Gradually the meaning of the song changed from consolation (take your mind off things and enjoy Christmas, I know next year looks pretty bleak but God willing we'll make it) to celebration (The future's looking good and Christmas is so special). Garland's version catches the song in mid-transformation, hence at its most emotionally complex and open-ended, and her performance is emotionally intelligent in a fragile way, she already knows too much for her own good, but it's a priceless gift for the rest of us. There's a bit where she switches from one melody to another, in the blink of an eye, that still deceives you after a hundred listens, though you've never noticed it.

Three Degrees: "Mary's Boy Child" (1998).

Jester Hairston's great song of 1956, one of the few Christmas carols of modern times to be known everywhere. Hairston, whose grandparents were slaves, studied music at the Juilliard school, was a long-time composer, choirmaster, arranger, services to the TV industry, etc. Also an occasional bit-part actor in a surprising number of Hollywood movies (he's on Hollywood Blvd). In his song as it originally stands (e.g. Harry Belafonte), the message is a warm comfort to all humanity.

The Three Degrees, long-running MOR soul girl trio from Philly, with variable personnel, chiefly remembered for Gamble/Huff hits in the 1970s when they were said to be Prince Charles' favourite artistes. Their album "Christmas with the Three Degrees" is not so well known perhaps, and it's been repackaged so many times that it's difficult to pin down the orginal release date, but I'll go for 1998 because that's what the group's own site says, though when I heard this song I was quite satisfied that it came from their golden era. With its sleek, discreetly funky backing - the kind you could sway to without toppling off high heels, and the marvellous way that the lead (Valerie?) pronounces "Bethleham", this is totally infectious, and so concise as to be nearly disdainful - they don't bother with half the lyrics e.g. so the climactic key change is made, not to celebrate Jesus being born, but to herald Joseph and Mary's rooflessness in a strange town. In this reorientation the song now becomes inescapably about motherhood seen from a grandmotherly distance.

The Fall, "Rowche Rumble" (1979). None of Mark E Smith's ramblings make any sense, we all know that, so this can't possibly be about towns on prescription drugs and global capitalist profiteering in the business of non-cure addictive medicine dished out with legal and governmental backing to vulnerable people. The drums sound like cardboard on the studio version, the song kind of drags and whizzes at the same time, but this is somehow great. If I had to choose between this and the more fuelled-up version on Totale's Turns, ...well I don't. I'm in complete agreement with Robin Purves about the exact moment when the Fall Experiment, until then on a planet-expanding trajectory, suddenly hits its ceiling (in 1981, 3/4 of the way through Hex Enduction Hour). Despite all of the good stuff since, (mainly, it was in the next few years) ambition perceptibly shrank, vision became restricted, the music turned in on itself. It started mining a vein. Purves says it's when the band really did stop being democratic, when Riley could no longer stand up to Smith, when Smith was no longer humbled by Megas Jonsson. You judge the later work in terms of pop music, though sometimes frightening pop music. But the Fall up to Hex was a different thing. Its influence on alt-poetry is massive. [The flip was "In My Area", and is now further immortalized by being mentioned in Richard Makin's Dwelling.]

Marina and the Diamonds, The Family Jewels (2010). Don't lose sight of these prodigious three-minute wedges of disaffection.

I'm a stray cat on the roam
choking on a chicken bone

Happy Xmas!


And anyway, I've loved St Catherine since I read her very legendary legend in the South English Legendary, and also read (truly or not) that the tale of Catherine the martyr, inasmuch as it has any historical credibility whatever, is dimly based on a heathen princess who was martyred by Christians. So I think she should be a saint for all of us, and a comfort against persecution by all authorities. [Though I must admit, in her heyday it was her royalty, intellect, and independence that commended her to noble women throughout Christendom.]


By the way, Purves' piece also includes a spirited attack on Derek Bailey's improvisational music - exemplifying yet again the surprisingly familiar pattern that when people in the alt-poetry community really want to think honestly about their poetic, they'll more likely talk about music than poetry. This may be partly because we don't want to accentuate differences between each other, we need each other's support too badly; maybe, too, because most of our fundamental ideas about art in fact originated when we were thinking about pop music in our teens. If I can extrapolate from my own experience. (This is definitely a good way to look at Chris Goode's piece, for example.)

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

run away

The yellow flowers poked out among the brambles, miles of them, the sun outside slanting on them already, the window-glass smoked. Soporific smell of the carriage. I watched my beaker of tea, shy of prising off the lid to unhook the tea-bag. A jolt of the carriage during this operation would make me spill it. He went on fingering his left arm, examining an insignificant cut or bruise. Sometimes we talked about cricket, but not today.

"Grumpy as ever, my dad. The heat gets to him now. Expensive day at Lingfield. Had a rant about his firm, too. Have I told you he has a firm?"

"No, I don't think so. What kind of firm?"

"They lease delivery vans. To foodie places in general. He doesn't need to be involved so much, my mum says. "

"You become accustomed to the life."

"That's how it is. He's meant to take it easy. He had some trouble a couple of years ago: prostate. Give up smoking, so he says. It must have been serious."

"This was while you were in Jamaica?"

"Yeh. It was a shock to see him when I came home. He lost so much weight. He was a big guy before. He got upset because he couldn't find my birthday present. The worst thing was when he tried to laugh about it. My mum's eyes said everything. She's a sweet lady, my mum."

I couldn't wait any longer, looking at the tea. I got the lid off all right, but when I opened the milk it spat over my shirt and tie. I poured in the rest of it and mopped up with a tissue. I had the instant thought, I'm already at work.

"Does your mother know about - your friend. I'm sorry, I forgot her name. Leah?"

"Leiah. They did meet her once, around about Christmas time. We went to a bashment on the Isle of Wight, so we stayed a night in Portsmouth. They'd remember her all right, because she got sick in the shed as soon as we arrived. Before I knocked on the door. I was going to clean it up the next day but I slept in and my mum went and found it. So it's clear they would remember her, but they've seen other girls since. They think she's history."

"You couldn't bear to tell them."

"I wanted to. I did. I told Irwin, my brother. They would be sick. But that wasn't the reason. The mistake I made was, I needed to come straight out with it. Though I thought of nothing else on the way down, when the moment came I scuffed it. You drop into patterns. It's always the same when I come home; dinner's on the table, how's work, a toast to my successes. Dad lightens up, gives me the benefit of his advice. He loves that. Mum sits there and glows with pride, runs her hand through my hair, has to have another picture of me for the album. Then father and son. Finally me with Mum, she always makes a protest, says she looks a sight. Giggles. It's what they live for."

"I know what you mean. You had to go in with a serious face if you were going to do it."

"How do you think you would be - if your own son...?"

"I'd be excited. I believe. Yes, I'd be content about it. Other thoughts should come later, but this would be the main thing."

"You are different from my father. They are not well, you can feel the strain for them of just holding it together. And can be..."

He looked out of the window. Units passed by, a flyover with traffic queued all along it. We arrowed between, soporific, to run away with the yellow flowers to the broad sea - well no, only to work again, only to work...

"You mean, if it isn't decided? I thought she told you she made up her mind."

"That's what she said. But she was not in a good state. She was in a rage, she wanted to shit me up. Maybe it depends on me, how I react. I've been seeing someone else and - she's got to go through this too, I mean she's got to tell people. I thought we were finished. It feels very weird, her and me. "

"You need to have a proper talk with her. At once in my opinion."

"I know it man. I will, but she's been away. I'll call her."

I didn't know him. It was ridiculous to have an opinion, but I wanted to say something more; about my other son, the one I never saw who spoke a different language. But why would I have held it in, and then if I told him... The train had stopped. A hundred people surged towards the doors; they'd all have to stand. Those autumn faces like leaves on graves.

I went to work, I went to work, I went to work again. He was not there now, but I thought of him and of this conversation. I understood that there was a part of it that did not "ring true"; it was about my friend's achievements. It was his steady brother, the younger one, that they lived for. His father had an idea of the way a man should behave. I saw that he could tell them about what happened. But he could not tell them and then have it seen, if so it turned out, that he a man could not have control over Leiah if she had an abortion.

I began to understand that they must not know for this reason.

I felt even my own responsible word to be deflected and only to confirm his anger towards Leiah and I regretted speaking it, and I made protestation of my intention but I felt hollow and perhaps it is so when men talk that we must always shake our heads over a woman.

[from the littlest feeling, a book of sixty stories]


Friday, November 12, 2010


Please note my new email address, effective from right now.

[UK Online, venerable small-time player based in Shepton Mallet, were bought up by Sky in 2005 and they've now decided they're shutting down the mail server, all the addresses are being junked. I hadn't expected this - I supposed it would be easy enough to just maintain a historic mail domain open forever, just redirecting it to another host. After all for many purposes on the internet people's email addresses are used as their unique identities. Anyhow, it's kind of a nice feeling - an enforced clear-out (especially now I've figured out how to switch PayPal across). But I'm bound to lose touch with some people and some mailing lists.

Another observation: an email address you pay for is not necessarily more insured against extinction than a free email address!]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

in the city

I was in London for a 2-day training course (Citrix Provisioning Server). As usual on my rare visits to central London, I tried to get about on foot - in this case between the training center (near Finsbury Sq in the City) and my overnight gaff, which was in King's Cross. It fascinates me to begin to make a sense (placed, though commonplace enough) of the capital. To stand at Farringdon Rd and see the course of the old Fleet river, which is still running under your feet.

Yesterday morning, on my way back to the training centre, I realized it was right by Bunhill Fields, which I remembered exploring a few years ago during some other course with some other training company - MS Exchange, I think it was. Since I was still making a terrible mess of Pret's famous All-Day Breakfast sandwich, I wandered back in to take another look.

     Now he hath left his quarters,
        In Bunhill Fields to lie...

I forgot to look for Bunyan's tomb, but I did see the monument to Daniel De-Foe, Author of 'Robinson Crusoe', which was erected in 1870 and paid for by 1,700 of the boys and girls of England, following an appeal in the Christian World. And right beside it is the standing slab that passes for the grave of William Blake and his wife Catherine Boucher. It was decorated with a few votive offerings, not very exciting ones this time. No Rimbaud-magenta ostrich plumes or stained manuscripts, just some November-proof objects lined up along the top - one of them a silver bullet, the rest mainly pennies and pebbles.

Woolett's and Strange's works are like those of Titian and Correggio, the life's labour of ignorant journeymen, suited to the purposes of commerce, no doubt, for commerce cannot endure individual merit; its insatiable maw must be fed by what all can do equally well; at least it is so in England, as I have found to my cost these forty years. Commerce is so far from being beneficial to arts or to empires that it is destructive of both, as all their history shows, for the above reason of individual merit being its great hatred. Empires flourish till they become commercial, and then they are scattered abroad to the four winds.

So which empires would those be, then? - the ones that were destroyed, not by invasion or disease or climate change or opium, but commerce? Anyway, why would Blake care a rap about empires anyway? Did he not write

Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field
and let his wife and children return from the oppressor's scourge
look behind at every step and believe it is a dream
singing The sun has left his blackness and has found a fresher morning
and the fair moon rejoiced in the clear and cloudless night
for Empire is no more and now the lion and wolf shall cease

(America, a prophecy)

Why would Blake care about empires? In his ideal politics, not at all: his moroseness merely enjoying the thought of empires being destroyed while blaming commerce for their destruction. But as an anxious artisan, the attachment is there all right. He relied on patronage and he sometimes got it (not always accompanied by recognition of individual merit, however - sometimes it was charitable); he was more connected to the spirit of empire than he knew. But, what he compains of here, he also found in intaglio engraving a "missing link with commerce".

As for his strictures on commercial art, the neighbouring monument to the surveyor De-Foe seemed to make a sufficiently pointed response.

And yet few people afford to be as uncompromised as Blake.

Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.

I was reading Allen Fisher's Brixton Fractals (1985), twelve of whose poems are distantly conducted by the opening pages in Blake's notebook: "Boogaloo" quotes from this same address on engraving. Often, it is Blake as an economic entity who is uppermost, or rather, inseparable from the poem's realization of geography. Blake's poet-painter shuffle, then odd enough to be mad, has become paradigmatic.

     William Blake makes a tracery of a figure
     binds it to his headache.
     Leaves follow footsteps.   through snow
     perhaps a traveller
     runs away from noise something tearing
     his ankle.   A trembling
     image rises out of darkness:   Blake holds
     his head between fingers
     dry from acid
     Bright work diffuses
     through forms of thrilled consciousness
     becomes apprehensive only to another.
     Gradually the workforce of
     a marginal elite
     burn down hill
     to read latticed recurrences
     in the ice.
     "Oh, constructores, Oh, formadores!"

Blake holding his head in fingers dry from acid is as thorough-going an economic entity as this later visionary: "Then I took my head tenderly between both hands, to make certain it was not coming off or turning round" ("The Finest Story In The World").

It was 08:54, so I left that field of stone and went back to join the noise of the workforce, forming its Moebius strip.

My walk had also taken me past the Betsey Trotwood on Farringdon Rd, hallowed ground in the eyes of one too rural or too lazy to have ever yet made it to Writers Forum.


All Blake quotes from a free pamphlet in "The Romantic Poets" series, The Guardian, spring 2010.

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