Saturday, 21 June 2008

Hunkering round the Campfire with Sean O'Brien and Jen Hadfield

This week I went to the launch of a friend’s book of short stories in Cambridge.

It was well attended but not many chairs. It is difficult for me to really listen to anything for any length of time, no matter how good, standing up these days. A colleague at work went to the Globe Theatre on the South bank in London to see Macbeth and thought she would indulge in the full authentic Shakespearean experience by going in the Elizabethan equivalent of the Mosh Pit. She said by the time Lady Macbeth appeared examining her bloody hands she was suffering so much leg ache that she wanted to yell out and just tell her to get on with it and jump to speed things up. Gone are the days when I could stand for hours at a gig banging my head on fresh air or just swaying in appreciation and not tiredness. When you start taking a shooting stick to sit on at an outdoor gig you know it’s time to start muttering grumpily about the old days at the Isle of White Festival or the very first Glastonbury and putting your Tom Waits vinyl into alphabetical order.

Back to the friend’s launch. Eventually the elderly found the odd chair, some hard core uprights lent against book stacks but many like me sat down on the floor. Being of the long-legged species I have always found sitting cross legged problematic, even as a child. It posed a dilemma; it is like trying to fold up a stiff deckchair, an art as great as wooden origami or the Rubik’s cube, to me. It must be something to do with my lack of spatial awareness coupled with kinaesthetic failures and of course the capacity for logical thought.

Sitting cross-legged wouldn’t appear to be difficult but arranging 36” of inside leg, which I have possessed since a twelve year old (much longer than that vaunted by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman) into this complexity of under over, tucking in and knees akimbo has always eluded me and when I have achieved it, it is distinctly uncomfortable. Both legs tucked to one side is easy but involves a twisting of the spine that any Alexander teacher would weep over. Kneeling and sitting back on your heels is what children do naturally and is I am told by a physio actually quite a good postural position to adopt so long as the back isn’t rounded but then at my age and as a failed yoga student I have a tendency to start off with very good intentions of keeping myself upright but after a few minutes I start to subside and my spine takes on the appearance of a lengthy arc. I have always hankered after being able to hunker down like a cow poke round a campfire; pushing back my cowboy hat with one hand and wielding a mess tin plate of beans in the other whilst someone plays a lonesome tune badly on a harmonica and a coyote howls out in the brush. I think I have overdosed on Westerns in my childhood and have the celluloid image of lots of bonding hunkering down round camp fires imprinted on my low brow mind before Broke Back Mountain came along to make hunkering and bonding take on a whole new visual image.

Stiffness of the knees precludes hunkering, and I note that in the farting scene in Blazing Saddles they didn’t hunker either but had barrels to sit on but book shops are short on barrels.

I have just received a letter to go and have my Dupuytren’s Contraction looked at( nothing to do with pregnancy), it has other names, Coachman’s Hand, Claw hand, etc. It runs in the family, father, uncle, aunt, grandparent and on back into my Viking lineage, from which the condition may spring apparently although it is also very common in Australia. However those Vikings were intrepid sailors and may no doubt have navigated their way there despite any hand problems. Of course there are other causes for this grasping hand; heavy drinking being one of them but I hesitate to say that there was a long line of heavy drinkers in the family but it may be tied up with all those flagons of wine and ale ancestors pillaged in the old days.I like to think of it developing from honestly tilling the soil or pulling on ropes on long boats. Maggie Thatcher had this condition which may say something but something I would rather not be associated with. However, Sean O’Brien, the poet and recent winner of the TS Eliot prize suffers from it and has even written a poem about it, which I couldn’t find to link to. Instead I will show you one of his poems about his inheritance, the likes of which is much more in keeping with my sentiments and past.

I have also been reading the second poetry collection by Jen Hadfield, Nigh-No-Place. If you don’t know this poet, take time to read her work, it will reward you. She is a triumphal mix of nature poet(red in tooth and claw), young urban witty, lyric, and above all she is a player with language that pushes you along at a giddy rate. She lives on in the Shetland Isles but her latest collection also reflects her time spent in the wilds of Canada visiting relatives. Roddy Lumsden who is no mean judge of poets has written of her that she is the most exciting poet to come along, not only in Scotland but in Britain for a long time. Here is one of her poems but navigate back from this page and you can read others.This site by the way is well worth bookmarking, if you don't know it already, as it has some interesting work up there on a regular basis. I met Jen a few years back when she was still doing her undergraduate degree in English at Edinburgh and it has been wonderful watching her work develop and grow into something that excites the ear and the senses.

In line with this poem I linked to of hers I should point out that at present I am coveting my neighbour’s cat (not the killing machine one on the right but the one on the left) who spends time sunning himself on the roof of my ex rabbit hutch (well the rabbit hutch isn’t ex but the bunny is). He is a cat of immense ability to relax without any guilt that he isn’t out doing feline things like catching birds and hunting mice, this is a life skill I want to cultivate. Cats don’t do guilt at all of course whereas the dogs I have known and loved could always seem to summon up a look of guilt way beyond any expectation of punishment when they had chewed the rug, eaten my birthday cake or shat in the kitchen. Nor did they have the same degree of relaxation as cats, they twitched when they slept and were always on the edge of protecting the sheep in the fold from the wolves. Dogs would hunker with you round a campfire, cats on the other hand would be off killing small owlets, sleeping chipmunks and sinking their claws into the back of the harmonica player’s neck…

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