I know one shouldn’t mock the afflicted but when, in response to mild heckling at the Cabinet Meeting in the Milton Keynes Council Chamber on Tuesday night (Feb 15 2011), Councillor Jenni Ferrans – the cabinet member with responsibility for the Community Strategy & Regeneration portfolio (which includes libraries) said something about the pointlessness of anyone heckling because she couldn’t hear what was being heckled since she was “deaf in one ear”, one could not but extemporise soto voce on the theme: deaf in both ears to all reason and rational argument was more the point. As a librarian, albeit an ex-librarian, I can confidently say that the case for targeting Stony Stratford Library – the third busiest in the authority – in the cuts exercise, beggars belief. The minority-ruling Lib-Dems were a shabby bunch Tuesday night. They didn’t budge an inch – some consultation exercise. Things one expected never to hear oneself thinking, let alone saying: a couple of Tory councillors were magnificent last night, promising to ring compromises from the Lib-Dems at the full Council budget meeting next week, so there is hope yet. The joys of kimby-ism (Keep-It-in-My-Backyard). Click on Stony Stratford Library in the tags on the right for previous episodes.
So, as E.M.Forster used to say, “Two cheers for democracy“. Which nobody can deny. As it happens the current book for the Book Group I’m a member of – that meets in the library – is Forster’s ‘Howards End‘, published in 1910 and doesn’t it show it. I wanted to strangle them all, even the two gals (especially when Margaret marries the older man, that widower sod of a capitalist); it’s so bleedin’ precious. ‘Only connect …’ is his motto – again, which nobody can deny, and there are some decent thoughts and ideas at play. But given, in a book ostensibly in large part about the class system and urbanisation, that the lowest social class gent on display is a C2 clerk called Leonard Bast (!) one wonders just how rare the air was in Bloomsbury. What about the workers? – it’s a fair question in that Socialism (with a capital S) is a topic of conversation in the novel; the Schlegels and Wilcoxes – the families at its heart – probably never got further north than Hertfordshire.
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
Elsewhere, in similar vein, there is – Jimi Hendrix fans – talk of this being a rainbow bridge, no less. Can I see Helen, the younger sister, and poor Bast in bed? – no. Back then the world really was crying out for D.H.Lawrence.
Can’t see Benjamin Zephaniah arguing with the theme of ‘Only connect’. Here, from the poem ‘Overstanding‘ (lovely word):
Open up yu mind mek some riddim come in
Open up yu brain do some reasonin
Open up yu thoughts so we can connect
Open up fe knowledge an intellect
It’s certainly what he’s trying to do in ‘City psalms‘ (Bloodaxe, 1992), making all sorts of connections, saving poetry from academe for his people, for we the people. And he certainly connected with me when he turned down an OBE in 2003 (hey – rhymin riddim), making his reasons explicit in the Guardian. I’ve always thought Benjamin – dreadlocked Aston Villa supporter, British citizen of the world – was a good ting (sorry) but I’d never really thought to pursue his stuff on the page. I won ‘City psalms‘ in a raffle at the Read-in at Stony Library on the recent national ‘save libraries’ day of action, where it had been donated by the Bard of Stony Stratford – a formidable performer himself – no less. I shall donate it to the Library shortly. Should I be surprised when I get more from it with closer re-reading? Probably not.
There is verbal excess on the page, as opposed to in performance, and I wish never to see that horrible convolution of a word – ‘politricks’ – ever again (two cheers for democracy!) – but there are also some fine phrases, passages and poems worth a place in any contemporary anthology. ‘Dis poetry‘ spells out his mission (“WID LUV”) while ‘Money (rant)’ is a fine exercise in spelling out Ruskin’s great truth (“There is no wealth but life“). He has a decent website too. Since ‘City psalms’ was published, BZ, who left school at 13, has received a handful of honorary doctorates from Exeter and various other universities, and his work is now studied in schools.
T.S.Eliot apologises to Groucho Marx about that sort of thing:
When I told him that my daughter Melinda was studying his poetry at Beverly High, he said he regretted that, because he had no wish to become compulsory reading.
Groucho writes to Gummo. Actually, I’m kinda glad he was because I wouldn’t have got ‘The waste land‘ then otherwise. The cigar’d one’s exchanges with the poet are among of the highlights in ‘The essential Groucho‘ (2000), a compendium of film script excerpts, reviews, interviews, radio and TV quiz show one liners and repartee, and journalism by and about Groucho Marx, who was pretty much the only man to be a success in music hall, theatre, cinema, radio and television in one lifetime. ‘Essential’ can hardly be the word, though, for such a visual and expressively dead-pan performer when print is the medium; the magazine pieces were pretty good too. Was disappointed to be underwhelmed by the quiz show stuff (if that was the best …); better than most is him telling a couple of elderly newlyweds about his own wedding where, “They threw vitamin pills” rather than confetti.
The letters are interesting though, especially the correspondence with Eliot (a big fan of the movies), which led to the meeting mentioned above. It’s a tale oft re-told but worth telling again. The Waste Land poet reports:
The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, among other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.
But enough of Groucho, except to say, because of this book I felt the need and I now own DVDs of some of the movies.
I read ‘The essential Groucho‘ because it was one of the books I wouldn’t normally have had in my hands were it not for filling my library ticket as part of the Friends of Stony Stratford Library’s successful PR campaign to empty the library’s shelves in protesting its mooted closure. You could say such an action – serendipity-ly filling your library card and seeing what you find – deserves to be another random nudge, an extra card in Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique strategies’ pack; I ‘discovered’ Eels out of it, for which I am extremely grateful.
Didn’t discover too much from Michael R. Turner’s selections in ‘Parlour poetry: 101 improving gems‘ (Michael Joseph, 1967). On the whole I was not improved by this odd collection of the poems that were recited in the parlours of the middle classes in the UK and the USA in the nineteenth century. No great finds even of the so-bad-it’s-good category among much of the moralistic doggerel. A lot of heart-rending sympathy for the dying and abandoned poor, young and old, but no hint of a political solution, only Gawd and personal responsibility are the game here. The best work (from real poets) one knew – If, The charge of the Light Brigade, Vitai Lampada, Maud (“the black bat night”), The Raven – but, oh the potency of a decent opening line: “The boy stood on the burning deck” (from ‘Casabianca by Mrs Hemans quiz fans, a deeply moral tale of bravery and foolhardy loyal obedience) or “There’s a one eyed yellow idol to the north of Katmundu” (J.Milton Hayes). Shame how often that’s the best line too. Then there are oft-repeated refrains and refractions thereof, like Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s tolling, “Curfew must not ring tonight”
Of the ‘established’ poets, I wasn’t prepared for quite how uninspiring Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Southey would prove to be, but it was good to be reminded of the sheer brilliance of the word juggling that is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘ The raven’; Robert Browning’s ‘How they bought the good news from Ghent to Aix‘ isn’t bad in that regard either, though the question remains – news of just what?
I could go on, so obviously it wasn’t so bad a choice of book. Benjamin Zephaniah has this great line, “I wish I had a working wishing well“. There’s a witching well in the last but one of my own contribution towards clearing the library’s shelves, a graphic novel scripted by Bill Willingham with atmospheric visuals mostly from Mark Buckingham, ‘Fables: the Good Prince” (Vertigo, 2008).
I went through a big comics phase a while back when the saintly Neil Gaiman (who has always championed libraries) was producing his momentous ‘Sandman‘ sequence of books – as splendid a piece of storytelling as any in the late twentieth century. The ‘Fables‘ series (this is the seventh) came in its wake and shares some of the territory. There’s quite a back story. And I quote:
The immortal characters of popular fairy tales have been driven from their homelands and now live hidden among us, trying to cope with life in [the] 21st century …
In ‘The lost prince‘ the janitor of Fabletown, an ex-frog prince, breaks out from his despair to create Haven, a heaven on earth sort of ghost town (or at least, it’s real it’s created by ghosts who were dead at the bottom of the witching well. Confused? – you will be. I’m not sure I knew what was going on half the time, but how to resist a book where there’s a character, a builder called Weyland Smith (out of Weyland the Smith from Beowulf and North european legend, and feel the resonance with Oxfordshire’s Wayland’s Smithy ancient monument), where Little Boy Blue (‘Blue’ to his friends) is addressing the girl he fancies (futile tho’ the pursuit is) as ‘Red’ (that’s Red Riding Hood to us), where Hansel and Gretel are on different sides … you get the picture?
Oh, and in the context of the clearing of the library shelves stunt … on the second page of this narrative someone is complaining about needing to re-shelve piles of books – fables no less. I couldn’t live with this stuff in prose or film, but I love it in this form. The book design, its use of panels and columns is refreshing, hypnotic even. And it passes the graphic novel test, when you turn the page and are confronted with sudden occasional spectacular double page spreads of great peace and beauty (or indeed, mayhem) with flying colours. A delightful reminder of joys past.
The last book that filled my library card – now renewed of course – is ‘The book of lost books‘, which I’ve only just started reading. I’m tempted to plead poetic license and say I’ve lost it but I know just where it is.
And seeing as we’re in the land of the lost, a slight return to the fields of Parlour poetry for one of my favourites. Look out, here comes an omega moment:
The lost chord
by Adelaide Ann Proctor
Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.
I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.
It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel’s psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.
It linked all perplex-ed meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.
I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ,
And entered into mine.
What a shame she couldn’t just leave it there but had to spoil it with a final verse of religious mumbo-jumbo:
It may be that death’s bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heav’n
I shall hear that grand Amen.
For previous episodes of the Stony Library saga click on Stony Stratford Library tag in the column on the right.
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