Thursday, 23 June 2022

Of Lighthouses and Lagoons

We recently returned from a holiday in Cumbria. We stayed for a week on a caravan site in Haverigg. The site's situated on the edge of a lagoon on the far side of which stands a lighthouse. The lagoon was once a vast industrial site - an iron-ore mine - which has since been flooded and turned into a nature reserve. Literary associations kept popping into my head all week: every time I looked out of the window and saw the lighthouse I found myself thinking of Virginia Woolf and of Mr Ramsay telling his son that the weather wouldn't be fine

Fortunately, it was fine. I didn't have to resort to cutting out pictures from the Army and Navy Stores catalogue to while away the time. And then, looking at the surface of the water, which stretched away to the lighthouse from just outside the door of the caravan, I couldn't help wondering what lay beneath it. It would be interesting, I thought, to lower an underwater camera into the water, to explore the landscape of the lagoon-bed see what remained of its industrial past. I was reminded of JG Ballard's The Drowned World - another book I very much enjoyed reading. I had a silly thought, too, that this was the way Mordor might look, fifty years after the defeat of the Dark Lord, the pits of the orcs landscaped, filled with water and turned into bird sanctuaries and suchlike.

It's a few miles north of Haverigg to Silecroft beach. You get there down a road that winds back and forth over the railway line through a series of level crossings. There's very little there - once you've driven through Silecroft village, there's a small caravan site, a handful of old, substantial houses, a couple of bungalows and little else. The beach itself is a shingle beach that curves away to the north for miles, up towards Ravenglass and Sellafield. On a good day, we were told, you can see the Isle of Man. On our first couple of visits, try as we might, we could see no sign of it. Then, one particular clear morning, we drove down to the beach and there it was - hilly, substantial, filling a good part of the horizon. It's easy to see where myths of magic vanishing islands come from.

Saturday, 7 May 2022

Outside The Central Café

The other day I found myself in a local town. I'd taken someone to the hospital there for an appointment and had four hours to kill. I'd brought a couple of books with me - a volume of Virginia Woolf's diaries and JG Ballard's Kingdom Come. I sat in the car reading for a while. (I stuck to the Woolf - the part I'm reading has a cosy domesticity about it. I didn't feel up to the psychological savagery of the Ballard). However, it was a warm day, warmer than I'd expected, and the car soon became pretty intolerable. I put my book away and set off walking round the block to a coffee-shop on the edge of the town centre which I used to visit regularly some years ago. I knew you could sit outside there and installed myself at a table with a coffee. I spent a happy half hour observing the street. I chatted briefly to a bloke delivering to the café. He'd parked up at the kerb and was going back and forth with shrink-wrapped trays full of fizzy drinks and the like. I said to him he could do with a porter's trolley. He laughed and said he had one but that, in this case he hadn't bothered, as he hadn't far to carry them. Each to his own. Perhaps he liked the exercise.

It had been some years since I'd sat outside The Central Café. The town's not far from where we've lived for the past thirty years and we used to visit regularly. A few years ago, though, we'd stopped shopping there and started visiting another, a few miles away in a different direction. Then the pandemic struck and, for a while, we went nowhere. Everything was much as I remembered it and I was surprised to find myself feeling a sense of uneasy nostalgia one might feel on revisiting a place where one used to live: only in this case I didn't associate the feeling with a distant place. It was more close to home than that, like opening a box I'd put away a long time ago and had forgotten about. 

Then I found myself thinking of conversations I'd had with old people and how their lives, when they talked about them, were indeed divided into episodes. It always seems likely that tomorrow will be much the same as today and it usually is, but in fact, every now and again, most of us are subject to seismic shifts, sometimes within our control, sometimes not. Some of them, the obvious ones, are major earthquakes. Others - like, in this case, which coffee shop you park yourself outside during your off-moments - are minor tremors, easily missed, even, if your attention isn't drawn to them. However, if like me sat outside The Central Café, you find yourself in a place you once knew, you can find yourself taken back to a time when things suddenly seem more different to how you might casually remember them.

Friday, 22 April 2022


Brandon López and Gerald Cleaver have been working together for some years as a duo making innovative improvised music. Both are established figures in the New York Jazz scene. On this album they've come together with American poet Fred Moten. It was recorded during the pandemic, in the wake of the George Floyd rebellion.

Combining poetry with jazz goes back a long way. The idea, however, while retaining curiosity value, has never become mainstream. The Beats and, later, the Black Arts Movement tried to develop it. Some of the results have become iconic. This album, which has been compared to the work of Amiri Bakara with the New York Art Quartet, may well be up there with the best.

The problem – according to detractors – is that one is never sure what to concentrate on, the music or the poetry. This is a mistake, I think. As TS Eliot said, 'genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.' One can think of the poet in this context as just another musician, only a musician playing with words. If one is paying the right kind of attention to the poetry, there is no need to be preoccupied with trying to understand it. The words work like notes, the phrases like musical phrases. Just listen and you'll find out what you need to know. This doesn't mean the meaning of the words will be lost on you: Moten is poet who writes powerfully about the politics of being black in the USA, of how – referencing the death of George Floyd – “somebody black and poor can't breathe”. The title of the first poem/track on the album tells you what it's standing up against: “the abolition of art, the abolition of freedom, the abolition of you and me”.

Moten's poetry is ideal for this kind of project. Its phrases live for themselves, like the latest thought of an improvising musician. Derek Bailey once said of improvisation words to the effect that improvised music was like music without memory. This quality of living in the moment, shared by Moten's poetry – on one level – and musical improvisation, is what I think makes this album work so well.

I don't think it'll be forgotten in a hurry. I don't buy much vinyl but I'm tempted to buy it for that reason - and because, if I do, I can sit it next to my Iskra 1903 double LP (1972), which it reminds me of, possibly because that, too, hit me between the eyes when I first heard it. Bailey, Rutherford and Guy released that album of improvised music fifty years ago, in a different country, in a different context. Hopefully people will still be listening to Moten/López/Cleaver fifty years from now.

Monday, 18 April 2022

.​..and I think the little house knew something about it; don't you?

I always keep a look out for any new releases by Jumble Hole Clough. If you don't know it, it's the brainchild of Colin Robinson of Big Block 454, which describes itself as 'making exploratory, highly individual music that encompasses rock, funk, electronica, folk music, Dadaist collage and much more besides.' Jumble Hole Clough seems to have grown out of this. It started out, as Robinson puts it, 'to produce music influenced by the landscape, industrial remains and experiences around Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire'. I would respectfully suggest that although JHC retains some of the eldritch oddity that I associate with that neck of the woods (it was once my stamping ground, too), it has, over the 39 albums now produced under the name, gone beyond it.

Of the 38 albums produced prior to this one it's hard to single out a favourite but mine is probably Answers on a Postcard. They're all more than worth a listen.

.​..and I think the little house knew something about it; don't you? is something of a departure – but less of one than might appear at first glance. It's a collection of generative music, an approach which has certainly not openly figured in JHC's music so far. As Robinson explains, 'you set up a system and some rules... A variety of probability and aleatoric functions are used, such as Turing Machines and nested Bernoulli gates. The probability process means that the music gradually changes over time.' Reading this, it was hard not to think of the work of Brian Eno. However, I was reminded of something someone once said of John Cage, that however much he used processes and aleatoric techniques to put distance between himself and his music, it still, somehow, managed to sound like John Cage. For all the processes, this album still manages to sound like Jumble Hole Clough - but in new and unexpected ways. The quirky, eldritch quality still shines through.

Jumble Hole Clough -as Cage once said of Satie- is indispensable.

Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Me and My Trousers

I have always thought of making a big deal about buying a new pair of trousers as being an old man thing. I guess I'm getting old. I've just bought a new pair of jeans and it feels like a major event. It could also be that I've been wearing the old ones since the first lockdown last year. The only times I didn't wear them (apart, of course, from when I was in bed) was when I did the garden and when we went to my son's wedding. I have an even older, more disreputable pair of trousers for doing the garden (and that's saying something) and I wore a suit for the said wedding - although I did threaten to wear my 'lockdown originals' as I'd come to call them in my own mind.

I've been wearing them for so long that taking them off for the last time was a bit of a wrench, almost like shedding a layer of skin. It probably was,  in fact, as they only got washed once or twice. We've been through so much together that I can't bring myself to throw them away. They have historical significance.  As I already have a pair for doing the garden, I've had to create an honorary position for them, as spare gardening trousers, a kind of clothing equivalent of being given a seat in the House of Lords.

I doubt they'll get used. The bottoms are frayed where they caught on my heels, the belt loops are coming off, the zip's gone (that was the last straw), there's a hole in the crotch and another in the waist. They'd be good for a scarecrow but I haven't the heart to demote them to such a lowly position.

Monday, 6 December 2021

One Day It'll All Be Different

I recently finished printing out the latest draft of the book I'm writing. It's the book that's kept me away from the blog. It's a novel-length collection of thirty-one short stories and I've given it the working title, One Day It'll All Be Different. It's the title of one of the stories in the collection and also a line from a visual poem I made a while ago and which I've used as a cover for the draft. Thanks are due to The Weaver of Grass for helping me with the proofreading.

A few of the stories were written earlier, but the vast majority have been written over the last eighteen months. They explore  time, memory, the way we create the worlds we live in and the unknowability of other people. Suitable themes, you might think, for a pandemic lockdown. I was about to say that, despite that, I wouldn't describe it as a work of 'lockdown fiction', but as soon as I began to type out this thought I began to question it. None of the stories feature the pandemic, the characters meet freely, travel the country and explore their environments. However, the very things they do are the very things lockdown leads one to think about and perhaps yearn for. Several of the stories, too, involve characters becoming immersed in the topography of their immediate surroundings. This, I think, has also been one of the less unpleasant themes of the pandemic for a lot of people. So, is it a work of lockdown fiction? Perhaps it's not for me to say. 

One of the great things about writing short stories is that, because they're short and self-contained, you can be bold. If you have an idea, explore it. Why not? In two or three thousand words' time you'll be doing something else. Short stories can be a liberation not only for the writer but also for the reader. Not enjoying the narrative? Don't worry, in a few pages you'll be embarking on a new one. Very occasionally (but, be reassured, if such things are not to your taste, not too often), it might lurch away from literary fiction into a hauntological world drawing on the tropes of fantasy or science fiction.

It's a good feeling, getting it printed out: it's reassuring to see the thing on paper and feel the weight of it in my hand. 

On a different note, I'm currently reading The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. You have to be wary of taking to heart the judgements of others. I'm thinking here of critics and how we read and, if we write it, write criticism. It's so easy when reading to take on board the opinions of the writer, particularly, I think, when the idea in question is presented as a casual aside. With The Voyage Out, it being her first novel. when critics write about it they seem to feel almost obliged to damn it with faint praise. One is left with a mental image of a rather stodgy, flawed first novel that's nothing like as good or as interesting as her later work. Added to which it's pretty thick. 

Being a Woolf fan and having read almost all her later novels, actually reading it for the first time is proving to be a pleasant surprise. A young impressionable woman (a bit like Woolf herself) goes on a sea voyage with members of her family. They find themselves joined, briefly, by a Tory MP, Richard Dalloway, and his wife Clarissa. Richard turns out to be an egocentric sexual predator. I found that episode quite disturbing and was left wondering what Woolf would've made of his modern counterparts.

It's not all dark, though. On the contrary, so far I'm finding it one of the most humorous of Woolf's books I've ever read. For example:

Mr. Pepper went on to describe the white, hairless, blind monsters lying curled on the ridges of sand at the bottom of the sea, which would explode if you brought them to the surface, their sides bursting asunder and scattering entrails to the winds when released from pressure, with considerable detail and with such show of knowledge, that Ridley was disgusted, and begged him to stop.

And, later, 

"It’s the philosophers, it’s the scholars,” [Richard Dalloway] continued, “they’re the people who pass the torch, who keep the light burning by which we live. Being a politician doesn’t necessarily blind one to that, Mrs. Ambrose.”

“No. Why should it?” said Helen. “But can you remember if your wife takes sugar?”

Friday, 29 October 2021

The Day I Ran Away

One day in 1966 I ran away from boarding school. I was eight at the time. It was the beginning of my second term. I'd been sent there with the best of intentions. I'd been having problems at my previous school and my parents were at their wits' end. In their position, had I been able to afford it, I may well have done the same thing.

The first term had not been easy but my teachers had reassured my parents that things would get better. All boys take time to settle in, they said, some longer than others. To the adults in my life, things, understandably, didn't seem to be as bad as they really were. One had to accept that teachers knew what they were doing. What the teachers played down, I suspect, was the way violence was normalised inside that institution. For myself, as soon as I got back, I realised that the coming term was going to be at least as awful as the one before. For ten weeks, I'd been beaten at least four times a week and, at the end of term, the headmaster told me to remind him next term that he 'owed me a whopping'. Needless to say, when I returned, I didn't.

One morning, soon after the start of term, me and another boy who'd also had enough just walked off. I remember it vividly. It's a slide-show I can replay in my head at will. Chapel, which was held every morning, after breakfast, was over. We were walking down past the sports fields to the block where the classrooms were. As I remember it, he and I were talking about how fed up we both were. We'd never really spoken to each other before that day or been particularly friendly, but that morning we found common cause. Perhaps we gave each other the strength we needed to do what needed to be done. As we passed the rugby pitch we simply turned off the path and walked across it towards the fields and woods beyond. We had no plan. Like so many great rebellions, however many times it'd been dreamt of, when it actually happened it was a spontaneous act. I remember the other boys stood and watched us, jeering and laughing at us as we walked away. Looking back now it strikes me as curious that they thought they had something to laugh about. After all, they were the ones left behind on the inside of a violent neglectful institution, looking out. We were the ones on the outside, walking away. We were the lucky ones.

We just kept walking. We held out for a whole day. The school, as I remember it, was in the middle of nowhere. We made our way from field to field, furtively crossing the occasional road when we had to. I remember once peeping round a hedge to see a queue of police cars waiting at a crossroads, all, we presumed, out looking for us. Looking back it was probably one of the most exciting days of my life. We were wanted men. As we travelled we made a vague plan for the immediate future. The other boy knew the area slightly as his family home was not that far away. We decided to head for it as best we could but I've no idea whether or not we were ever actually travelling in anything like the right direction. He said we'd get a telling off if we made it but, knowing his mum, she'd at least give us a plate of beans on toast. As the day wore on, we began to get hungry. The thought of that beans on toast spurred us on. I have a vague memory of coming across an apple tree at one point and taking a few bites from a sour apple, but I might've imagined this.

By the evening, it was obvious we were getting nowhere. We didn't relish the thought of spending the night out of doors, or huddled in the corner of some farm building. Not only would it be cold, scary and uncomfortable but it would raise the whole episode to a different level. We decided to give ourselves up. The next road we came to, we simply waited on the verge for the next passing police car.

I have no memory of the journey back. What I didn't know at the time was that the police had been to the school for another reason that day, to arrest the headmaster for taking indecent photographs of children. When we got back I did get the sense, though, as you do sometimes as a child, that the adults around us were preoccupied with important things we knew nothing about. I remember hearing low voices involved in earnest conversations, too far away to hear what was being said.

We were taken to the headmaster's study and given a stern lecture. Apparently, our crime was so grave that, for once, we were not going to be beaten. We were to be suspended. We should understand that this was the height of indignity, far worse than six of the best. Our parents were coming to collect us. I remember feeling disappointed that we'd not been expelled. Perhaps, I thought, we should've stayed out all night after all. But that was only a passing thought. It was immediately followed by the realisation that, although I was only suspended, my parents would surely never send me back. All through the lecture I remember standing there, staring impassively at the adult in front of me while feeling, inside, a sense of complete triumph, a feeling which he, had he been able to read my mind, would've described as insolence. I viewed him with complete contempt. We had broken the rules, yes - his rules. He viewed what we did as misbehaviour. In fact, looking back, I find it hard to think of a day during my childhood when I behaved better, right down to our decision not to worry our parents unduly by staying out all night.

We were sent to collect our trunks from the cellar. My father came to collect me. I remember the tug I felt when the boy I'd run away with was whisked away. I knew at that moment I'd never see him again. As I expected, I never went back.

There was no barbed-wire fence around the school. There didn't need to be. Most boys more-or-less happily adapted to the regime of cod-tradition, bells, beatings and rough team games. There were prizes to be won, one could become a good cricketer, even captain of the First XI. One could make a life for oneself there. Those who did, erected barbed-wire fences in their minds and rarely if ever felt a desire to cut through them.

My time at that school and especially the events of that day certainly played a part in shaping my life and, in particular, my political opinions. As an adult, I've always found complacency tiresome. I tend to feel more at home among misfits. I'm still intrigued by how people develop loyalty to institutions that abuse them. For example, I don't understand how anyone can feel patriotic towards a country that lets its most vulnerable citizens suffer, die needlessly, or sleep on the streets. When I look at the world's political institutions, authority figures and the public's response to them, I'm often reminded of Tom Waits' observation that we're 'monkeys with money and guns.' And then there's the business of having to choose between breaking the rules and doing the right thing. As people often point out, those who shielded Anne Frank and her family were breaking the law. Those who killed them were upholding it. When Rosa Parks, quite rightly, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person she, too, was breaking the law. I've come to the conclusion that doing the right thing trumps the rules. The more people think for themselves and set off across the rugby pitch the better.

Looking back, I'm not sure what memories from that day have left the deepest impression on me. Was it the impotent finger-wagging of the authority figures? Was it the jeering of the boys we left behind? Neither. I think, on reflection, it was the epiphanic moment, after we'd given ourselves up, when I realised I was free. There was a downside, though. I'd made myself into an outsider. As Camus said: The outsider is not sure who he is. He has found an “I” but it is not his true “I”. His main business is to find his way back to himself.

I can relate to that. For years afterwards I felt lost for words. I was painfully shy in adult company, never sure of what I should say. I didn't make friends easily, although the next school I went to provided me with the safe, caring environment I needed. They also taught me to play an instrument and began turning me into a musician. In retrospect, it's obvious that Camus' project, the journey back, the search for my true “I”, was my project back then. Come to think of it, I'm still working on it.

Of Lighthouses and Lagoons

We recently returned from a holiday in Cumbria. We stayed for a week on a caravan site in Haverigg. The site's situated on the edge of a...