Home is where the art is

When the Talking Heads closed, one of my homes in the city was lost to me and I wondered where, if anywhere, would take its place: a pressing issue given the very diminutive dimensions of my actual home.  In fact a number of places have taken up some of the slack, I’ve followed some of the surviving regular events at the Heads to their new homes and have taken advantage of the expanded programme at NST (the Nuffield Theatre, as was) – though NST was already a home, it has just become a more regular one (albeit now in two places).  No, the Southampton cultural space which has taken the place of the Heads as a second home is the John Hansard Gallery.  Rare indeed is the week where I do not pass through its welcoming doors at least once.

I do not remember being dragged reluctantly round art galleries as a child in an attempt to ‘improve’ me.  This may be because it didn’t happen or just that my brain has repurposed that storage space for even less useful trivia.  This absence may explain my lack of antipathy towards art galleries, though does less to explain why I started going: it was probably originally to get out of the rain and then got out of hand.  It may certainly go some way to explaining my enduring unimproved condition.

Over the years, I have been to see an ever wider range of art – generally dating from the second half of the 19th Century or later – and have often found something to enjoy in at least some modern art.  However, the realm of the truly modern and the conceptual – which is the métier of the JHG – had always passed me by.  I’d visited the gallery only once in its old home on the university campus and was largely baffled by what I saw.  But then, earlier this year, it moved to Studio 144 in the heart of town and on my way to (or from, given the commutative nature of translations in space) almost anywhere in or near the city centre.  After a brief taster session, it opened properly in late Spring and it was from then that my engagement with a whole multidimensional hypersphere of new art began.

Of the eleven main artists whose work has been shown in the gallery since its opening proper, I had heard of only two, and one of those I knew no more than the name.  Had the gallery still been at the campus, I probably wouldn’t have been to see any of the exhibitions and my life would have been so much poorer as a result. Given that the gallery is free to enter and, in its new location is so often on my way to or form some other errand, it is just so easy to pop in: so I do.  It is a lovely excuse for a little time out from the stresses of quotidien life and to escape into a whole different realm.  In the midst of a shopping expedition, or when stuck on something at work, I can lose myself in a picture, sculpture or film (or something even more strange) for a few precious minutes.  I cannot claim to have loved everything I’ve seen, but most have prompted new thoughts to bubble up in what remains of my brain and many of the artworks have become friends.  That’s the joy of being able to visit the same visiting exhibition multiple times, which I’ve never really had a chance to do before: the familiarity builds deeper links with the works and some that you might initially overlook become firm favourites.  It is always a wrench when a exhibition leaves, though my feelings of loss are tempered by the excitement of thinking about what will be next to fill the gallery…

The JHG does not just rely on the art itself and its location to draw people in, it also has a very solid programme of public engagement.  From the start, it has organised free talks and workshops reacting to, inspired by, or explaining the art or artists on display.  As often as I can, I have attended these – initially, as the token member of the public but now as part of a wider community.  The talks are always interesting and having been to a number, I have started – occasionally – understanding something of what is said!  I exaggerate (slightly), but I do still get quite excited when I understand one of the references to another artist or artwork.  I also now run a book (currently only with myself) for how far into a talk the first reference to Roland Barthes will come: I really must read the chap one of these days…  As well as these more intellectual talks, it seems that most weekends there is some activity for children to get involved in art: last weekend it was making camerae obscurae, which did rather struggle with the dim December light.

It is not just a home for visual art: the gallery had a Writer-in-Residence as it transitioned and I was somewhat startled to see myself in the video which accompanied his piece (1:01:01 long) when I came to hear it performed.  The gallery also acted as the host to the recent So: to Speak Festival Small Presses Poetry Showcase – which was an amazing afternoon: three presses, ten poets and 200 minutes of poetry in one afternoon.  I’ll admit that my brain was somewhat frazzled after so many words and ideas were forced into it in a such a short time: who needs mind-altering drugs with stimulus like that!

One of the key aspects of the JHG that have made it a second home is the staff, they are friendly and welcoming in way which I didn’t really expect from an art gallery.  There is a beautiful neon sign in the foyer, in the pink and blue of the transgender flag, which bears the legend “You Belong Here” and the gallery assistants veil this glowing message in the flesh that makes it a living reality.  Given the regularity of his visits, these poor souls are now all too familiar with the author.

I think it was one of the gallery assistants who, as November drew to its apotheosis, organised the first Gallery Session: where live musicians took over the gallery foyer for the evening.  This was not the first music in the gallery, as they had a short series of works responding to their Gerhard Richter exhibition of which I only managed to catch one (even I have to work from time-to-time: probably more often than is suggested by these pages), but the first time music was ‘exhibited’ independently of the visual art.  This was such an enjoyable evening, always helped by programming three of my favourite local bands in a familiar space.  From a JHG perspective, this was their first time in the gallery for several members of the audience: so it worked as a real way to bring new audience into the building and showing that it’s not at all scary.  I believe a second session is already on the cards…

Last night, I was at the gallery once again for the preview of their latest exhibition of sculpture by Siobhán Hapanska.  These are four extraordinary pieces, each one large but completely different from its fellows and really benefiting from the breathing space they are given in Gallery 1.  They look gloriously tactile but cannot (sadly) be enjoyed haptically: perhaps appropriate, as one has a theme of temptation.  It was so exciting experiencing them for the first time and it is good to know that I can keep returning to them, each time seeing something new.  To avoid excessive spoilers, I shall show you a mere teaser fragment of Love, which may also act a metaphor for the story of my life and its lack of emotional maturity?

I also wandered upstairs to check out how the indigo is moving through the great curtain of Anya Gallaccio‘s All the rest is silence – what a marvel to have an artwork which has changed each time you go back to see it.

The final current exhibition is a retrospective of the photography of Edward Woodman (who has never, so far I know, played Callan or the Equalizer – a missed opportunity?).  Some of these photos are quite extraordinary, while others do nothing for me at all: which is entirely as it should be!  He has inspired me to look at the world around me in different ways – and to attempt to photograph it.  Not for me the laborious set up, thought and preparation of the view camera: I am more of the school of the slightly inebriated quick snap with my phone, just now (sometimes) with an additional nod in the direction of art.

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Making tracks (after Woodman, but little threat to him)

For those with a desire to see more of my attempts at ‘artistic’ snaps (don’t worry, I have yet to tackle the nude and rarely use myself as a subject), my Instagram feed is available (other, better feeds are also available and the work of real photographers should also be recommended at this time).  My feed is also available to those with no such desire and for them this paragraph can act as an early warning and an opportunity to dodge a potentially painful visual encounter.

Spending time with contemporary art has enriched my life so much, and it’s not just the art.  In recent weeks, I have used the gallery as a respite from the rain and during the long hot summer I became an habitué of the deliciously cool environs of Gallery 2.  When I visit, I’m almost certain to bump into at least one friend: as was the case with the Heads.  The location is also very handy and a talk or preview at the gallery can act as the first of act of a whole evening of cultural fun.  Last night, after enjoying the art, free wine and conversation available at the preview I ambled a few doors up Above Bar Street for some wonderful folk tunes from Alex and Hannah Cumming at the Art House.  They delivered a marvelous mix of traditional tunes, including a smattering of carols, but it was their rendition of the Grey Funnel Line that I found particularly affecting.

With most of my second home needs now catered for, I just need to find a tame space with a grand piano…

A boy’s first univocalic

Chatting during the interval of a recent evening of experimental poetry planted, in what passes for my mind, the idea of writing a univocalic poem.  For the few readers who have never encountered this form, it is a constrained form of writing that only allows the use of a single vowel.  You can use as many consonants as you like, but only one of the five vowels may appear.  Univocalic works tend to be short and some vowels are more popular choices than others: I suspect E is favourite and U rarely attempted

It would seem that works of this form often rely on the subject matter of gland games, but I determined to prepare a work that would not require an 18 certificate and could safely be shared with your easily shocked maiden aunt (subject to her availability: rental schemes may be available for those lacking a suitable aunt of their own).

Many writers will allow themselves to use the letter Y in addition to their single vowel and some will permit acronyms (e.g. CD).  I felt both of these approaches were tantamount to cheating and have eschewed such easy ways out.

My chosen vowel is A which I felt was mid-ranking in terms of difficulty and which does leave open the option of later attempting the remaining four in sequence (or I could quit while I am still only modestly behind).  As a result, I have been obsessing about words whose only vowel is A for almost a fortnight and to spare my fevered brain further exertion in this direction have decided it is time to produce my masterwork.  My composition has taken cosmogony and the life (and death) of a star as its theme and goes after the following fashion:

Far, far back

All dark, all black.

Bang!

A vast flash!

And plasma razzamatazz starts.

Gas calls gas,

Mass attracts mass,

Falls –  and larval stars wax.

Fractal lamps cast apart

Acamar and Almaaz,

Alamak and Markab

Clasp starry vassals,

Span dark’s ramparts

And gladly play a span.

At last, gassy ballast all that stays a crash.

Stars pass away as warm dark ash.

stars-in-the-night-sky

Spanning dark’s ramparts!

Perhaps not the world’s greatest verse creation (in two senses of those words), but I think we can all appreciate the all too rare, if oh-so desirable, brevity of this post!

Postscript:

Last night, as I lay wracked by insomnia, I realised that I was not so wise as I thought as Ys has crept, unwanted and unnoticed, into my verse.  Most are in the form “ay” where the Y is not a vowel, but a couple of examples do act as illicit vowels.  I feel “starry” could be replaced be “astral” for a bonus internal rhyme and “gassy” perhaps with “gas hard” to restore the sterile perfection of the artist’s vision.

The return of the Ethenyl Group

I was taught chemistry in the late 70s and early 80s and so defer to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) when it comes to chemical nomenclature.  If you are going to chlorinate ethene (please don’t, it makes for a very unpleasant compound which is highly inimical to life) and then polymerise the results you will produce polychloroethene.  Sadly, I would seem to be in the minority and people insist on calling it PVC, or vinyl for short, for which we must blame a wine-obsessed German who first coined the term in a footnote, of all places.  I dream that one day I too will coin a neologism in a footnote that will still be in regular use 167 years later!

Vinyl, in the form of a rigid circular disk bearing music carved into a spiral groove, is making a major comeback.  It no longer seems to be limited to those who regard the Victorian butcher or lumberjack as their paragon of style, but has broken into the zeitgeist.  I continue to resist its lure on two main grounds: (i) I can remember vinyl records the first time round and just how annoying and impractical they were and (ii) they require hugely more physical storage space than either CD or MP3 and, despite physicists suggesting that it is being created at an accelerating rate, I am rather short of space.  In researching this post, I can now point to the very unpleasant nature of its constituent monomers as a third reason to avoid it.

Despite this resistance, I do find myself in vinyl record shops on a rather regular basis having visited examples in Romsey (Hundred Records), Winchester (Elephant Independent Record Shop) and (last night) Southampton (Vinilo Records). Each of these visits has been prompted not by the presence of vinyl but because the shops were playing host to live acoustic music sets.  These have always been absolutely glorious sessions despite the spaces always being small and rather cramped.

Though I have only a very limited interest in vinyl, I find that I am rather fond of vinyl record shops (or at least the local examplars).  This fondness must derive from an element of nostalgia, though I was never an habitué of record shops in my youth.  I think a larger element can be explained by the appeal of the visual aesthetic of these stores.  In these days when it so easy to buy stuff on-line (well, right up until the delivery) there is probably a need for shops to provide something that the internet cannot.  Book and record shops both provide the opportunity to stumble on something as a result of an unexpected juxtaposition, which on-line stores seem incapable of replicating.  Perhaps they also offer a secular meeting space where slow browsing and a form of contemplation is encouraged.  For me, there is also something very comforting about a bookshop: probably something about being surrounded by words, many of them in a form which I have yet to read.  There is probably some of that feeling in a record shop, but I think there is also something about the artwork of vinyl LPs.  The LP has a scale – and so a certain majesty – that a CD lacks and when a few are displayed on the wall they give a record shop something of the feel of a rather intimate art gallery.  They also tend to offer more interesting background music – even when not hosting a session – than many stores.  As a result, I tend to feel guilty that I cannot support these shops – though if they do offer CDs, I can (and try to) make a direct financial contribution via that route.

Last night was my first trip to Vinilo Records, central Southampton’s take on the vinyl record shop.  I went to see a mixed bill of music and poetry, but may well return for the vegan hot chocolate – made with almond milk and tasting rather different to dairy hot chocolate, but still delicious – and excellent ginger cake which the store offers.  They also offer coffee and tea and a modest range of other sweet treats.  It was while drinking their green tea that a thought about that particular beverage finally crystallised in my mind.  On its own, green tea always has a slight hint of sardine about it: there, I’ve said it.  Normally, I drink it as ‘green tea with lemon’ which removes the fishy element, but as a pure green tea that piscine under-note is always there.  Is it just me that feels this way, or can others detect a hint of the ocean in green tea?  Should I be seeking medical help?

Anyway, I seem to have digressed, how unlike me!  Vinilo is sited in an unprepossessing building in the city centre and you can easily walk past and miss it (as I have).  The interior decor is simple and slightly distressed, but does contain a very fine cactus (see below).  For the gig, most of the windows were shuttered which created a wonderfully intimate setting.  The evening alternated between poetry and music, with decent gaps in between for conversation and refreshments.  It was a near perfectly constructed evening and we were done by 9pm – so no need for a late night!  Sometimes in US TV or film dramas set in New York, characters will go to Brooklyn for some sort of amazing cultural event and I would once have wished that such delights were available closer to home.  With events like last night’s, I need wish no more: Southampton offers an extraordinary range of cultural events of a range that (in some areas) would probably put a city, allegedly so good that it was twice-named, to shame.

Last night started with the very affecting poetry of Chloë Beihaut, followed by the chilled musical vibe of Kitty O’Neal and her band in fully acoustic mode.

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What a glorious cactus!  Tempted to have one chez nous… (Don’t think the band would fit in my tiny flat though, sadly)

Then followed the amazing vocal delivery of Joshua Jones with powerful poetry from a Llanelli youth and life on the oft-ignored, more difficult side of 21st century Britain.   Finally, Joe Booley finished the evening with his elegiac songs and guitar harmonies (which later in the evening soothed me to sleep via the miracle of Spotify).

I particularly love the photo of Joshua on the left: nothing to do with my skill with a camera (if you take enough photos, a few are bound to turn out OK), but because it captures something of the magic of the evening and the space.  I feel Southampton should be using such images to promote itself as the truly great place to live that it can be.  It is not just home to a million traffic lights, a similar number of alarmingly brazen rats, some dreadful road surfaces and West Quay: there is an amazingly vibrant arts scene which I am still discovering.

Conversation with friends, three interesting new voices, great words and music and delicious cake in a lovely, welcoming space: what more could a chap ask from an evening!   It might even re-start my career as a tennis ace (in a game where aces are low, obviously).  A very fine investment of £3.

It is easy to be dead

Or so I imagine.  Everyone seems to be able to manage it, reardless of wider ability (or lack thereof).  It is the ultimate equal opportunities employer: no discrimination on any grounds. I am, as is widely known, a terrible human being but believe that even I should be able to master the state given time.

I can only assume that it is this expectation of the cold embrace of death, looming on the horizon, that causes me to try and fit quite so much incident and moment into my remaining days.  How else am I to explain the very few hours I have spent in my own home over the last month?  If I’m not over the water for work, I am gadding about the country for pleasure: maintaining friendships and over-indulging in culture.  However, compared to some I seem to have achieved so little – which brings me rather neatly back to the reason for today’s title.

Many years ago, the great Tom Lehrer used to compare his accomplishments unfavourably to those of Mozart.  Whilst his musical output may be slightly less well-known, I strongly suspect he was the much better mathematician of the two which would make him the clear winner.  Having made so much less of a mark in either the public sphere or mathematics than Mr Lehrer, I have many people both today and historically to which I can make comparisons from which I emerge entirely overshadowed.  In an attempt to keep this post to a manageable size, I shall focus on just one such high achiever: Charles Hamilton Sorley.

“Who he?” you may ask (slightly ungramatically, I would note).  When I first encountered the name recently, I didn’t know either.  He was a poet, who worked in the period just before the start of the First World War and until his death at the Battle of Loos in the autumn of 1915.  He was highly thought of by both John Masefield and Robert Graves, to name but two (and two that I have heard of).  I was introduced to Mr Sorley by the Finborough Theatre who were planning to stage a play about him, written by their Artistic Director: Neil McPherson.  Such is the parlous state of so much of the arts, they were looking to crowd-fund a little money to help finance the endeavour.

Being the nosey chap I am, I had to seek out some of his work using the miracle of the internet: whilst my ignorance is vast, I am keen to have some superficial knowledge on as many topics as possible.  Having found CHS and some of his work, I was forced to agree with Messers Masefield and Graves: I absolutely loved his poetry.  Given that I would probably have passed through the rest of my life without encountering his work, I felt the least I could do was bung the Finborough a few quid by way of thanks.  This being the modern era of crowd-funding, my modest contribution did qualify me for a reward when the play was staged back in June.

So, one Saturday afternoon back in June, a friend and I headed off to the Finborough Theatre to see It is Easy to be Dead.  We both thought the play was wonderful: and for once, my eyes were not alone in being tear girt.  They play is constructed from Charlie’s writings and gives a glimpse into the life of an exraordinary young man.  Before his untimely death Charlie had led a surprisingly interesting life and had gained insights into life that I still struggle with at my age (and had certainly not managed at his).  We also got to meet the cast, producer and writer afterwards over a couple of very fine beers in the Finborough Arms (which acts as the foyer to the theatre).  This was a huge amount of fun and further increased my understanding of how the theatre (just about) works.  I even had a backstage tour of the Finborough – which covers a larger area than I had expected, but is still very small.  I now know that not only is Neil the Artistric Director, writes some of the plays and seems to answer most of the emails but he also does quite a lot of the painting (I’ve seen his overalls) and many of the odd jobs.  It really was one of the best night’s out I’ve ever had and made me love the Finborough even more.

Chatting with Alexander Knox who played Charlie, brought up comparisons with Patrick Leigh Fermor.  I was already primed to seek out his work, having been introduced to it by Nick Crane at an RGS talk given in Southampton a while back, and this provided the spur to actually read some.  Having now read the middle section of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (having had it briefly liberated from the stacks at Southampton Library), I shall have to read the rest.  It was an extraordinary journey through a Europe that no longer exists – and, indeed, has been violently torn apart.  Plus, you have to respect a chap who was expelled from school for holding the hand of the greengrocer’s daughter!

I’ve only managed to make it back to the Finborough once since It is Easy to be Dead – a trip snuck in on my way back from Cambridge.  On that occasion I caught the Canadian play Proud by Michael Healey.  I really loved this play (and no crying was required) it was both funny and very interesting politically.  At the end I felt I had some understanding, and even respect, for Stephen Harper -the Conservative Canadian Politician.  This was not what I’d expected and perhaps not what Mr Healey intended.  Apparently the play was considered controversial in its home country, though if I were Mr Harper I’d take it as quite the compliment: as a politican, people can (and will) say far worse things about you.

Given my fondness for the Finborough, I was pleased to learn that it has once again been saved from a planning threat.  London needs more than just endless flats: surely egregiously wealthy foreigners could find something else to do with their surplus funds than buy London properly and leave it empy?  Are there no Perimership football clubs still available?  I was also excited to read that It is Easy to de Dead may transfer to the West End later this year, which would open it up to a much bigger audience than can fit into the modest confines of the Finborough.  It feels like my child (or at least a friend’s child) is achieving success in the world which is always lovely.

Trend Setter

Not, I was slightly disappointed to learn, a particularly stylish breed of gun dog.  Instead, this will be an attempt to prove that where I lead, others follow.  I shall have resort to only two examples, but I think you will agree that these generalise very nicely.

Today, in the UK at least, is National Poetry Day.  By contrast, it would seem that the novella rates an entire month (which, in case you missed it, was back in June) and continuing the apparent trend one must assume that the novel requires an entire year, if it is to be given justice.  I am, of course, well ahead of the game here and have been obsessed by the poem for some weeks now.  As a sign of what a kind and generous author I am, I have decided to spare you any of my own attempts at poesy (not an offer you’ll find in many other places).  Still, I felt I should mark the day in some form and so once again braved the tumbleweed which blows through the poetry section of the Southampton Central Library.  Thus it was that I came to bring Rain home with me (and without any recourse to dance).  Some may think we have had more than enough rain already this week, but my Rain is a collection of poems by Don Patterson.  I’d seen a copy of his poem Motive in a tweet earlier in the day and was inspired to give his wider oeuvre a go: a decision cemented by the dedication to Michael Donaghy which opens the collection.  Later this evening, I will return to the same library where Luke Wright and others (including one Open Mike, who I trust will not be over-sharing) will be performing poetry to mark this ‘special’ day.

This week also brought to England (the other home nations have been doing this for some time) a legal requirement to charge at least 5p for the plastic carrier bags provided by larger shops.  When I was but a callow youth, supermarkets charged for bags and so I always carried my own to help eek-out my meagre student grant (a grant which would seem a princely gift to today’s students).  This habit has stayed with me ever since and I have been widely mocked for it over the years.  Who’s laughing now, eh?  My thrift – or environmental conscience (if I’m trying to cast matters in a more flattering light) – is finally vindicated.  The bag-of-bags which has cluttered my gaffs over the years is finally going to pay its way.

As a consequence of this new charge, sales assistants have clearly been trained to ask, in advance, if customers would like a bag.  Earlier this afternoon, I bought a mini-tube of toothpaste to use when flying (I do like to travel light).   Sadly, those I had acquired for free from my days of occasional business-class intercontinental travel have all run out.  Arriving at the till, I was offered a carrier bag for my wares (or ware).  When I produced my item, the female assistant remarked that she was expecting something larger.  Quick as a flash (or at least after only a brief lacuna) I retorted that this was a phrase I had heard too many times before.  Cue hilarity!  OK, that might be a slight over-statement but she did giggle her way through the remainder of the transaction.

I will admit that there remains a little way to go before my section of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations consumes as many column inches as that devoted to Oscar Wilde – but I think we can all agree that in (at least) two areas over the course of a single week (and it’s still only Wednesday) I am very much the man to follow when it comes to lifestyle.  [In the meantime, I shall be working on some quips about the skeletal structure of the upper arm as my entrée to the Oxford Dictionary of Humerus Quotations].

A very warm welcome to customers joining at Bad, our next station stop will be…

Those of you who know roughly how my mind works – well, I say mind and (for that matter) works, but we both know those two words are operating well outside their respective comfort zones – will realise that this post will be about verse.  Oh yes, he’s brazenly attempted to gussy-up the hackneyed old “going from bad to verse” pun in the hope of creating some barely viable click-bait.  Then again, if you’re reading this, it may have actually worked.  Go me!

The regular reader will be aware of the start of my unfortunate poetry habit and I regret to inform you that matters have not improved.  I currently seem to be consuming collections of poetry at the rate of one per day.  This may not be entirely healthy and is starting to impact other areas of my life.  It has been good news of J Sainsbury’s plc as their store is more convenient for Octopus Books, where I can go for a new fix of any poesy unavailable from the library, than is Waitrose.  In consequence, they have increased their share of my weekly grocery budget – though oddly, this seems to have coincided with a fall in their share price (should they be paying me to take my custom elsewhere?).

At one point, my need for poetry led to me reading Thom Gunn in the checkout queue.  Not entirely wise as supermarket staff are not trained to understand why tears may be streaking a customer’s cheeks after only a fairly minor delay in the process of paying for his goods.  I have now reverted to stewing in my own thoughts as a more socially acceptable form of waiting.

I don’t claim to understand every line, or even every poem: but enough makes it through my semantic barriers that I can recognise some very compelling writing.  Reading some poetry can almost feel intrusive, almost like reading someone else’s diary (and I don’t just mean a list of appointments), so personal does some of it seem.  There are also some lovely turns of phrase available, one of my favourites is “her petal-bright coat” (by Mark Doty): not sure why, it just feels so good in the mouth.  Actually, along with Thom Gunn, Mr Doty is one of my favourite discoveries – he seems to share a little of my style, with his poems full of the sort of asides that litter GofaDM like spots of used chewing gum.  I’m also rather the fan of Michael Donaghy and Philip Gross – but my range is still expanding.

In an attempt to control the poetry, and very much using the same pest-management strategy that proved so successful for the old woman, I am now attempting to ‘swallow’ some short stories.  I presume I will then have to switch to novellas, followed by novels in an escalating chain of reading that will no doubt result in my eventual demise after trying to tackle the literary equivalent of a horse.  Following a sudden memory restoration, I decided to start this counterattack with some work by Jorge Luis Borges (who I’ve been meaning to tackle for some time).  His works proved tricky to find in the library, being filled under neither L nor B.  Reference to the catalogue revealed they did exist, but were held in the Central Library Stacks.

[Cue spooky music: I’m thinking thunderstorm, heavy rain and some solid work on the organ by someone with a pale complexion, dark clothing and maniacal laugh.]

The library staff were a little reluctant to visit the stacks which lie in the crypt (OK, the basement) beneath the library.  There is some thought that they are haunted after the civic centre (including the library) was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the last unpleasantness and a number of children lost their lives sheltering in what is now the stacks.  There has, indeed, been a strange miasma rising up from the lower floor of the library, but I think this has more to do with recent flooding than an imminent assault by the undead.  Still, they did brave the trip and its potential for spectral complications, returning unharmed from Hades antechamber bearing a copy of Labyrinths for my future enjoyment.

This future enjoyment will be somewhat magnified as my reading glasses have arrived – so if you have any small print which needs reading, I’m your man!  The additional clarity (at close range) is taking a little getting used to – everything seems to be shouting at me – but I’m rather enjoying the blurring effect on my distance vision.  It does give everything the feel of those close-up shots of the female lead in a forties movie – as though through muslin or a thin film of vaseline – which lends an aura of romance to even the most mundane of vistas.

The downside of the reading glasses is the ever-present reminder of the temporal transience of existence (and, in particular, mine).  Here, poetry can be a comfort (so I shall probably stick with it, albeit aiming for a lower dosage): in the words of the aforementioned Mark Doty, “that flower wouldn’t blaze if time didn’t burn”.

Pilgrimage: cancelled

I should warn you that during this post I will be writing about poetry.  This may be uncomfortably similar to seeing a dog explain the Schleswig-Holstein problem through the medium of interpretive dance.  Still, nothing ventured!  (The saying does stop there, doesn’t it?)

My life (or at least some of it) is forged from the serendipity of discovered links, like a particularly flimsy chain.  This is part of broader attempt to escape the surly bonds of solipsism that can inflict upon the single life an excess of self-programmed activity.  Of course, the desire to follow links derives from the self, but its results seem suitably chaotic to satisfy for the time being.

On Monday I once again wandered up to the Common with my MP3 player to enjoy the autumnal sunshine (sadly, there was no soft ice cream to be had) and a little intellectual stimulation.  I returned with a need to read the poetry of Zaffar Kunail and The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (the blame for which respectively lie with The Verb and John Gray’s Point of View).  So yesterday, I visited the library to attempt to sate these needs (which, I imagine, lie at the very summit of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – probably perched atop a tall pole).  Sad to report that the library could supply neither work and nor, this afternoon, could Waterstones.

However, having found and then entered the otherwise deserted poetry department of Southampton Central Library, it seemed churlish to leave empty-handed.  Through Ian McMillan, I had encountered his son (Andrew) and I recently heard him reading from his first poetry collection on The Echo Chamber on Radio 4.  I was impressed and acquired the collection, entitled Physical, though through sheer devilment bought it as an e-book so that it was anything but physical.  I remembered that Andrew was a fan of Thom Gunn and so picked up a copy of his The Passages of Joy from the library as a little background reading.  I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy this and thought it might be heavy going, so also picked up Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis by Wendy Cope which I hoped might provide some light relief.  I thought I might alternate and so retain my current tenuous grip on the concept of joie-de-vivre.   One was marked as a Poetry Society Choice and the other as a Poetry Society Recommendation: which, I wonder, is the higher accolade?

I have generally found it tricky to read much poetry at a single sitting – perhaps because it is rather too rich a broth for me or (more likely) because I am a very poor reader of poetry.  In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “he don’t know me very well, do he?”.  It was only by the application of iron self-control that any of the Thom Gunn was left to finish off this morning – and the last of the Cope followed very soon after.  Wendy was the lighter of the two writers, though still capable of seriousness, and did highlight my serious lack of general knowledge in the field of poesy (luckily, I’m a good guesser and had acquired some vague idea of The Wasteland by osmosis).

Thom Gunn was a writer of amazing power and his work managed to overcome its dreadful recitation (by me) to bring the occasional tear to my eye.  Against a very strong field, my highlights were probably Song of a Camera and Interruptions.  The book was an old one: it has been with the library since autumn of 1982 (and was looking good for its 33 years).  As a result, it still had a record of its early borrowings: a steady (if small) handful per year in the eighties but it went untouched from June 1994 to January 2002: were these dark years for poetry on the south coast?  Some side-shoot of millennial angst?  I don’t know its history since library computerisation, but I had been assuming mine were the first hands to touch it in a while. However, when I returned to the library seeking more of Mr Gunn this afternoon, I discovered that the only other of his works they held was “out on loan”!  Moreover, this loan should have ended on 4 June – I can only assume the borrower cannot bear to be parted from it and is willing to risk appalling overdue fines (and worse) to indulge his (or her) love.

I had assumed Thom was an American, but he was in fact born on these shores – at the other end of the 326 bus route to where I spent much of my own childhood (though I never took the 326 to the end of the line: Gravesend always had such a terminal sense of finality about it).  A sequence of poems recalled his time living in London as a young man and I had planned a pilgrimage to Talbot Road to see his digs.  However, by the end of the sequence I discovered that he had done the same and they had been demolished (clearly, no later than 1982) and so my literary excursion has been put on ice.

Still, I was once again in the poetry section and remained unable to leave without giving at least one of the works a day out.  The Andrew McMillan edition of The Echo Chamber was shared with Mark Doty, so one of his works (Atlantis) has come home with me (plus another Wendy Cope and a Helen Dunmore – well, the gaps in my poetry knowledge aren’t going to fill themselves).

It would seem that in avoiding the snare of my nascent short story habit, I have fallen into serious poetry addiction.  Is there a vaping equivalent for verse?  Or will I be reliant on poetry patches or Gunn gum?

Labial kinetics

At some point, as they learn to read, the vast majority of children become capable of following a text without speaking out loud and then without even moving their lips.  Given that my childhood has now vanished, coughing, into the pea-souper of history, I had fondly imagined that I too had mastered this particular skill.  So it was that, yesterday evening, I suffered the most impertinent of awakenings.  On mature reflection (or as mature as my essential childishness permits), I realised that there had been portents in existence for some time for those with the wit to interpret them.

Before the few, tiny quanta of respect GofaDM readers still retain for the author melt back into the foaming medium of space-time, I should make clear that I can read the phrase “bottle of beer” without resort to the hard sound associated with the letter G and with my mouth remaining tightly shut (well, except as required for breathing).  Indeed, I can read the vast majority of novels, web-pages and many a treatise on science or the humanities without recourse to my oscular musculature.  However, there are three major areas of exception to my otherwise condign mastery of this somewhat basic text processing skill.

1.  Foreign vocabulary

The voices in my head are entirely confident when reading my mother tongue, but sometimes require a little help with words taken from another language.  When I was reading a lot of Spanish, this task could also be accomplished while my lips slept – though given its current, very rusty status, the language of Cervantes might require a little help these days.  For a really unfamiliar tongue, one where I am feeling my way through the words and experimenting with possible pronunciations, I may even need to give voice (sotto voce) to the sounds.

2.  Dialect and accents

If the text requires the use of a strong dialect or a strong accent, then the unaided voices in my head can struggle to do it justice.  Sometimes a little labial motion or even voicing of the text can help – though, anyone who has seen me attempt an accent will recognise that this voicing may be counterproductive.  I can produce accents other than my own, but normally I have no idea what they will be until they have emerged, blinking into the world of sound – and often, not even then.  Even if the accent is recognisable, it will rarely have been what was intended – and, as a result, I try not to reveal the nature of the intended accent and just claim any available credit for the one that eventually issues forth from twixt my lips.

The same issue can occur if I am trying to recapture the sound or cadences of the author’s voice, as I have recently tried with A L Kennedy, Adam Gopnik and David Sedaris.

3.  Poetry

The voices in my head are terrible reciters of poetry – perhaps a lack of experience tells against them.  They make a total hash of anything with metrical form, specific patterns of stress or alliteration or the use of caesura.  in consequence, to gain anything like the full heft of a poem, my lips must move and often my voice must be fully engaged.

Last night, I foolishly attempted to read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in a relatively well-lit public space whilst waiting for a gig to start.  This, staying true to many of the precepts of Anglo-Saxon poetry, runs almost the full gamut of poetic devices and so my lips were in near constant motion.  An important lesson was learned!  In future, I shall only read this work in the privacy of my own home or while wearing a suitable poetry-reading mask: i.e. one which conceals (at least) the lower third of my face from view.  I wonder if this could be an accessory to accompany my earlier development of Bookshop Blinkers™?  From a branding perspective, I think I’d want my Verse Vail™ to avoid a look overly reminiscent of either a surgeon or dandy highwayman – then again, given that many a performance poet will stand to deliver his stanzas, the latter might be appropriate…

Acme: New and Improved

It always feels good to title a post with multiple oxymorons.  As is becoming a habit, this post will be made up of addenda to its predecessor.  As an artist, there is always the challenge of knowing when a work is finished – but I do try to keep to within 1000 words for a single post: just one measure of the compassion I feel (sorry, fake) for you, dear reader.

Among the candidates for summary crucifixion that I considered before breakfast was Wile E Coyote.   He was never going to receive my vote as he is a personal hero – albeit one let down by his supplier on numerous occasions.  Modern Olympians could learn from Mr Coyote’s dedication and commitment to his project, even after truly terrible set-backs his resolve never weakened.  An inspiration for us all, I think you must agree.

This started me thinking about the Acme Corporation.  Given the very well-publicised issues with its products, I would assume that it is languishing in Chapter 11 administration and in need of a white knight to come to its rescue.  I have for some time been seeking a way to monetise this drivel so that I can retire to the life of luxury I so clearly deserve.  Yesterday, an idea for a new product which could be the saving of Acme (and the keys to the gravy train for me) sprang, unbidden, to my mind – and as part of the viral marketing campaign (or should I go fungal?) to come, I thought I’d share the basics with you.

I found myself with a few minutes to kill before dinner, after unusually swift translation from West Dulwich to Oxford Circus by the combined forces of Southeastern and TfL.  As is all too common, I frittered this time away in Foyles – though frankly, it would be cheaper just to give my wallet to the first ne’er-do-well I encountered.  To minimise the fiduciary risk, I tried to retain crystalline focus on my objective – in this case the poetry department – and not fall prey to the temptation that lay, wantonly, all around me.

Why the poetry department, you may wonder.  Well I blame the combined forces of Ian McMillan and my blog-brother.  Perhaps luckily, they lacked any work by Francisco Serrano – even in translation (and I was after the Spanish) – but they did have the Selected Works of Fernando Pessoa.  I just sampled the first two stanzas of Tabacaria (the Tobacco Shop)  and I knew I was lost.  I learned that (a) I must own this book and (b) I must never read it in public.

Anyway, as I tried desperately not to be distracted from my “prize”, I realised what it was that I needed.  Every decent human being will sometimes need a set of Bookshop Blinkers™ to keep their eyes from straying from their target and towards all the tempting morsels immodestly left lying around by pimpish booksellers.  I’m thinking these would be offered in a range of colours and finishes and, perhaps for the more adventurous or shameless reader, in wipe clean leather or neoprene.

Am I a genius or what?  Easy Street here I come…

Hwæt

After the over-whelming success of a post titled in Russian – I have never experienced silence like it – I have taken a different path through the complex manifold of spacetime in my hunt for today’s moniker.  I’ve stuck with the lingua franca of my current location, but have travelled back through time (you may wish to imagine a harp-based glissando at this point) to the heyday of the kingdom of Wessex and called upon the ghost of Anglo-Saxon or Old English.  Out of the goodness of my heart (I store all my virtues in a pump of some description – my humility is held in an old ballet shoe), I have spared you the Runic version (but this will only prove a brief respite for the regular reader).

We have a curious relationship with the Anglo-Saxon, using it to name an economic system which would be anathema to a housecarl or thegn.  It is not even used by those descendants of the Angles or Saxons who chose to stay at home, but only by those who left and were later subject to the Danelaw and Norman conquest (secondhand Vikings in all but name).  I really feel that economists could have put more effort into finding a better adjective – it is not as though they have covered themselves in glory with the meat of their subject, so a little time off considering their nomenclature might have benefitted us all.

But why is the old duffer using Anglo-Saxon in the first place and what the Sam Hill does the title mean?  Parsing backwards through that last sentence, the title can have a number of meanings, the Anglo-Saxons liked to sweat their lexical assets, but I’m using it in the sense of “listen” or “hark”.

Today is Bloomsday, but I find myself at some distance from Dublin’s fair city (where the girls are – allegedly – so pretty and, according to the WHO, more than 80% of them will be obese by 2030) though I may yet sample a pint of the black stuff in its honour.  I have never read Ulysses (always more of a fan of Odysseus as a boy, in fact Greek myth over the Roman derivative every time) but still know that the book’s characters have recourse to language described as Anglo-Saxon on a regular basis.  However, this is not the reason for the title – but did tilt the balance of my mind to thoughts about writing (and the good stuff, not just this nonsense).

One of the two books acquired on Sunday was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf – a work I have been meaning to acquire for many, many years (though less than fifteen it would seem).  Whilst I shouldn’t really be starting it yet, I couldn’t resist a quick peek at the opening stanzas – and I don’t think it is going to disappoint (despite the years of anticipation – all my own fault).  Even better, for the first page (and only that page) the translation is accompanied by the original in Anglo-Saxon.  The first word of the epic is hwæt – and hence we have our title.  I have never studied Anglo-Saxon, but can recognise a thorn (from my time in Iceland) and an eth (did she ever marry Ron?) when I see them and, with a little creative fudging via German, I can have a go at reading a few stanzas in an approximation to the original language.  Even in this hopelessly amateurish form and with my voice (which others may appreciate, but is hopelessly commonplace to me), it sounds incredible – you can immediately understand why it might have survived for so long.  I find myself prey to a strange urge to learn Anglo-Saxon – so many enthusiasms, so little time!

Words were very much the currency last night at 451 – the regularly poetry night at the Nuffield.  As well as a swathe of open-mikers we had headline sets from Jemima Foxtrot and Stephen Morrison-Burke (that rarest of creatures: the boxer-poet).  Coupled with my recent listening to The Verb‘s close reading of the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock this has reminded me of how incredibly varied and powerful poetry can be.  It has also suggested that I may have misjudged T S Eliot by basing my opinion solely on the musical Cats – perhaps not entirely typical of his full body of work?

Finally, this morning between breakfast and serious foundational training for my life as a gymnast, I found myself with a few minutes in hand.  So, I read the next short story from All the Rage – in the mere nine pages of These Small Pieces, A L Kennedy reduced me to tears.  It might be thought that tears before 10am are not a good thing, but the universe is having those few minutes back over my dead body (and I fully intend to rise from my grave and continue the fight, if necessary).

Given the number of written (or spoken) works deserving my attention far exceeds my ability to consume them (unless the singularity arrives a lot earlier than I’m expecting), I sometimes wonder why I do anything else.  I think the answer must lie in the need to reflect on, and recover from, writing of quality and power.  My poor brain cannot accept such rich input too often without suffering even greater degeneration than is already evident.  Plus, I’m both too tall and physically graceless to swoon with any style (and, more importantly, injury-free).  Once again, it seems the therapeutic effect of GofaDM (on me, if no-one else) is laid bare.