Friday, December 29, 2017


Failed to produce my blog on schedule last Monday, can't think why.

Failed to promote Wilful Misunderstandings in the run-up to the festive season, thus depriving myself of a potential sales cascade.  So all I can do is appeal to anyone with £6.95 (plus p&p) left to spend after the annual hoopla, with the following ad.  (And if you can afford it, buy it from Lepus not Amazon or similar please - cheap as they sell it, I get mere pennies, and I've yet to cover the costs of the printed copies I sell through Lepus...)

No other failures to report.

Wishing all readers of this blog a happy new year.


Monday, December 11, 2017

We Are Crazy (and not in a good way)

An article in New Scientist magazine (25 Nov, issue 3153, p 12) brought home the impact of something I’ve a tendency to regard in a sort of intellectual way that, normally, does not have an impact on my personal sense of wellbeing.  It is that, as a species, human beings – all of us – are well and truly mad.

Under a headline ‘Using bombs to bomb-proof cars’, NS reporter Paul Marks tells us about the work of Roger Sloman, managing director of a company known as ‘Advanced Blast and Ballistic Systems’.  Sloman and his team are developing a system intended as a countermeasure to protect the occupants of military vehicles under which improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonate.  Such a blast can, I read, ‘instantly catapult a vehicle many metres into the air’.  Because the floors of such vehicles are strengthened, there is less danger from the blast itself than from the intense upward acceleration, which can seriously or fatally damage internal organs.

Research revealed a ten-millisecond gap between the blast and the lifting of the vehicle.  The idea is that, in this interval, a detector could trigger roof rockets to provide a downward force to keep the vehicle on the ground.  The resulting devices are known as ‘linear rocket motors’ and one of Sloman’s colleagues says: “The peak thrust from all those rocket nozzles is insane.”  (Yes.  Insane.)  In a test one of the vehicles was reckoned to momentarily ‘weigh’ around 120 tonnes.

That life is sacred and that such a device may save lives if it goes into production, I cannot deny.  That such technology may have other uses in different contexts is also mentioned in the article.  What it does not mention is the cost of research, development and manufacture – which I can only assume must be vast.  Our resources on this planet are wearing thin, the fate of the human species is – as far as I can see – in the balance.  Why are we blowing thousands, perhaps millions, (plus brain power and materials that could be better used solving humanity’s mutual problems) on peak thrust rocket nozzles?

It highlights for me a number of underlying assumptions.  There will always be a need for military vehicles.  There will always be people who wish to blast them with improvised explosive devices.  There will always be conflict between human beings.  Investment in military hardware provides jobs and economic growth and this somehow benefits all of us.  I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.  All these statements are interlinked.  It’s a house of cards that stays intact because it is part of the consensus we call reality.  Is it possible that simply by not accepting these and similar assumptions we could change the picture?

But this article had the effect of renewing and refreshing my sense of shock at what we humans routinely do to one another.  Palestine.  Syria.  Yemen.  Afghanistan.  Iraq.  The playing fields for war games.  News of conflict has a numbing effect by its very persistence.  It takes a bizarre story about a hi-tech design to anchor against explosive force (and the sense of black absurdity that surrounds it) to brush away the cobwebs of complacency once more.

(from ABBS website)

Monday, November 27, 2017

Fake News Faked

Cost of living set to hot samba rhythm

According to a new report by the Office for National Statistics, a marked rise in the retail price index has caused the cost of living to soar unexpectedly.  It is currently cruising at an altitude of ten kilometres where Standard atmospheric conditions are −50°C and 26.5 kPa, exceeding the speed of delight.  Up there the samba winds blow hot and spicy, although legislation is called for regarding the illicit use of high altitude drones. 

The cost of living is now a Brazilian musical genre and dance style, with its roots in African religious traditions, particularly of Angola and the Congo.  A spokesperson today spoke of spokes, spoken, smoked and "wholeheartedly" apologised for "any inappropriate behaviour that made some former colleagues feel uncomfortable".  He later added that talks at the end of the two-day summit remained incongruous, and that a former leader, at the leading edge, lead the leaders to swing the lead.

The government is considering the modern samba that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.  It is predominantly in 2/4 time to a batucada rhythm, with various stanzas measured in terms of purchasing power parity rates.  In keeping with leading edge thinking, the term ‘cost of living’ itself shall from hereon in be known as the ‘costa livin’. 

College award is toast

One of the UK’s biggest bakers has warned that attempting to redress the bitter legacy of slavery is “unsustainable”.  Oxford’s All Souls College is partly governed by overseas prices.  Bread unwittingly contributed to the college’s success.  Today , 42% of Britons commemorate the suffering of low-carb diets, from protein pots and salads to sushi.  Associated British Foods is said to be considering further action to limit carb intake and protest against the commemoration of Cecil Rhodes.  New graduate scholarships will reduce the space devoted to bakery items within the next 18 months.

The change is being led by young people, with only a quarter of 16- to 24-year olds eating “distinguished fellows” including former Conservative cabinet ministers John Redwood and William Waldegrave.  A spokesperson for the college said: “All Souls is pleased to be equating to a loss of about 23m kilograms.  The volume of bread rolls and freshly baked bread sold expresses our present –day values.”

Warburton’s, the UK’s other leading baker, attracted student protests.  A student in chains stood outside the research firm Mintel.  “Bread is on the firing line,” said a food and drinks analyst at Mintel, “we don’t think the steps All-Souls has taken are enough.”  Avocado toast may be an Instagram sensation but has appeared in the Paradise Papers, investing funds offshore in bakeries, making them one of the lowest-cost operations in the country. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mirror Lore

I had a close shave the other day.  After the soap suds were scraped away, there was my face, craggier and more laden with jowl than I’d really be happy to see.  I looked deep into my eyes and, curiously enough, my eyes looked back into me.  I wondered what I was really looking at, what was looking at me.  Light cast back from whence it came by a cunningly engineered combination of glass and silvery metal?  Or was there something about this experience that went deeper?  It seemed I had some research to do.

I started with some vampire lore.  These pasty-faced, bloodsucker types, it states, have no mirror image.  It would appear that Bram Stoker may have been the originator of this idea.  It is based in part on the concept that the mirror gives a reflection not just of one’s appearance but also of the soul, thus vampires being soulless have no reflection.  A pseudo scientific explanation by modern fantasists has it that it is down to the silver backing in old mirrors – silver having properties to ward off evil – and thus since modern mirrors do not use silver, vampires can scrub their fangs and brush their hair, safely reflected, like the rest of us.

The mirror as portal is an established motif – whether it goes any further back than Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’, I don’t know.  As an image it is used to great effect in Jean Cocteau’s film ‘Orphee’, in which Death is personified as an elegant, fashionably dressed French woman.  She and her assistants emerge from and return to the Underworld through mirrors.  Scenes in which this occurs were shot horizontally, using framed pools of liquid.  For all the crudity of this technique, in comparison to what can be done today with computer graphic imagery, there is something about its conceptual simplicity that creates a sense of extraordinary beauty and other-worldliness.  For this and its many other beauties, I never tire of watching this film.

Before I leave ‘Orphee’, here is a quote from its script: ‘Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes. Look at yourself in a mirror all your life...and you'll see death at work like bees in a hive of glass.’  The first sentence deals with what I have described, in the second mirrors are considered as monitors of an inevitable process, a slow revelation of what we are, not only in the spatial dimensions but also in the dimension of time.  Or something like that, anyway.

The mirror or the reflective surface crops up frequently in myth, legend and literature.  A quick trawl takes us through Narcissus, whiling time by staring at his reflection in a pool; Snow White and the mirror on the wall; the Lady of Shallott viewing Camelot through a magic glass and many a scary story in which something is seen in the mirror which is not apparent elsewhere.  Then, of course, we have the common belief that breaking a mirror brings a seven year period of ill-fortune.  Seven years?  Again we are looking at the mirror as a reflection of the soul, its breakage the breakage of the soul, and the seven year period being the time it takes – it is said - for the soul to regenerate.  It is therefore somewhat lacking in apparent logic that various antidotes to this problem are listed involving grinding the shards of mirror to dust or burying them.  With regard to the soul, I suspect that the devisers of these remedies have not entirely thought it through.  But who am I to question superstition?  You breaks your mirror and you takes your choice.

There are also traditions in various cultures that, when someone dies, all the mirrors in their household should be covered.  Mirrors (perhaps in their role as Cocteau’s portals to the Underworld) can, they say, act as lures and traps for the souls of the newly departed.  A handy bit of blanket coverage for a prescribed period of time enables a safe passage to…  well…  wherever it is that the deceased persons are supposed to be going.

My search for that which is associated with mirrors has been fruitful.  A further trawl of mythology across the world would no doubt generate more.  So what’s it all about?  Thomas Hardy, in a well known poem, peers into his looking glass and views his wasting skin, but his subsequent reflections (pardon the pun) are to do with ageing itself, rather than the act of observation that triggers them.  He’s not looking at this wealth of lore we invest in the silvered glass.  But it’s there, layered into our mindsets, even if we are not familiar with every last myth, tale or superstition.

Perhaps the potency of the mirror as an image lies in the mystery of human consciousness.  We are our own mirrors, looking at ourselves constantly as we parade through our waking lives.  Perhaps the pun is no coincidence – the throwing back of light and the going back in thought are intertwined concepts.  Hardy can’t look into his mirror without looking into himself.

And it is one of the scientific tests used to determine levels of conscious awareness in other species.  Dolphins and other beasts whose intelligence is in evidence are said to be able to recognise themselves and others in a mirror.  Frogs, it is generally accepted, cannot do this.  A certain level of consciousness is required to both to reflect and to be aware of a reflection.

The mirror, I conclude, is a potent thing.  It tells us more than meets the eye.

Monday, October 30, 2017

'Abandon the Platform for the Round' RG Gregory 1928-2017

A couple of blogs ago I wrote a little about my time in Word and Action (Dorset) back in the early 1980s and gave a few links to the Wikipedia page for W&A and to sites connected with its founder and leading light, the poet and playwright RG Gregory.  About a week ago I heard that he had died.

I’d known he’d been ill and had visited him last year with good friend and ‘Slugger O’Toole’ blogger Michael Fealty.  At that time, there was a faint hope that he had been mis-diagnosed, but by the time I heard he’d died I knew this was not the case.  Nevertheless I find I am deeply affected by the news.  I’m not alone in this – on his Facebook page there are many tributes from family, associates, ex-W&A members and others.  (

‘Greg’ as he was known was a powerful influence on the lives and thinking of many people.  I’m not going to attempt a biography or a full list of his achievements here.  You can find out more at the sites I gave in the ‘Girl from the North Country’ review blog, or at this – a more recent site that I didn’t remember to add - .  What I’d like to add is a few words about some of the ways he affected my thinking and outlook.

One of the main activities of the W&A group was the performance of what became known as ‘Instant Theatre’.  It was the embodiment of many of Greg’s ideas.  It developed out of experimentation with theatrical forms and participatory theatre that took place, as I understand it, in the 1950s and early 60s.  Greg at that time became attracted to working ‘in the round’ which, in his opinion, removed the underlying hierarchy implicit in staged performances.  It drew ‘actors’ and ‘audience’ into a closer and more responsive relationship.  The shedding of theatrical effects - costumes, scenery, special lighting, sound effects etc – enabled a greater exercise of the imagination and creativity in all participants.

‘Instant Theatre’ took place in the round, and was a genuine and effective attempt to give an ‘audience’ the opportunity to make up a story on the spot, to have it dramatised, and to participate in the performance.  Greg felt that many attempts by others to do this fell short because the ‘professionals’ would tend to lead the ‘audience’ towards what they were prepared to do, not what the ‘audience’ was capable of creating given free rein.

It was generally performed by teams of three people.  The ‘Questioner’ would introduce the process and elicit the story by means of a question and answer process.  As far as was humanly possible, the questioner had the responsibility to make the questions completely open, not to lead the story in any way.  S/he was not to assume anything on behalf of those who gave the answers.  The questioner would, however, use his/her own judgement as to how much information constituted a scene of the story to be acted out and at that point re-tell what had been gathered so far (inviting its providers to correct any mistakes).  Then the ‘audience’ would be invited to join the other two team members in acting out their story.  Not only would people (adults and/or children) play the characters, they would also ‘be’ the props.  This would continue, scene by scene, over the course of an hour.  (In that respect there had to be an element of leading – a reminder that the time and therefore the story would have to come to an end.)  Instant Theatre was often huge fun.  Sometimes it was chaotic.  Often it hit extraordinary levels of profundity.

To work well the questioning had to be a quick-fire process.  Instant Theatre was not created out of discussion as to what would make the ‘best’ story.  Considered thought was cut to a minimum.  In this manner, if it was working well, the stories tapped what Greg (and many others) believed to be the ‘collective unconscious’.  They would work on an archetypal level.  They would take unexpected forms. 

Except when working with younger children, the questioner would ask for answers to be called out, so would have to include anything s/he genuinely heard.  This led to the incorporation of contradictory answers.  The question always followed – both these answers are right because I’ve heard them, how can they both be true?  It invited lateral thinking. 

All this was an eye (and ear and mind) opener for me.  In Greg’s thinking, the principles applied to more than theatre, they applied to the way we live our lives, the ways in which we organise our society and make our decisions and more.  Think it through.  The extent to which so many of us live vicariously through our ‘celebrity’ culture, admire ‘personalities’ in general, imagine that ‘charisma’ is a necessary quality in those who seek to lead - all this has its roots in the idea that those people up on the stage are somehow better than us.  Are they?  Why do we cling to oppositional politics when you could say: how can both answers be true?  And if we did, could we find ways to work together for the greater good?  Could our politics come up genuinely from people rather than down from politicians manipulating people for their (and their lobbyists’) own ends?

It was, within my own relatively simplistic thinking, questions like these I found myself asking as Greg’s ideas filtered through to me.  You can go a lot deeper with them than I have here.  Greg’s own writings are lamentably erratically published, but check out the websites I’ve given if you do want to know more.  Also a series of conversations recorded on YouTube with Michael Fealty, starting with

It’s a personal and minority opinion, but with Greg’s death I think we’ve lost one of the great thinkers of our time.  His work and its value go largely unrecognised, probably because too many influential people have too much by way of vested interest in the status quo he challenged.  To acknowledge such a maverick thinker would be tantamount to undermining their own power bases.  The apple cart remains upright.

(I’ve written about this in the past tense, but gather there are practitioners of Instant Theatre still operating.  How true they are to Greg’s principles, I don’t know.  I’d be happy to hear more about them.)

Monday, October 16, 2017

Me and Paul Simon Down in the MRI Scanner

A week ago last Sunday saw me, thanks to our 24/7 National Health Service, spending an hour inside an MRI scanner at a local hospital.  Fans of Industrial Noise music, be advised.  Never mind your Merzbow, your Matmos or your Pan Sonic, MRI scans are the business.  For a start, you are lying in a white plastic tube, with a few dirty grey smears just above your face.  All the alienation you could want.  For each of the several short scans, you get a different noise.  The most prevalent one resembles a road drill, others involve various hideous bleeps and thumps and sort of 1940s/50s alarm siren noises.  Noiseniks, welcome to heaven.

You would of course turn down the offer of protective headphones from a kindly nurse.  You’d want every last decibel, full on.  You’d probably want to sample it and loop it onto a CDR or whatever, but given the powerful magnetic fields being generated, that might not work out too well.

But I’m a wimp, I’m afraid.  I took the earphones.  I was asked what sort of music I’d like to be played through them.  Pop, Rock or Classical?  60s, 70s or 80s?  Dreading the thought of being trapped in the machine for an hour with Englebert, Mungo Jerry or Yazz, I thought as fast as I could and asked:  “Have you got anything sort of quiet and folky?”  At that point in the proceedings, obviously, little did I know how useless an option that would be.

“We have some Simon and Garfunkel,” came the reply.  Not wishing to prolong the proceedings unnecessarily by asking for a run-down of the entire catalogue of available music, I agreed to Paul and Artie.  I mean, they were hardly likely to offer me any John Renbourn, were they?  And besides, I once loved the music of Simon and Garfunkel quite deeply.  Their ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ album was amongst the first twenty LPs I ever owned.  Okay, some of it sounds a bit twee to my ears now, but ‘The Dangling Conversation’ still sends a strange shiver down my spine.  ‘You read your Emily Dickinson / and I my Robert Frost / and we mark our place with bookmarkers / and measure what we’ve lost.’  Haunting.  And although the slang has long since been dragged through the mud, ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’ still cheers my heart.

But with the next album, ‘Bookends’, Paul Simon really upped his game.  I can’t remember the exact chronology but this was the time of Sergeant Pepper and those kind of mini-epic singles like the Stones’ ‘We Love You’, the Yardbirds ‘Happenings Ten Years Time Ago’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’.  Simon came up with a sequence of singles that were more than a match in terms of both intricate construction and lyrical sophistication: ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’, ‘At the Zoo’, ‘Fakin’ It’ and ‘Mrs Robinson’.  And they were all on one side of ‘Bookends’ whilst the other side featured a suite of superb new songs I can still listen to with absolute enjoyment to this day.

I recently saw a U-Tube clip of David Bowie respectfully performing one of those songs, ‘America’.  He just sat cross legged on the stage playing a small keyboard, with no other accompaniment.  I’ve not been much of a Bowie fan since ‘Hunky Dory’ but I had to admit, in that simple rendition of its wistful, romantic, stirring lyric, he nailed it big time.  Once again: haunting.

So I’m being rolled into the scanner on the stretcher thing, these huge earphones covering my ears, hands on my chest, my belly covered with some sort of plastic rig that will facilitate the scanning process, along with another plate thing under my bum, and I’m thinking ‘What’ll it be?  Which album?’.  I figured the most likely thing would be a best-of compilation.

And there I am, staring up at the grey smears in my tubular tomb-like enclosure and the music starts.  What is it?  It’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled’ bloody ‘Waters’, that’s what it is.

‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ was probably my first experience of discovering that even my favourites could well turn out to have feet of clay.  It was presaged by ‘The Boxer’ – a worthy finale to that succession of psychedelia influenced singles mentioned above, but this turned out to be Simon’s last gasp for a long, long time.  Well, for me at least.  The rest of the album was a huge disappointment, pleasantly bland at best, occasionally descending into downright irritating.  There’s probably a story about it somewhere, but I suspect a succumbing on Simon’s part to be more ‘commercial’.

At which he was entirely successful, because if I remember rightly ‘Bridge’ was S&G’s highest selling album.  Which, I guess, is why it was the one I then had to endure.  Fortunately, once the noise started, the earphones proved to have little effect, except perhaps to protect me from the eardrum battering intensity of the MRI machinery.  I’d get to hear a bar or two of ‘Cecilia’ or ‘El Condor Pasa’ from time to time, before the nurse’s voice cut in to tell me the next scan would last for four minutes and the rat-attat-tat, clanging, honging and tweeting would start up again.  All I could hear of S&G in these interludes was the bass-lines, a bit of percussion and occasionally the vaguest hints of the melody.  I retained some hopes I might hear at least some of ‘The Boxer’ but that too was utterly drowned.

Credit is of course due to the NHS.  I am blessed to have such a service to check whether I may or may not be suffering from a medical condition.  I loathe the creeping privatisation that is gradually undermining its structure and effectiveness.  I am profoundly grateful to all the hard working men and women who keep it operating, especially those who more or less saved my life a few years ago.  I am grateful too that they think to provide earphones and music for people going into MRI scanners.  I’m sure 99.5% of us appreciate it. 

As for the other 0.05%, this has to be your big chance.  Go for it, noiseniks!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Girl From the North Country converts a doubtful theatre goer

Though finding most forms of artistic endeavour attractive and often immersive, I’ve never been strongly attracted to theatrical works.  I can acknowledge that many of them are great and have been an audience member for a few of them, but it’s not an art-form I have ‘followed’ or even paid a great deal of attention to.  Consequently I’ve not had any great desire to write for the theatre.

And certainly not to act.  I enjoy performing, as anyone who has heard me reading from ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ will probably confirm, but anything that would depend on learning ‘lines’ is pretty much out of the question as I have a distinctly malfunctioning memory.

It may be somewhat surprising, therefore, to hear that I spent some years in the early 1980s as a member of a touring theatre group.  There is an explanation.  The group, Word and Action (Dorset), was to a large extent run on a collective basis and had branched out into various ‘community arts’ activities including publishing.  I joined because they were looking for someone to co-ordinate a poetry magazine.  A different Dorset based poet was invited to edit each issue – I was to be the ‘go-between’.  Fine.  I was cut out for that.  But then they said: ‘this is a collective.  You participate in everything we do.’  Gulp.

But what they did, I certainly admired.  It was, on absolute principal, 'theatre in the round' – no special lighting, no special effects or soundtrack, virtually no scenery or costume.  It was a form of theatre that sought to remove any sense of hierarchy that exists between performer and audience, and to enable audience members to use their own imaginations to a much greater degree.  (I’ll add a couple of links at the end for anyone interested).  Much of W&A(D)’s work was improvised, audiences being invited to create - and join in performing - the story.  To my surprise, with some in-group training, I discovered I had whatever it takes to be a part of this process and ended up working not only in Dorset but joining touring groups in the UK and Scandinavia.  When it came to the scripted work I remained crap and fortunately was not called upon to do much of it.

I left the group after two or three years, following my own star once more.  Its view of theatre had made a lasting impression on me and I was deeply suspicious of any kind of staged theatrical performance.  This combined with my earlier lack of interest, and though in time I mellowed, theatre remained low on my list of priorities.  Consequently, when I left a subsequent employment in 2012 and my generous work colleagues presented me with a substantial pile of theatre tokens as a parting gift, I was bemused.  I made polite noises of gratitude and privately thought: ‘What am I going to do with these?’

Five years later and I finally got to use some of them.  Passing through London on the train I saw a poster advertising ‘Girl From the North Country’ and was intrigued.  Written and directed by Conor McPherson, it said, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.  McPherson was a ‘complete unknown’ as far as I was concerned.  Dylan certainly wasn’t.  Checked it out online back home and the intrigue continued.  Discovered I could use my tokens at the Old Vic where it was on.  Asked my dear partner if she was up for it and she was.  Thus, last Wednesday, we found ourselves sat in the middle of Row R, in stall seats we would normally have balked at paying for, as the performance commenced.

As I hope I’ve explained, I had a lot of suspicion to overcome – and I haven’t even mentioned yet that of all forms of theatre ‘musicals’ were at the bottom of my list.  I’m not among the most fanatical of Bob Dylan appreciators, but can think of few other songwriters whose best work has remained so resonant and powerful for most of my life.  The play uses songs from 1963 to 2012, and plenty of my favourites are amongst them.  What were they going to do?  Give them the ‘showbiz’ treatment?  The thought appalled me.

Some reassurance came with the instrumentation evident on the stage – a drumkit to stage right, an upright piano to stage left.  Not much else to be seen until musicians appeared toting acoustic guitars, upright bass and fiddle.  The choice was, apparently, to use only instruments contemporaneous with the play's 1930s period setting.  Further reassurance came with the first song: ‘Sign on the Window’ from ‘New Morning’.  Beautifully sung, the freshness and suggestiveness of the lyrics (‘Sign on the window says "lonely, " / Sign on the door said "no company allowed, "…’) seemed re-illuminated for me.

It aptly, if not literally, set the atmosphere for the play that was to follow – an interweaving of stories set in the single location of a Duluth, Minnesota guesthouse during the Depression era.  The various characters are beset by tragedy, some of their own making, some forced by desperate circumstance – yet the script is loaded with humour and sharp repartee.  It doesn’t take long before you feel for them, share their hopes and aspirations and, as the chips go down, their despair.

As for the musical interludes – which is how they came, often as medleys of two or more songs – the pattern of aptness, rather than literal correlation became set and worked, for me, extremely well.  This approach has been described by the play’s creators as ‘a conversation between the songs and the story’ and, thinking about it, is probably the only way you could locate some of Dylan’s most powerful songs in such a context.  It helped that the performers, almost every last one of them, were such strong and impassioned singers and that the musical arrangements were mostly spot-on appropriate.

A few liberties were of necessity taken.  Lyrics to the songs were edited (how long would it have taken just to listen to those twenty songs in their entirety?) and were arranged and interpreted according to the emotional context of the scenes in which they featured.  Very occasionally, I did get a ‘showbiz’ vibe – the performance of ‘I Want You’ kind of palled for me, losing too much of the laconic splendour of its verses in favour of an over simplified emphasis on its chorus.  But this was a minor slip.  A lot of attention had been paid to the vitality of Dylan’s ‘born again’ era gospel-type arrangements and even when they did not originate in this period, a lot of the songs benefited from the additional harmonies etc.  The dancing was pretty darn good too.

So, as you’ve doubtless guessed by now, I was won over in the course of this performance.  It was particularly enhanced by what seemed to me a stand-out job of work by the diminutive but powerful Shirley Henderson, as Elizabeth, wife of the guesthouse proprietor, Nick.  Described as a victim of dementia her character provided a kind of ‘holy fool’ element – apparently deranged yet speaking, at times, the most penetrating truths.  This actress clearly relished the part and sometimes literally threw herself into it, managing to maintain her sense of her character even in the group dance routines.  Her rendition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ touched on the sublime.  I’ve singled her out but similar relish could be felt in a good many more of the character parts, and – towards the end – the script touched on deeper and more fundamental human issues.  I will be keeping an eye open for more of Conor McPherson’s work in future.

Okay, now I have to admit, I was in tears at the end.  There was tragedy, there was redemption for some, and there was a final rendition of ‘Forever Young’ – one of Dylan’s sweetest and most hopeful songs.  As much as the story and the performances, it was the sense of celebration of Dylan’s work that affected me so strongly, I think.  So final words to him:

Can you tell me where we're headin'?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?

Word and Action links:

Monday, September 18, 2017

Holger Czukay - Sound Surfer, 1938-2017

Found dead, earlier this month, in the Innerspace Studios apartment where he’d lived for many years, Holger Czukay was a unique musician.  I didn’t always ‘get’ his work.  Experiments, by their nature, are not always going to be successful.  Chances taken are not always going to pay off.  But my respect is reserved for those who take such risks, especially when they’ve the skill and vision to achieve at least the occasional sublime result.

The 1979 album ‘Movies’ is, for me, the most wholly successful of his works.  It was re-released in 2016 under the title ‘Movie’, remixed presumably to its creator’s satisfaction and with an additional instrumental version of its opening track.  I’m still living with the original recording, listened to once more on the day I read of his death, and still as fresh and vital a set as when I first heard it.  Intricately laced into its exhilarating rhythms, filigree guitar patterns and occasional, archly quirky vocals are a seemingly endless sequence of what we eventually learned to call ‘samples’.  Music from the middle east and elsewhere recorded with the scratchy sonic patina of imperfect reception on a.m. radio, plus snatches of American film dialogue and animated cartoon sound effects are the principal elements of this dazzling weave.  This audio collage is all the more amazing on account of its painstaking construction, involving the splicing of magnetic tape by hand, from what I can gather.

Whilst it was not an album by Czukay’s former band, Can, his bandmates all contributed, drummer Jaki Liebezeit most consistently.  Also recently deceased, Liebezeit continued to work frequently with Czukay during the 80s and 90s.  Interviews indicate a deep mutual respect.  On ‘Movies’ Liebezeit plays in a more nuanced and subtle manner than in the heyday of Can, but his utterly precise yet deeply felt rhythms are an essential part of the drive that carries the listener through its two lengthiest pieces: ‘Oh Lord Give Us More Money’ and ‘Hollywood Symphony’.  It’s been a few days since the evening I played it, but it’s a testament to its quality that the music has soundwormed its way into my thoughts and sequences of it still replay frequently somewhere within my brain.

There are equal, if not quite such consistent delights to be found on the majority of Czukay’s other recorded works.  The delightful ‘Ode to Perfume’ on follow-up album ‘On the Way to the Peak of Normal’, another lengthy and intricate piece; the haunted ambience of ‘Träum' mal wieder!’ and ‘Music in the Air’ on each of the albums that followed…  These spring to mind as personal favourites.  What anyone will pick out for his or herself will depend on taste, of course.  What might be chosen can be picked from an astonishing diversity of sounds and moods, from merry melodies to jarring discords.  One thing Czukay never was was predictable!

He got himself involved in some marvellous collaborations too.  Lengthy ambient works constructed with David Sylvian over two albums and occasional work with Jah Wobble stand out for me.  In later years, Czukay also worked closely with partner U-She – although at this point in his career the beauty came for me in smaller and rarer snatches.  That doesn’t matter – he’d earned the right to explore wherever and whatever he wanted.  The last of his albums to really draw me in was his ‘internet audio collaboration’ which was released as ‘Linear City’.  Its slow developing, techno immersed patterns took a while to penetrate but proved eventually to hold a full wealth of musical sensations.

Since I first got into music there have been certain artists whose individuality as creators has stood out and shone for me in ways that somehow go beyond just being great musicians.  I’m thinking of Don Van Vliet and his Magic Bands; of Lee Perry in his Black Ark Studio period; of Michael Hurley and his extraordinary songs…  It’s stuff that touches me beyond taste, beyond intellect.  On a direct line to whatever I think of as my ‘soul’, I guess.  Czukay was one of them, without a doubt.  Our world is more impoverished without him, but his achievements shine on.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Two Rooms So Far Apart

This year, apart from ‘Air B’n’B’s (all as yet pretty good), I’ve stayed with my partner in two accommodation establishments.  Looking through my notebook, I discover I’ve written descriptions of the main rooms we’ve stayed in, in both.  There could hardly be more of a contrast.  Here, slightly edited, is what I wrote:

Trallwyn Cottage, Pembrokeshire, March 2017.

The living room: our cwtch.  A section of white-painted stone wall protrudes into the room, to the left of a wood burning stove and small well-packed bookcase .  Draped from its top surface ledge, held in place by an unused spinning wheel, a ‘witch’ doll and three hand made teapots, is a roughly sewn patchwork quilt.  The exposed surface is made of flowery and patterned cottons – from old dresses, perhaps – in simple squares.  From one of the beams on the lean-to sloped ceiling, a wicker basket hangs.  Below this a small round pine table, with three matching chairs, and a rocking chair.  Against the opposite wall an old sofa, scattered with random cushions, and an electric heater in the corner.  Red velvet curtains hang on either side of a small window, which looks out on a garden view, ageing wooden bench seat prominent on the grass.  On the sill, a collection of beautiful objects – boxes, hand-painted stones, a vase of fresh picked wild flowers.  On a small chest of drawers, there’s a TV for those who want it, discretely covered with a drape of diamond patterned Indian-design material.  Next to it, another vase filled at this time with the season’s daffodils.  On the walls are various pictures, original paintings by the proprietor amongst them, and a mirrored candleholder.  And hanging, nearby, a deep and richly sonorous set of wind chimes.  A lushly patterned rug sits on the carpeted floor.  Overlooked by a ‘sleeping platform’, reached by means of a steep wooden staircase that descends into the room, this is a profoundly restful place.  It is suffused with a sense of calm and grace.  At the foot of the Presellis and a few minutes walk from the Gors Fawr stone circle, it’s amongst the most beautiful holiday accommodation I’ve ever experienced.

‘StayCity ApartHotel’ room, York, August 2017.

One of 187 near identical rooms, it is quintessentially utilitarian.  With the exception of a reasonably comfortable double bed and a garish yellow pouffe in one corner, everything you can see is in the shape of squares or rectangles – at least down to the level of smaller objects such as kettle, lamp shades etc.  It’s set up for self catering, and on a wall that separates the bathroom from the living area, is a fairly well equipped array, including microwave, fridge, hob and even a dishwasher.  The surfaces are in a white-grey veneer, patterned with a vaguely woodgrain effect.  There are no carpets.  It’s as if a double bed has been inserted into a kitchen.  Each side of the overall building, which is shaped as a semi-circle, comprises of a series of huge identical windows, separated by thin strips of concrete.  Each of these windows forms an entire room wall and cannot be opened (temperature control here being governed by a noisy air-conditioning device).  Like every other window to be seen, it’s covered by a large net curtain.  The view on our side of the building is of a flat, concrete semi-circle, beyond the straight edge of which is the breeze block architecture of York’s ‘Barbican’ theatre venue.  There is not a single piece of greenery to be seen.  Back inside, there’s a small square Formica topped table, with two dining chairs.  Along with a couple of bedside cabinets, that’s it for furniture/décor, apart from three standardised pictures hung above the bed, and a large, wall mounted, black flat screen TV opposite.  After a while here, I start to remember 60s/70s S.F. novels of dystopian, overcrowded futures, where human accommodation has been reduced to ‘cube cells’ or whatever.  This room feels like an embodiment of such a vision.  The only anomaly being that, down at the reception desk, there are still human beings, not robots.

To be fair, which I suppose I must be, the cumbersomely named ‘StayCity ApartHotel’ chain exists with the intention of providing relatively cheap, ‘no-frills’ accommodation in city centre locations, and is doubtless appreciated by those who make use of it.  While, in deepest Pembrokeshire, Anna Kavanagh’s Trallwyn Holiday Cottages (go to for more info) are a sheer labour of love.  But having written both these pieces, I could not resist presenting the juxtaposition.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Miscellany of Plums

They are in season.  In our house (the one I’ve just moved to if you read the last blog) they have been appearing frequently in brown paper bags whose contents rapidly disappear.  Quite fond of them myself, but the other half, she loves them.  They are well nice cooked, as far as I remember.  But chez nous they get eaten much too fast for any such preparation to be hoped for.

She knows her plums.  She reckons Victoria Plums, the ones you most commonly find, are far from the best and recommends a list of other varieties – some of which she obtains and do indeed taste pretty good, if I get to have a sample before they are gone.  Like so many fruit, supermarkets - with their general tendency towards enforcing standardisation and 52 week a year supply - tend to import them.  My partner, however, is not alone in thinking that British is best.

All this set me wondering.  Just how many varieties are there?  An online search proved overwhelming.  Some of the names alone are enough to make your mouth water.  Coe’s Golden Drop, anyone?  How about Belle de Louvain or Blue de Belgique (obviously British from skin to stone)?  And oh, to try a Warwickshire Drooper or a Denniston’s Superb, a Golden Sphere or a Wallis’s Wonder.

Some of these names are redolent of history or legend, it seems: Monarch, Black Prince, The President, Guinevere, Avalon and Excaliber.  Others the names of those who presumably bred them: Angelina Burdett, Edwards, Kirkes Blue, Reeves Seedling, Marjorie’s Seedling or the particularly evocative Sanctus Herbertus.  Yet more imply richness and quality: Ruby, Opal, Denniston’s Superb, Early Prolific, Valour and Verity.  Surely we can’t go wrong with any of these.  A plum pilgimage across our land is called for.  Just as soon as we…  Oh.  Hello reality.

It is, of course, a similar situation with apples.  The story does not end with Coxes, Galas, Braeburns or Granny Smiths.  Far, far from it.  But I’ve already bandied one list of wonderful names.  Go look for yourself.  The danger is that whatever you find may just be in danger of being lost if we don’t seek out the richness of product that main suppliers deem un-economic.  I’ve long been guilty of buying the crap stuff myself, simply out of convenience.  Imports from New Zealand?  What was I thinking?  But my partner’s enthusiasms have re-kindled my interest.  You can’t break the pattern every time you buy – if it’s the only shelf available and you’re hungry, you gotta eat.  But try when you can.  Keep variety (and locally produced variety at that) alive.

Now where can I find a nice Violetta, I wonder…

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Cardboard Boxes

The blog today is being written in a house where nearly everything is packed in cardboard boxes awaiting a house move.  I’m sitting in a room that was once my ‘office’, where I got most of my writing done, surrounded by near content-less furnishings, some dismantled, and I’m feeling vaguely ghostly.  A spirit haunting premises that were once laden with the imprint of me and are now in the process of reverting to anonymity.

The circumstances are essentially happy, there are no regrets about this move, but there’s a touch of the bittersweet too.  I came to live in Shaftesbury (a small town at the northern tip of the county of Dorset, for any readers unfamiliar with the UK) just over three years ago with a very different set of expectations to those I hold now.  Some emotional twists and turns awaited me, and some of the expectations were shattered.  Yet the town itself drew me into its social life and held a welcome.  I chose to stay here.

So the move is not from Shaftesbury, but to another house within the town that’s suitable for myself and partner to share.  We haven’t found it yet but getting out of our individual houses first is a part of the process.  And this one has done me well enough and been a good home – hence the feelings of which I write.

So up in an attic bedroom whose dormer window looks out to a fairly distant view of the first hills of Cranborne Chase, the boxes are piling up.  Although it was one of the house’s most attractive features I never made much use of it until more recent times.  The rest of the house was my main domain, the work space here, a smaller first floor bedroom and the ground floor.  Being mid-terrace it was cosy and economic to keep warm in winter.  I filled the walls with psychedelic and art nouveau-ish artworks and drapes, enjoyed my books and recorded music, shunted ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ out into the world and made a start on novel.  All good stuff, and doubtless more to come in new circumstances.

But hey, you probably know what I’m saying.  End of a chapter and all that.  I’m not going to go on a my usual length.  There’s still plenty to be done before it all gets shifted on Thursday and the house will be emptied ready for some repairs to the rather crap chipboard flooring.  So this is just a wave and a hello.  Normal service to be resumed in two weeks time, more or less.

I leave you with, I hope, a video from YouTube of Loudon Wainwright III’s take on this whole moving thing.  

Monday, July 24, 2017

An Invitation

skeletal mysteries
bones on a slab
beyond pale borders
glow extends
and here
touched by symmetry
in stark divisions
the hidden denizens
wave into shape
all tendrils and twists
hold coils
that flicker
into and out of
any world
you care
to mention
any world
that offers
an invitation

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Blacksmith Courted Me

Running late again, sorry to all who read this with any regularity.  An ongoing house move situation is minimizing the time I have for this writing stuff, basically. So here's another older piece.

I've been fascinated by the folk song known as 'The Blacksmith' or 'A Blacksmith Courted Me' ever since I first heard it on an early Steeleye Span album.  Like so many ballads, it is riddled with narrative gaps and hints at most regarding what might fill them.  What interested me, apart from the beauty of the tune and the poetry of the words, was one of those hints: a suggestion that, despite the apparent betrayal or 'slighting' of the female narrator, she does not bear a grudge.  Of course the line: 'I wish them both much joy' could be taken for sarcasm in a bitter reproach.  But with my tendency to wilfully misunderstand, I imagined her taking a more philosophical point of view... perhaps.

In what follows, I tried in prose, but often quoting the song (in more than one version) to explore her mindset.  There is reference in the song to a period of nine months, an implication that her lovemaking with the blacksmith led to pregnancy and thus the stigma of an illegitimate child.  But this - it seems to me - is by no means clear, so in my piece I preferred to think that she had escaped that particular fate.  In which case, of course, forgiveness might have come a little more easily.

A Blacksmith Courted Me

Oh what’s the true meaning of all that transpires?

I look in the glass again and again, see only my own wan face, my dark ringed, uncomprehending eyes, and I shake my head once more.  And the curls and the tresses around my face do dance and waver as if there had never been strange news, as if he had never gone abroad or stooped to gather the sweet primeroses.

There are stages where these tales are forever acted out.  And there are acts, one after another, in which the stages of this tale unfold.  With what does it begin?  Ah, bliss.  It begins with faith, with hope, with love and trust.

It begins with his hammer, striking the anvil, so clever, so steady.  The sparks that flew across the smithy.  With his smile as he paused to hear my entreaty, a request from my father, shoes for the horses, equipment in need of repair.  And his tender eyes as he watched me, clutching my shawl close, a little afraid - for all the times I had walked past the smithy I had never once set foot inside.  His broad and sturdy arms.  The rosy glow in his cheeks.  Oh, I had seen him many a time before.  Ours is a small town.  But that day I saw as if for the first time.  I saw my love.

Said he: “Your father is a good man.  This work I’ll do and he’ll settle with me when he can.”

As soon as I was able, I hurried away – for I could barely remain stood fast upon my own two feet, such were the feelings that o’erwhelmed me.  Yet why should I mistake kindness for affection?  Better not to let imaginings rob me of my good senses.

The trust, it grows, as sapling does to oak, seeming sure and steady.  His ready smile and greeting whenever our paths did cross.  The light in his eyes that shone for me alone, as he played so neat and trim upon his pipes for the young girls to dance at the summer fair.  And then came his letter, the coarse paper near scorched by the ardour of which he wrote.  So mayhap the fault is mine.  I should not have lain beside him that night.  I should have listened to some better counsel.  I should not have believed him when he said he’d marry me.  When he said he’d not deny me.

And then comes the break - the call to other lands to fight for king and country.  Oh, with what concern he’d listen to my entreaties then.  “You must not go,” said I, “to where the sun will burn your beauty.”  “I cannot stay at home,” said he and spoke of duty.  Duty I know.  That cannot be denied.

The weeks of waiting.  The months.  The years.  And set to steer me through it all, my wedding plans, my hopes, my foolish dreams.  Whilst he did march to fife and drum from battlefield to battlefield.  And all would be well if only he lived, had not the call to gather primeroses come upon him.

At last came that news so strange, a whisper from lips to ears, a buzz of words that spreads through the town.  “He is married.”  How can this be?  My love is married to another and will not return to his forge, where I loved so well to watch him at swing with his hammer.  I can find no sound meaning in this.  And yet it is so.

What was there to be done?  A message, perchance?  A former claim to consider right well?  A protest to rend his heart?  Of these I thought, oft, at length, day after day, night after night.  But too well I knew what he might say.  For witness had I none of what he’d promised.  And of where he’d made that promise, I knew I dared not speak.

God may reward him well for the slighting of me.  I cannot speak for the Divine Will nor yet, like some practitioner of witchcraft or wizardry, can I seek to sway its course.

If love him still I do, and still do I, then all that’s to be achieved in this the final act is to wish him well.  Him and his new love, may they prosper and thrive, may their babies be happy and blessed with health.  May he deceive no more.

And there I am, still pale and drawn, staring at myself from out of the glass.  Trying to make sense of what I cannot know, that tidal ebb and wash of the human heart, its vagaries, its weakness.

There is but one thing that I can be sure of.

If I was with my love, I’d do my duty.

Friday, June 16, 2017

'Famous Author Tours South Wales'

Blogging late this week, having only just returned from a six day trip to South Wales, where I’ve been attempting to promote and sell copies of ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’.  The most successful of these attempts was on the last day of the trip, where I’d set myself up as guest reader at the Poems and Pints evening - held on a monthly basis for most of the year at Pontardawe Arts Centre.

On the Saturday prior to that, I’d done a ten minute spot at the Ffwrnes Theatre in Llanelli, during an afternoon event going under the title ‘Spoken Word’.  This is usually a completely ‘open mike’ session at which contributors with books to sell have an opportunity to do so during the interval.  Rather late in the proceedings I found out that, on this particular day, the session had been merged with a book launch by children’s author Wendy White.  Published under the pen-name Sara Gethin, ‘Not Tomos’ is her first book for adults.  It deals with issues around child poverty, its narrator a convincingly written five year old boy.  On the basis of what I heard in her readings from ‘Not Tomos’ and the talks given by her publisher and Welsh journalist Jon Gower, it promises to be a first rate novel, deserving of success.

Lesson for myself was – don’t try to sell your books at an event like that again.  I felt like some weird kind of gatecrasher and it came as no surprise that no one so much as came to look at my book.  Why should they?  This was, quite rightly, Wendy’s day.  Nevertheless I enjoyed the event, from the handful of local readers with which it began to the eye-opening talk regarding the well thought out, enterprising Honno publishing company and the heart-felt speech by Mr. Gower.  It was also a pleasure for me to read one of my stories, all written during my time in Wales, to a predominantly Welsh audience.

The days between were partly a holiday for me and my good partner Rachel.  A great opportunity to show her some of my old haunts in the Gower.  We even got some sunshine.  It was also an opportunity to reconnect with old friends.  Monday found us in Loughor, guests of the redoubtable Dewi ‘Mav’ Bowen, musician, writer, activist and archaeologist.  In fact I’m really keen to big him up as, sociable fellow that he is, he made/answered several phone calls over the day in which all reference to me was as a ‘famous author’ on a ‘South Wales tour’.  I think he enjoyed seeing me cringe.

Among his innumerable and utterly splendid achievements, Mav co-runs a folk club which occurs every Monday night, as far as I know without fail, at the Loughor Boat Club on the shore of the estuary.  It attracts musicians and singers of mixed ability but strong commitment, and is invariably enjoyable.  You start the evening thinking: ‘Yes, this is quite pleasant,’ and then some time after 10pm you find yourself thinking: ‘Fuck me, there are some bloody good musicians in this neck of the woods.’  And that’s nothing to do with the beer because I was on orange juice.  Monday night was no exception.  We had a fine rendition of the (I suspect quite difficult to play) Mason Williams tune ‘Classical Gas’, two lovely unaccompanied songs by a local singer named Maggie, a sensitively and well played cover of a song from Lal and Mike Waterson’s ‘Bright Phoebus’ album, and finally some shit hot ragtime guitar numbers from a former protégé of Ralph McTell.  Oh, and round about the mid point of the evening I got to read out a story, the as-yet unpublished ‘Upright and Grand’.  It’s a musical piece, without being music, if you follow me.

Though I wasn’t entirely confident he’d make it, the famous archaeologist turned up on following night as people gathered for the Poems and Pints.  As he generally does, these days, Mav was looking stylish in a loudly patterned Californian beach shirt, dark jacket and wide brimmed white hat.  It felt good to have him aboard, along with a slew of other good friends who showed up – though it was by no means just my rentacrowd who were present.  I used to attend the P&P at Ponty fairly regularly during my time in Wales, and I was well pleased to see many of the old faces there, and a good many new ones too.  Amiably MC’d by the poet Glyn Roberts, as it has been now for some years, the event still seems to be thriving.

The way it works, the guest does a twenty minute opening spot, then after the interval there’s an open-mike before the guest closes with another twenty minutes.  I kicked off with ‘Enlightenment’ from Wilful Misunderstandings and followed it with three poems, one of which appeared in the Welsh poetry magazine ‘Roundyhouse’.  For my second set I did a couple of pieces that have appeared in this blog (‘Nothing’ and ‘I Hope to Write a Garden’), ‘The Long Haul’ from the book, and a poem about a Spanish waiter (Jorge, not Manuel).  I got the feeling that I didn’t seriously disappoint anyone and sold a good few books.

Mission accomplished, but what also really stirred me was the open-mike session.  Some of my highlights follow.  An elderly gent from Bridgend named Wes whose poems I don’t always quite get, but whose passion and delivery invariably move me.  A fine and well crafted poem from another reader about a day with his young daughters in Ambleside.  Mav’s co-opted chauffeur, the writer John Jenkins reading selections from his words for the ‘Glo Coal’ word, dance, film and song event.  And another Ponty regular, the ranting Phil Knight whose quickfire ‘I love Wales’ poem had us all laughing, but contained some nicely presented ironies regarding twenty first century Wales.  This is, always has been and will be for as long as it lasts, bloody good stuff.  There is, as many have observed, a powerful literary tradition in South Wales, and I feel honoured to have had a taste of it and been allowed a little participation.

And so ended the… uhrm…’famous author’ tour.  Next day we were off back to England, visiting one final old friend en route – with whom I’d also met up for the Deke Leonard Memorial Concert in Port Talbot on the previous Saturday night (see my review of that in the next issue of online magazine ‘Gonzo Weekly).

Though I’m resident now for the second time in my life in Dorset, I often say there’s a piece of my heart that I left in South Wales.  It appears to be still beating.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Stoned Again at Stanton Drew

An inevitably wet UK bank holiday curtailed an expedition to take a look at the Maes Knoll hill and then the stone circles at Stanton Drew in Somerset earlier this week.  My fellow traveller and I only got to look at two out of the three circles, and missed the ‘Cove’ and the ‘Quoit’ entirely.  But hey, we’d already got soaked going up to the Knoll and we had to make a dash for the church porch to shelter from a further torrential downpour.  We hadn’t anticipated the need for total waterproofing.  Smartphone predictions let us down.  Another such expedition is called for, as and when.

So this is no neo-antiquarian well-informed write-up of serious research, nosirree.  This is a bit more personal.  I’m trying to figure out what it is that attracts me to these sites, these relics, these objects…  Am I doing it because that’s what people do?  People of certain types that is, whether Glasto-revering hippies old and young or strictly academic archaeological authorities or those who straddle the divide or just plain sightseers…  I can identify to some extent with any of them.  Am I romancing?  Am I looking for clues in the ever-elusive quest to figure out why us human beings do the things we do?  Is it some kind of compulsion to which I’ve succumbed over the years?

I guess it started for me with Stonehenge.  I still have, somewhere amongst my random archives, a 60s guide book or leaflet.  School trip or family outing, I don’t remember but - as in those days you could - I walked among those megaliths and felt something that stayed with me.  Awe?  Excitement? A sense of the mystery of pre-history – those stories that we can only speculate upon, based on fragmentary clues with multiple possible interpretations?  Some kind of link, in the presence of these objects, with ancestors who placed them in such locations?  A sense of the sheer sweat and blood involved, and the conceptual sophistication of their construction?  Not only that but the realisation that these things were built to last.  Planned obsolescence, the curse of modern times, was not part of their makers’ thinking (an observation I must accredit to my partner, by the way).

So there were values in operation here.  Were they values that I might share?  Who knows?  There are only these elusive clues.  Do they have anything in common with that which has been built within times of historical record in the way of locations for divine contemplation – cathedrals, monasteries, temples and the like?  It seems hard to deny this possibility.  Yet archaeologists joke amongst themselves that ‘ritual significance’ is a catch-all term for ‘we’re not quite sure’.

In my youth, enthralled by psychedelia, I was prepared to buy into the then current speculations about leys (or ‘ley-lines’ as I now gather we mistakenly called them) as energy channels, the earth’s meridians.  I can remember a visit to Avebury, some time in the 70s, and touching the stones there, ready to believe that something vaguely mystical would seep into my consciousness and bring me to enlightenment.  Didn’t work, I’m sorry to say.  Enlightenment requires a bit more effort than stone stroking.

With age, I read more, spoke with enthusiasts for whom a somewhat nuanced view became the norm.  And still I sought the stones.  The Rollrights, the burial chambers and megaliths and smaller circles that abound in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, and – not so long ago – my first visit to Long Meg and her Daughters up near Penrith.  The folkloric tales that abound around these sites are always fun – people turned to stone for various misdemeanours or whatever, the devil hurling boulders from nearby hills.  They wind their way into my imagination and I daydream of these stones coming to life and animation when no one save the dreamer is looking.  I’m not sure Mike Parker Pearson would approve, but even he must have his more whimsical moments.

Up at the Long Meg site I tried to channel whatever it was that brought me there.  I wrote a poem that touched on some of the questions I’ve listed here.  It raised the concept that even the most solid of rock, when looked at in the longest of terms where tectonic plates cause continents to shift and reshape, is mutable.  As it will be too in about six billion years, when the sun becomes a ‘subgiant’, doubling in size.  In another couple of billion, it is estimated, our planet will melt into it.  In this light, there’s a poetic resonance I find to those tales of transformation.

No answers then, just fascination.  And the stones themselves – the sheer beauty in their shapes and surfaces.  At Stanton Drew, according to the useful write up on the website, the stones are a mix of limestone, sandstone and breccia – a sort of conglomerate.  They are intricately weathered, often pock-marked by erosion, and then – like any rock surface – coloured and patterned by lichens, mosses and other small growing things that lodge in cracks or on ledges.  My eye-to-brain channels are in love with the endless abstractions thus created.  Nature has been doing Jackson Pollock just about since the world began.

And a final thought.  If ever there was room for wilful misunderstandings, surely these are the places.  Archaeology constantly refines its comprehension with new equipment, new ideas and interpretations – but mostly, I think, acknowledges that there will never be enough information to give a definitive interpretation.  There will always be room for wedding guests or knight-errants turned to stone and for Satan lobbing his lumps of rock.

So maybe I’ve answered my question.  But as readers of this blog may have gathered by now, my place is permanently set amongst the bewildered, so I can never quite be sure…


If you want to know more about the middle path approach of neo-antiquarianism, check out and maybe take out a sub.  With regard to Stonehenge and the apparently
inadequate proposal to tunnel the A303 below it you might want to take a look at www.stonehengealliance. where there's a petition you can sign if it's a concern of yours.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Comedy and Politics

I should think most of you have heard it by now, the little joke about what President Trump’s bodyguards would have to shout if he came under fire.  Yes, of course you have.  “Donald!  Duck!”  It’s actually one of those ones where, if you give it some thought, you realise they probably wouldn’t shout that at all.  It would be more like: “Lower yourself, Mr President!”  Or perhaps, given the reportedly regal nature of his audiences with the media of late, “Get down, your highness.”

But of course, Donald doesn’t duck.  He would not so much as consider lowering himself.  He’s so high he can’t get down.  And if he remains standing, bold and pugnacious, and there’s an accurate shot, perhaps his last words will be: “You’re fired!”

So there we are, at this point the joke backfires completely.

As probably - if some of the complaints I’ve heard from some comedians are to be accepted - do most jokes about the current incumbent.  “You can’t make it up,” they say.  “Reality outstrips you every time.”  Which feels about right – many of the darkest, funniest routines about Trump seem merely to involve straight description of the activities and pronouncements of the president and his cohorts.  A bit of canned laughter can be added to the soundtrack to keep us chuckling - if, at any point, we forget to think it’s funny.

I love a bit of satirical comedy as much as the next vaguely leftie old hippie, but here’s the thing.  Sometimes when I appreciate the commentary it’s making, I find myself thinking: ‘These men and women are so wise, thoughtful and observant.  They make their observations with insight, their deductions hold logic.  Why can’t they run the country instead of…?’ (conclude with an expletive of your own choice concerning politicians).  And it seems to me just about credible that they could do a better job.  And of course the media coverage would be lively and fun.  It would boost public interest no end.  In the UK we could have Jeremy Hardy and Alexi Sayle as the Corbyn and McDonnell of the labour party; Stephen Fry heading the lib dems and Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown helming what’s left of UKIP into oblivion.  Though for some reason I find myself struggling to think who might do for the conservatives.  Jim Davidson?

In fact it probably wouldn’t work out.  I’ve been a great admirer of Eddie Izzard for many years (even if I don’t always get his space age approach to cross dressing) and have observed with some interest his efforts to get involved with political activism on behalf of the labour party and the ‘remain’ campaign during the run up to last year’s referendum.  But he doesn’t appear to have distinguished himself on this front or to have added a great deal of worth to the debate as yet.  Maybe the crossover requires a character with a bit more grit.  Mark Thomas springs to mind.  Or perhaps (and it has occurred to me that I’ve so far failed to include any female comedians) Josie Long.

I guess my conclusion is that it’s obviously one thing to diss the politicians, quite another to replace them.  It isn’t that difficult to take the piss or point out the flaws, especially if you ignore the fact that not all politicians are 100% venally motivated.  Pockets of integrity do crop up amongst them and sometimes even endure – providing they don’t get assassinated, as one of ours did last June.  The simple logic of my initial thought dissolves into the complexity of the world as we know it.

It helps to have a laugh, as one despairing friend of mine remarked after I’d re-posted a video clip of Mark Steele doing one of his affably scathing rants about Teresa May’s election u-turn on my Facebook page.  That inane joke around Trump’s first name with which I began this piece certainly made me laugh the first time I heard it.  And there’s not much that causes me to laugh about DT, or the power structure that now finds it advantageous to have him presiding.

Laughter does put it into a different perspective, presents another facet of reality in which foibles are made transparent.  I’m not talking about caricature so much here, which often slips too easily into insult alone.  It’s the observational comedy that works best for me, the stuff that points out the inconsistencies, contradictions, self-interest and deceits that lie behind the pompous facades.  Comedians can do that pretty well, even if they’d be no better at running human affairs than anyone else.

Of course, ‘Donald!  Duck!’ doesn’t fit into that category.  That’s just silly.

But then, I think there’s room for a bit of silliness as well.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Averse to verse? Then look elsewhere!

My Opposable Thumb

You ask what does my thumb oppose?
A set of fingers, I suppose.
It’s likely that I’d let things slip,
if I failed to get a grip.

If this digit was a critic,
would it tend to be arthritic?
If I took a strong position,
would it rise in opposition?

And should I need to offer thanks,
would it wag a stern phalanx?
Take me to task by hitching lifts,
instead of buying thank-you gifts?

Though there’s no reason why it ought
to be equipped with conscious thought,
it’s still my opposable thumb –
and I suspect it just plays dumb.


Monday, April 17, 2017

My Hand-Me-Down Phone

The things are everywhere.  On the streets people are talking into them.  On the train, they’re watching movies or tapping messages on finger sensing screens.  At any time of day they’re pulling them out of pockets, bags or those whaddyacallit slipcases they keep them in to see if there are any incoming messages.  If they lack information of any kind, they’re there for googling.  If they want to know the weather, the screen throws up cloud, sun and raindrop icons to guide them through the remaining hours of the day.  If they want to know where on earth they actually are, the things can tell them with seeming pinpoint accuracy.  If they want to know how something’s done, the things have videos to show them.

I’ve tried to keep up with technology.  I went from an Amstrad to a PC with all of a massive two gigabytes of hard drive memory, to the laptops I use today with their squidgywiggabytes and more.  But somewhere in the last decade or so I found I’d stopped being an up-to-date sort of guy.

At first I was up for resisting them altogether.  I didn’t need them.  Good grief, I’d lived for a full fifty years without them and I was still here to tell the tale.  Why should the future be any different?

The first crack in my defences was driving.  I have next to no idea what happens under the bonnet of my car and if it goes wrong, the job goes to a rescue service.  Some bugger or other pointed out to me that phone boxes are getting pretty thin on the ground these days, and if I had a phone with me in the car…

Damn!  I could not deny the logic.  I think my younger sister had something to do with that.  She’d ‘updated’ and had an old one I could have.  It was a clunky great thing compared to what’s around today and when you charged up the battery it would last up to a good… ooh… ten minutes or so.  But fine.  I could keep it in the car, switched off.  Just use it in dire need.  I didn’t want to go a step further.  I could just about handle it.

It got broken.  I forget how.  By then my sister had got her first smartphone and was cultivating a taste for it.  The road of temptation for her began with the inbuilt solitaire game.  Now she plays Scrabble on it with people from the USA.  And checks for messages, and the weather, and…  Yes.  She’s hooked.

So I got my next hand-me-down.  A Nokia something something something, I believe it’s called.  Somehow against my better judgement I was forced to learn to text message on it, which I still do clumsily and slowly with a lot of cursing.  By day, I use it to make phonecalls, because somewhere along the line I got on a ‘contract’ which I have no idea how to get out of, and my landline costs money if used before 7pm on weekdays.

But that’s it.  I’ve reached my limit.  I don’t want to tap screens with greasy fingermarks.  I don’t want to make things get bigger and smaller by sweeping with my fingertips.  I just…  I just don’t.

One thing haunts me.  What will I do when my Nokia something something something finally gives up the ghost?  Will my sister have one of those things ready and waiting for me, because she’s updated to a device on which she can play Hyper-Scrabble with creatures from Proxima Centauri?

Oh, good grief…  Will I finally have to crawl, protesting grouchily all the way, into the twenty first century?

Okay, behind all this 'grumpy old man' foolery there's a serious point to be made on this topic, which returned to my attention after reading a review in New Scientist magazine of a film shown at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London.  'Complicit', the film, documents the suffering of Chinese workers in the factories where smartphones are manufactured.  They are exposed to toxic chemicals on the production line, chiefly benzene and n-hexane, which give rise to leukemia, nerve damage and paralysis.  In addition, anyone making a protest is subject to often brutal repression.  Although Apple have, since 2014, banned benzene and n-hexane in final assembly manufacturing processes, these are by no means the only unethical aspects of most smartphone production.  Should I ever find myself having finally to 'update' to one of these devices I would go to a company known as Fairphone ( which appears to be bringing the principles of fair trade to smartphone production, along with considerations around re-use and repair issues.  So they probably deserve this plug.