Friday, 31 October 2008

Incommunicado in Liverpool, Street Art and Scouse Humour

I have just returned from Liverpool and am reclining in a prone position after three days of hectic culture ( it is the City of Culture after all for 2008). Loved the city but glad to be home as have mountains of work to do on the novel edits. The Tate at Albert Dock had a couple of good exhibitions on. The most moving piece I found was an installation piece by the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum called Incommunicado. It involved an old fashioned metal hospital cot which had the mesh wire support for the mattress replaced by parallel lines of razor sharp cheese wire.

Somehow the image of an icon of institutionalised care and the presence of such potential harm and damage yelled at me from across the gallery and as they have postcards you are invited to write on to say which piece ‘spoke to you’ I left my thoughts on what the dialogue was between this piece and I, for what they are worth.No doubt I will return to this in my head via a poem or something else in due course. You can only put some things in the pending tray for so long before they get lost, others, even if you file them away in the basement archives still manage to keep nagging at you through six flights of stairs and fireproof doors until you address them.I think Incommunicado may be an example of the latter.

Liverpool is bursting with street art at the best of times, both official and unofficial, so for the rest of this blog I will just give you some photographs I took whilst there. A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say; of course they may have shares in digital camera batteries which cost a fortune and last the heartbeat of a small scared rodent.

Of course the scouse wit was ever present, the prize goes to the small Irish/Scouse workman at the bus stop who, as I passed by, offered up the comment. " Jesus yer Ma must have been frightened by a ladder when she was carrying you, that or you've swallowed a giraffe, either way you's have a great long pair of legs on you, no offence mind luv." None taken.

I and friends are on Youtube now by the way. Scary to see myself thrown into the bearpit of new media culture. Somehow I don't think I will get as many hits as either that kid having his finger bitten by his brother, the chimp washing a cat in a sink or the ahhh moment of those lads meeting back up with the lion they once kept in their flat (they must have been very posh and rich, I could only afford a rat when I was living in London flatland and even that came free courtesy of the Rachman type landlord).I have not given you the links to those, go hunt for yourself dear reader using key words like chimp, cat, sink, boy, brother bite, lion, reunion, posh boys with seventies hair cuts.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Turn, Turn, Turn to Riots and Spooks in Cambridge

So the leaves are turning and the clocks are turning back. Lots of turning going on and in Autumn a middle-aged woman’s fancy turns to the past. We are about to gain an hour of time so it always makes me think about all the time lost, not in a miserable way but in a 'by the fire thinking back' sort of way. I can hear the Byrds warbling in my head as I type, ‘To every season, turn, turn, turn there is a… what.... a time for every purpose under heaven. Pete Seeger wrote the song, or rather plucked the lyrics from the King James Bible and stuck in the ‘turns’. The zeitgeist at the time was all about homing in on that line ‘a time for peace’ given that the Vietnam war was at its height. You could read it another way as it does say there is a time for war as well but let’s skip hastily over that.

When I heard it as a teenager it was all about it being our time to say that we had the one true message about peace. I was at The Grosvenor Square Riot in 1968, by mistake rather than by choice as I was having to stick with someone who had promised me a lift back having missed the coach back to Cambridge. Someone, I recall, sang this song very badly on the coach down to the rally in Trafalgar Square, where Vanessa Redgrave and Tariq Ali strutted their stuff. We had that certainty then that no-one could really see what was happening in the world but us.

The abiding memory I do have of Grosvenor Square, apart from being very frightened and mystified, was seeing a young man stand on the steps of a building well away from the main screaming, yelling, punching, swearing and bad-temper. He opened a tin of bright red paint and poured in over his head and held up a tiny cardboard sign on which was scrawled in biro ‘They bleed, we all bleed’. It was performance art before performance art really existed. I do recall thinking that the paint could damage his eyes and that he would never get it off his clothes and they'd never let him on a bus or the tube like that. I also remember thinking that my dad would never behave like these policemen (he was a well mannered old fashioned gentlemanly copper, a life time away from what seemed the vicious thugs of the Met ).

Looking back at this footage of it all however, you can see that the policemen were just as frightened as everyone else and more frightened of losing. It was said that if the embassy had been breached the American Marines inside would have fired on any intruders. I don’t know how true that was but there were certainly those there on that miserable grey March day that were intent on getting into the building and of becoming the martyrs for the cause. Several young English bodies riddled with American bullets (albeit they were middle-class Anarchists, Workers Revolutionary Party members or Socialist Worker salesmen) strewn on the steps of the American Embassy might have spoken louder than words. I am cynic enough now and was then, despite my young age, to know that there were those that knew that the power of that photograph released world wide would have been the greater publicity furthering the cause of demonising the American government. The ‘end justifies the means’ men that exist behind all social and political movements, good, bad or indifferent and who usually use bright–eyed bushy tailed idealists or plain naive ‘wanna make a difference’ people to further whatever cause they promote. The process is the same whether you are grooming the Hitler Youth or Rainbow Warriors it’s the righteousness of the cause and the outcome that is the justification.

Barack Obama has sat on a charity committee with an ex member of the Weathermen, William Ayers, a revolutionary terrorist organisation founded a year after the Grosvenor square riots to use bombings of government buildings to highlight the US Governments action in Vietnam and elsewhere. He was led by older men then who thought they were in the vanguard of those who knew that their violent means was justified by the extent of the perceived worse atrocities committed by the US government at the time. He is a now a well respected professor of Education in Chicago and was never convicted of any crime.

The government of Northern Ireland now contains those who were seen by some as terrorists, men who drew angry young men from the Catholic and protestant estates of belfast into their dark thrall. They were sent out in the name of justice to bomb and maim whilst the hands of their masters supposedly remained clean of blood as they walked the political corridors of power.

I knew someone in Cambridge during the mid sixties who was approached by someone in The Eagle Pub near Kings Parade. This man, supposedly, represented 'a friend of a friend' of the KGB. Getting the Americans out of Vietnam was a cause they all espoused surely a little co-operation over some information was called for should this person ever be in a position in the future to help them. He told him to sling his hook. It seems like a bad episode of Spooks looking back now but Cambridge then was still a hot bed of political intrigue even post the famous Cambridge Spies, some of whom in the sixties were still undetected working for shadier employers other than the one named on their payslip.

There is a time for every purpose under heaven like peace and war but the important and repeated word is turn and some things just seem to keep turning so fast they all become a bit of a blur.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

William Carlos Williams and Sarah Palin as Mark Anthony

So doom and gloom on the financial front stumbles on and the word 'global recession' is now said in less than hushed tones. Unemployment figures rise, two million possible by Christmas, the Dickensian figure of Christmas yet to come, unfurling its cloak to show the unemployed hanging from the material. Of course we have been here before, people older than I will have been here in far darker economic times. My grandfather was unemployed in the thirties and took on a variety of grim, dangerous and ill paid jobs just to keep the family going. I find it strange that people think that the need to have more than one job or career in a lifetime is something new. There has always been the need to change jobs and be flexible not only in what you are prepared to accept but what you are prepared to exist on financially for the working classes.
I was reading a William Carlos Williams poetry collection the other day and was struck by how much his poem The Yachts is relevant now albeit the metaphor may be reapplied to the banking system as well these days. Williams wrote it of course to point out that capitalism was at the expense of the small men who worked to fuel it and were the first to suffer when rough times came. Not much change there then. We, English Tax Payers, own shares in a few banks these days but it doesn’t help much if your job is going down the toilet, your fuel bills are astronomical and your house is about to be repossessed. As we are all feeling victims of something, we all need someone to be the whipping boy when things are going badly. It helps somewhat if the whipping boys really do exist and deserve the whipping but whilst blame might make us feel better ( those greedy bankers being sacked, named and shamed etc) we all know they will be unlikely to bear the brunt of the economic consequences of their actions. There may be the need for a little down-sizing, retirement a little earlier than expected, the use of savings set aside for a rainy day, a stock portfolio worth only the paper it is written on but nothing too drastic. In terms of the Williams poem these men have a fully equipped life-boat, thermally insulated survival gear and probably GPS equipment that might lead to them being picked up by some other yacht albeit smaller or steered in part by the government, the most trusted of captains in a storm some might say. The rest of us have to rely on the ability to swim in tempestuous cold water. I could meander along in this yacht race in a storm metaphor for hours. Even the United States with a Republican Government aat the helm is at present hauling in its big free market economy sails and using the engine of socialist mechanisms to save the boat.

Enough of the yacht thing I could start to see prophetic messages from beyond the grave in the poem but then poetry is often an ‘out of time’ rather than out of body experience. It can be not only universal but for all times. Some work is of its context, both historically, socially but great writing speaks to time itself. I’m sure Tony Blair may have thought of Hamlet’s soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be’ when the invasion of Iraq was being planned. Then maybe some of our leaders are not so deeply immersed in literature as others. Churchill cribbed from Henry V to write great rallying speeches, Martin Luther from the rolling cadences of the Old Testament. I detect more than a little knowledge of the great dramatic speeches in plays in Obama’s addresses. I am struggling to see that in Sarah Palin’s speeches. Of course unwittingly she (or of course her script writers) are drawing on Mark Anthony's speech in Julius Caesar, damning and sneering at Brutus /Obama by ironic faint praise and threading it through with insidiuos claims of lack of patriotism. Meanwhile she ensures all and sundry know their credentials as everyman/woman, someone who is in touch with how the mob think and act. She ensures that people recall that Bush/Caesar/the Republican party wasn’t all bad, they brought prosperity in the past, they were there in their time of greatest need ( 9/11), upheld the honour of the state against foul would be usurpers (terrorists).

I am sure someone will have told Palin to play up her common side as we all like someone like ourselves. Personally I want someone less common than myself. I want someone cleverer, more agile-minded, stronger, more wise and compassionate than myself to run the country. I would make a lousy job of running a country you may want to bond with someone like you but being lead by them is an entirely different prospect but perhaps many voters are too narcissistic to go beyond this approach.

Click on this link for a bit of fun (well not that funny if she does become Vice president). Make sure you click on various objects in the room to get full value for money out of the link.( Thanks to Anne for telling me about it)

If you want to see a rather good video of William Carlos Williams' famous poem about the plums you can find it here. It is the second of three poetry films by Matthew MacFadyen. Sonnet 29 is worth a watch as well. Nothing startlingly innovative but just quietly doing the job of making you listen to the words afresh.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Dancing and Eating Kebabs as the Banks Crash and Burn

It seems to have been one of those weeks that I wanted to eat every time I turned on the radio, as any pervasive atmosphere of depression always drives me into the arms of hot buttered toast with jam or now and then donuts. The radio alarm woke me up to the sound of the death knell for the Icelandic banking system, the car radio as I drove through the fens muttered into the foot well about downturns and global recession and when I came home at night and switched on the TV the face of strained bankers full of gravitas smiling in a particular wan way to try to summon up an air of confidence and ‘this too shall pass’ greeted me. All this demanded I resort to suppers consisting of shepherds pie and custard the ultimate comfort food stuffs.

Meanwhile, as if to pile on the guilt, Jamie Oliver was inviting the good souls of Rotherham to lightly tickle a salad with the fingers to coat it in a dressing cheerily shaken in a jar, like a fluid filled maracca. I watched with my tub of bought custard and admired the man’s drive and evangelical spirit to make the diets of some people, particularly children, nutritional better. He had witnessed children in African orphanages for Aids victims eat a better balanced and nutritional diet than a child he came across in Rotherham who lived on kebabs and burgers, he sighed to camera. I now not only felt gloomy about the economy I imagined my liver and the whole nation accumulating fat at a rate of knots from similar tubs of custard. Perhaps his Ministry of Food idea will become the new soup kitchen of this depression.

Given this sense of going to ‘economic hell in a handcart’ it is no wonder that I have embraced the return of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. A Saturday and Sunday night filled with sequins, twirls and minor celebrities attempting to rumba as if their life depended on it can only lighten the heart, if not the scales, as a glass of wine and a bag of crisps serve to heighten the whole glitzy experience for me.

I long to dance but at 6’ 3” the likelihood of finding a partner who might skip the light fantastic with me or hurl me round the dance floor in a giddy waltz was never going to happen. At school Miss R the PE teacher gave us a term of ballroom when we reached the fifth form. Young women could not be released into the world post 'O' level without the rudiments of the foxtrot and cha-cha to ease their way into polite society. Thirty, rather cynical young girls, who had just discovered the pill, Mary Quant eye make-up and the pouting sensual lips of Mick Jagger were never going to do justice to the quick-step. I always had to lead and take the male part as I towered above everyone, it was either that or dance holding a small chair as a stand-in partner (I did go on to dance at parties with many a plank later in life so it stood me in good stead and taught me not to expect any conversation or witty repartee whilst dancing). I presume Miss R thought that either I would never be asked to dance by a man or that I would somehow, as if by magical kinaesthetics be able to reverse all the steps in the flurry of excitement that would occur in my head at the prospect of being whisked onto the floor by a man.

I did go to a formal dance once in my twenties and surprisingly I was asked to dance by a man who elegantly swanned over to our table in full black tie and tails, this could be my Fred and Ginger moment, I too might get to fly down to Rio. However he had arrived late after I had already sat down to dinner and had not seen me on my feet. I have to hand it to him he never batted an eyelid when I stood up and all of his 5’ 6” oozed confidence that this dance could be achieved without loss of face on both sides. He was wrong, as soon as the waltz struck up there was an almighty clash of chests as I tried to lead, well strictly speaking it was a clash of breasts and face as his nose wedged itself into my cleavage. He should have known when I became totally confused about how to go into the woman’s hold and we ended up in a tangle of arms and apologies that the situation was beyond repair. Miss R would have been proud of the way I firmly grabbed his hand and placed my other one in between his shoulder blades, but this seemed to cause his eyes to pop out of his head like a cartoon figure and demanded he rise up on his toes, like a small boy trying to peer over a wall. Why had I agreed to dance was the only thing that was racketing round in my head as I desperately tried to reverse like a huge articulated lorry having to back up at speed to avoid being rammed by a small Ford Escort.

That was my last and only ballroom dance. Luckily all that jigging and waving arms about on your own in front of each other was the dance of the moment and I could do that and still can. As for the smoochy, grab each other dances, that occur at the end of discos, weddings and awful office parties it seemed to be ok or maybe it was the booze that made it feel ok for men to just bury their noses in my bosom and for me to rest my chin on the top of their heads and we would shuffle round as if we were the disabled elderly using each other as a Zimmer frames.

So I sit and sigh and watch the dancers on the TV do their thing, and imagine myself doing that in another smaller life. There are worse things to do though, perhaps we may frown at the thought of Nero fiddling whilst Rome burnt, but quick-stepping whilst the global economy crashes and burns seems fine by me.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Davros, Stavros and Christopher Reid in Women in Love.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa I have been remiss in posting. I make no excuses other than the fact that I have not simply been lying down in a darkened room contemplating my naval or should that be navel, I have always had a soft spot for maritime people and verbal dyslexic tendencies have got me into more trouble than I care to contemplate. I was at the Kings Lynn Poetry Festival last week-end and seemed to spend half the time making linguistic near misses (this is the verbal form of having to call on the camera to decide whether a ball is in or out at Wimbledon; nearly, nearly in but just swerving over the line at the last minute) which cannot be subsumed under the heading spoonerisms or dottiness.

In a conversation about Dr Who and the Daleks, which was initiated because a member of the Kings Lynn Festival committee happens to have a life sized Dalek in his house (complete with egg whisk hand and plunger eye) I, as a keen Dr Who watcher since childhood referred to Stavros as the creator of the Daleks. After a short pause the assembled company came up with every possible way of doing a Dalek voice with a Greek accent and summoning up the vision of Harry Enfield’s character saying something along the lines of ‘Well it’s extermination ain’t it peeps.’

Last year at the same festival I managed to congratulate Anthony Thwaite on his poem about two dogs on a roof which of course I knew was by Christopher Reid but some how it just tumbled out. I love Reid’s work he can be precise and observant, tender and witty all at the same time. In this poem he manages to describe a tortoise going down some steps with tender funny precision. But of course this mistake on my part was a simple matter of idiocy and poor memory combining to make for a buttock clenching embarrassing moment rather than a prime linguistic moment of 'just skimming the line'.

My mother was always one for taking words and phrases and either twisting them or losing the thread somewhere. She talked of condescension on the windows, people dying of pantomime poisoning (ptomaine), rules having to be stripped related (stipulated) and the lady up the road had an hystericalectomy. She once told me that a thing of beauty is a boy forever and that someone was barking up a dead herring and that to become a saint you had to be beautified. This was way before the Alzheimer’s took hold and after that a mixture of her natural tendencies and aphasia served to make me a past master at clever interpretation of intent. I knew instantly that when she told me ‘the clicker needed battering’ that the TV remote control needed a new battery. ‘The Duke of Kent is wanting a whip round’ meant that a picture of my father needed dusting (for some reason she became convinced that she had a number of photographs of the Duke of Kent in her house and I think my father would have been pleased to have been upgraded to royalty).

So when I start to think of Stavros as the Dalek creator and that DB Pierre wrote Vernon Little John I shall only be following in my mother’s verbal liquidising which might not bode too well for my career as a writer and a poet but then again it does mean that language becomes a surprising thing now and then and those strange synaptic leaps in the brain that suddenly join up to apparently unconnected dots may be one way of thinking outside the box.

I was telling someone about this Stavros/Davros mix up in the office yesterday and in order to prove that I really did know the difference told her that I even knew that Marlon Molloy played Davros and also Mike Tucker in the Archers. It wasn’t until she had glazed over and escaped that I realised it was Terry Molloy who had played Davros and Marlon Brando who had played the role of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. See what I mean about the memory ball just skimming the line, but then Marlon Brando playing Mike Tucker moaning that he could have been a contender for the parish council may be happening in a parallel universe somewhere, with Robert de Niro playing Sid Perks and Meryl Streep as Jolene.

I saw Terry Molloy (the actor not the character) in the flesh as he had a role in a friend’s stage play ‘Frobisher’s Gold’ when it started life in Cambridge. It went on to play at the Shaw Theatre in London with Janet Suzman giving her imperious Elizabeth I. Fraser Grace the dramatist now has a website up and running so you can check that play and his other work out for yourselves.