GLIMPSES: probably my favourite word
I work late – well, 8 o’clock – once a week alternate Thursdays and Fridays. So a night in February 2003 I’m driving home listening to Paul Jones’ blues show on BBC Radio 2. He’s playing the great – and his girth is considerable – Solomon Burke singing ‘None of us are free’, for me the standout track on his mighty fine ‘Don’t give up on me’ album. A Mann & Weil song, gospel soul, a long playing out at the end, reprising “None of us are free / None of us are free / If one of us is chained / None of us is free”. Oh, and did I mention the Blind Boys of Alabama singing along? As good as it gets with the wind in the right direction. I get home before it finishes and though I’ll sometimes stay in the car to hear something through tonight I don’t. I’m hungry and I’ve got it in the house anyway. So I turn the radio off and garage the car, but the music plays on at a distance. Magic, I think, someone else sitting in their car (it’s a block of garages a way from most of the houses, it sounds as if it’s outdoors) giving the music its due. A kindred soul, one I feel I need to acknowledge. Only there’s no-one else around and I slowly realise this is not Solomon Burke, but church bellringers going through their changes, down the hill and over the canal and then some. The cadences, the roll of it … where was the join, the edit? More stars come out, those already there shine brighter.
A tidal estuary where South Wales turns into West Wales. The tide is up. If not glorious, then a pretty decent sunset. Aren’t you glad we dragged you out for a walk, say I.” Mmm … “(lacksadaisical concurrence) “… but it’s a fairly limited palate”, says computer graphics boy.
When I was younger, so much younger than today … probably late seventies, we bought a week’s worth of Rail Rover and roamed the rails staying with different friends each night, a week requiring military precision and not just because Redcar was on the itinerary (the train journey out of Darlington one of the worst, the diesel multiple unit at walking pace through industrial Middlesborough due to a chemical leak). Anyway, one night we hit Waun Fawr in Wales, the Waun Fawr just up the road from Caernarfon on the edge of Snowdonia, in the dark. Pat and Bob were doing up an old ruin and living in a caravan. We slept in the house, the most habitable bedroom, with holes in the roof but only down one side. It was cold but stars shone. We had no idea where we were really. Wine and a good sleep huddled in sleeping bags. We wake up to a glorious clear late autumn (or was it early spring?) morning on the edge of nowhere. In the room an old wind up gramophone, I play a 78 of Mantovani and his orchestra, the cascading strings of Charmaine (Bowie quoted from it – one of his finest moments – damned if I can remember where). Wonderful, wonderful, again and again until I am told quite firmly that enough is enough, despite the fact that I appear to be having some kind of religious experience. Later we walk the hills and meet up with their neighbour, a rugged sheep farmer, out with an actual Welsh sheepdog, rounding up a couple of strays – can it get more authentic ? He talks of going to the Ideal Home Exhibition the next week.
And here’s one of my favourite places on the planet, albeit I’m an atheist.
It’s the altar in St Joseph’s Chapel in the crypt beneath the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey. Stillness and peace; even if you can’t buy the mythology there’s something about the geometry. I could sit for hours. Second time I went they had the builders in … was ok again this autumn of 2003. Picture is from a postcard, mucked about a bit in PaintShop Pro; all my own efforts have been dismal failures.
She moved through the fair & verily we had special fare. Midweek in August, an afternoon on the side of a hill on the edge of the Wicklow mountains in Ireland. You can see them clearly across the vale. It has rained heavily in Dublin the day before and we got soaked. It will be unpleasant most of the next day too, not that we’ll be in any fit state to care that much. But today against all the odds the sun shines in mostly blue skies, the clouds playful. We are at a wedding, an outdoor wedding, a humanist ceremony no less. So there we all are assembled by the flower bedecked pergola on the patio and James is waiting there to be wed. It is announced there will be a song and a lovely girl, nay a dark haired colleen, moves to the front and starts singing unaccompanied in the purest voice I’ve ever heard as the bride, Jane, approaches. The song, ’tis ‘She moved through the fair’. My whole body tingles, I’m suddenly rooted, I feel a part of a folk tradition in a way I’ve never felt before. It is extraordinary. I know the song, mainly through Davy Graham, later discover the song was collected by Padraic Colum and Herbert Hughes at the start of the twentieth century but the tune goes way back. Colum was a friend of James Joyce, Oliver St John Gogarty and W.B.Yeats among many others involved the Celtic revival. Some of my molecules change to Irish but I am open to the universe. James & Jane made an enchanting couple too.
And here’s one of my favourite pieces of writing from the man who more days than not I’d probably have to say was my favourite writer. At times he can make you think he was the funniest man who ever lived (try his visit to the German opera in one of the travel books), but this piece can speak for itself. And aren’t you glad he contradicts himself so well? It’s from ‘Life on the Mississippi‘, Chapter 9:
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an italicized passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.
Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling “boils” show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the “break” from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a “break” that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
I just think what follows is lovely. It’s from the liner notes of the English folk musician John Kirkpatrick’s fine album of tunes ‘Mazurka berserker’ (Fledg’ling Records, 2001) – no home should be without one. Kirkpatrick has played squeezebox – accordions and concertinas of many hues – with the best of his generation and then some since he – brave boy – joined a morris in 1959. He doesn’t sign this, but I would imagine the words are his. I delight in this prismatic celebration of many a tradition; that I didn’t hear any of these slaps and bangs and explosions until I read it adds to my pleasure – now I listen out for them. The music is grand too, elegant and grin-inducing:
“A note to the listener: In the course of going through their paces, Mr. Kirkpatrick’s instruments, of their own free will, contribute a terrific additional repertoire of random mechanical noises – the buttons on both sides click and rattle, the bellows slap together along the folds and on the metal corners, the two ends occasionally crash into each other with a joyous thump on a sudden change of direction, and on the concertinas. especially the bass, the leather bellows and wrist straps creak and groan in their ecstacy.
“When you add to this the gleefully unexpected rushes of air that these pushers and pullers demand, you’re lucky to hear any music at all. The skilful application of electronic wizardry can lessen the impact of these crashes and bangs, but nothing cam fully diminish the glory of a squeezebox in full flight, and, just as the player’s ears become deaf to these sounds, in the end you have to learn to enjoy it.”
Another tradition …
UnStoppable Nature – or even USFN as he’s appeared in other parts of the city. Great moniker, speaking down the centuries, even on concrete. This was in the underpass from Eaglestone in MK, on the way down to the Grand Union canal where we saw kingfishers when we were lucky. The council regularly whited out the art works for it only to be replaced with lousy tags, scruffy inanities and dubious announcements of an interpersonal nature.
And a traditional meal. Sometimes nothing else can really hit the spot. There’s a story here too; every picture tells a story, story. Peter, born 1985, has been a vegetarian all his life. As indeed have been his parents, obviously, though they never preached and if he’d wanted a MacDonalds with his mates they wouldn’t have stood in his way even if they wouldn’t have bought it for him. They have continued to eat fish because, frankly, it would have been too boring without, the dead hand of the George Bernard Shaw Cookbook still holding sway in many parts of the land, and the jury is still being out as far as they are concerned as to whether they have a nervous system (the fish, the fish) or not. But once Peter was old enough to understand the concept, which was quite young, he gave up fish of his own accord. And then he moved to a seaside town and the temptation, the joy of his friends in anticipation of a fish supper on the seafront, the chip shop aroma, the salt, the vinegar, became overwhelming. And it was good. But before he ate it he took this photo, having earlier that same week purchased a mid-range digital camera. His life was changing.
This one’s strange, was disturbing because when it happened, when it kept on happening, it had to be this image. Definitely gothic and undoubtedly Doctor Who. OK. We got bought a digital recorder. The sons thought it was time we had a lifestyle upgrade. Fair enough, they had a point. It was a bugger getting used to all the different remotes and getting the telly into the right mode (or whatever the correct techical term is) for the right remote to have any effect. And it all worked very well until (and I think this was the cause) I pressed the record button while it was already recording. ‘Doctor Who’ was on, the second series of the splendid modern revival with David Tennant (who wasn’t quite as good as the other guy, you know, Christopher Eccleston, but good enough). And after that we had a ghost in the machine. Practically every time we played anything back we got this still image suddenly appearing at indeterminate moments, with no consistency as to timing or frequency. You have got to admit, the nature of the image is disturbing. A fast forward would move it on, a fast reverse and then play would mean we could see what we’d missed – where’s the logic there? In the end we reformatted and so were free again. I kinda miss it sometimes.
Actually, it’s been a bit light on glimpses lately (Sept 2008) … In the meantime, how about a poem from 1973 what I wrote? A poem entitled …
Except this one
nine months in Liverpool
and not a single poem
Of course back then Liverpool still held fresh memories of Allen Ginsberg claiming it the ‘cosmic centre of the universe’ or some such courtesy of the Beatles and a local poetry scene even though the first thing they did if you fell in the Mersey was pump your stomach.
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