Thursday, 31 December 2009

ArtSpark Challenge #4

A contribution to ArtSparker's New Year Caption Competition. Happy New Year!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve

We've been out today doing a few bits of last-minute shopping. We found ourselves walking though Leyburn market, so I took a few photographs. It was a bit foggy. I really like seeing other people's photos from around the world on blogs: they don't have to be great photos, just snapshots of what people see as they wander around. With this in mind, I thought I'd post this morning's efforts.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Tower

This is my contribution to TFE's Christmas Poetry Go-Kart. Observant visitors will notice it, er, came out as a piece of flash fiction, not a poem...

It was a dream. I was walking along the beach, somewhere on the North East coast, I think, although there's no specific reason for thinking that. I was walking towards a white tower, which stood on the edge of the beach. It was not unlike a lighthouse: it was circular and the smooth, stone sides tapered. Only, the lantern was missing. The tower was topped instead by a brown, low-pitched conical roof. Perhaps it had once been a lighthouse, I considered. Maybe it had been put to another use and, so, the lantern had been removed.

The closer I got, the more curious I became. I just had to know what was inside it. I made my way gingerly over the slippery seaweed that covered the rocks and the stone foundations around its base, and knocked on the large, brown door. It was so substantial that my knock sounded  like a mere tap, hardly audible above the breaking of the waves on the beach behind me. Needless to say, there was no response.

I turned the handle and pushed against the door. It was unlocked and fell back easily. I found myself in a low, circular chamber. Just enough light came through a small window for me to make it out. (I had noticed several such windows dotted about on the outside of the structure). The walls had once been whitewashed, but were now tinted green, covered as they were with an irregular film of algae.

I made my way across the stone floor to the window. As I did so, I heard the door swing shut behind me.  The window was, as I said, small -about a foot each way- and seemed to be made of "bottle glass". Whatever it was, though it admitted light, it was impossible to see any clear image though it.

Not far from the window, to my left, was the foot of an enclosed spiral staircase, just as you might expect to find in such a tower. I made my way up it, every now and again passing one of the small bottle-glass windows. The staircase emerged in another room. This was very much like the first, though this room was provided with basic furniture. There was a chair, a table and a low divan. The upholstery smelt of mildew and they were all caked in a greasy dust. They had obviously not seen use for a very long time.

There was very little to do except walk around the room and look out of the window. Again, although it admitted light, I could see nothing clearly. There were blue swirls which could have been either the sea or the sky and flecks of yellow that I took to originate from the sand. My curiosity about the tower satisfied -what creatures of instinct we are!- I decided it was time to go.

I made my way back down the staircase to the lower floor. Only, when I emerged at the foot of the stairs I found I was not in fact in the downstairs room but in the room I had just left! I had a good look around me: it was, to all intents and purposes, the same room although now I could see, on the far side of the room, the head of the staircase I had descended only a few moments before. I felt disorientated, slightly nauseous. I could feel myself coming out in a cold sweat. I decided I must have made some sort of foolish error, although I felt sure that since leaving the upstairs room I had always been walking down the stairs, not up.

What was I to do? I had a pencil in my pocket. It occurred to me to leave it on the table and make my way downstairs for a second time. This I did and, when I emerged into the room again, there was my pencil, on the table, just as I had left it.

Sometimes -ever hopeful- I attempt to descend the staircase but the result is always the same. Apart these brief exertions I have been in this room ever since. I sleep, fitfully, on the divan and when I do I dream: I dream I am living my former life. My sister and I sit before the fire, talking animatedly as we often did. Sometimes we sit down to a meal (oddly, all that I need seems to be provided for me in my dreams). Sometimes I improvise on my guitar. I read, I write. I attend to the garden...  And then I wake up - to the cold, to the dim light of the tower and to the sweet, mildew smell of the old divan.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The Tree - continued

Just thought I'd post two photos of the tree, now it's finally got it's bits and pieces on. I'm a sucker for real christmas trees. When they're lit up, I find looking into them is a bit like looking into the embers of a fire. There's a whole imaginary world in there.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

How to fit a pine tree into your living room

Oh well, Christmas approaches. We equipped ourselves with a Christmas tree yesterday. We usually get ours these days from a farmer in the village. It felt curiously Christmassy walking up a field in 6 inches of snow to select it and remove it. (He and his granddaughter had built a tepee in the field. I though it looked a great place to spend Christmas - but in practice it would be pretty cold and I doubt if I'd get many other takers).

We carried the selected tree home between us only to discover it was a little on the big side. It would just about fit in the living room - sideways, if we removed all the furniture. A doorstep debate ensued as to whether we should cut off the top or the bottom. The top we decided. Also, the thing was still caked with snow. We did our best to get it off, then dragged it through the front door. There's only one way to do this with a monster pine tree: remove breakables from the vicinity and go for it.

Having to cut the tree down to size was bad start. However, the shennanegans had only just begun. The bottom of the tree was too wide to fit in the christmas tree stand (we usually have this off to a fine art). Out came the bow saw again. After fifteen minutes wrestling on the livingroom carpet with a wet eight-foot pine tree in a lather of melting snow and sawdust I reckoned I'd made the end small enough to fit the stand - just. I stood it up, Leaning Tower of Pisa fashion, behind the settee, while we had a cup of coffee and a mince pie.

We decided it would stand up better in a bucket of rocks. (There was a pile of suitable rocks in the back garden, and a bucket - all under 6 inches of snow). This worked - sort of. I tied the top of the tree to the curtain rail as a back-up. We then realised we didn't need to have cut quite so much off the top, so I made an extension out of cardboard and stuck it up the inside of the fairy. It looked fine. It even helped keep it's head on. Then to the lights. I soon realised that I'd got off lightly the last few years. It took another quarter of an hour to untangle them. They flickered a bit when I tested them, and I thought, as we'd had them for years, it might be a good idea to retire them and use newer ones. There were a couple of other sets in the decorations box, so I used one of them. Unfortunately, once I'd got them on the tree we discovered they were flashing lights. I quickly realised that living with a flashing christmas tree for two weeks would drive me insane, so I took them off. The other set was too short, so - back to the old lights. Unfortunately, stepping back from the tree, I trod on them. In the end, I managed to cobble something together, so we've now got a tree that lights up.

Oh well, serves us right for chopping it down in the first place.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Time, Space and Making Music (2)

Fast forward: I've included a clip of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony below. This huge 10-movement work was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and completed in 1948. The orchestra includes a lot of percussion instruments, including the piano and the celesta: sometimes the sound is not unlike that of a gamelan orchestra, rather than a Western one. It also uses an electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot.

About four minutes in, the brass, piano and percussion start up an unstoppable, machine-like music (the sound quality in the clip below is not of the best, but it's one of the most unique sounds I've ever heard an orchestra make). Against it, the violins play a seemingly unending melody made up of longer notes. I saw the piece played in the Sage, Gateshead not so long ago. I was lucky enough to be sat in the cheapest seats, in a gallery high above the stage. From there, we were looking down on the orchestra and the structure of the piece could be seen as well as heard: whole blocks of orchestral players could be seen moving together, each block moving at a different pace. Listening to Turangalila, time sometimes seems to be moving at different speeds, simultaneously. The name Turangalila is constructed from two Sanskrit words: turanga and lila and means, more or less, "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death." True, there are huge differences, but there is something going on here that is not a million miles from the world of Machaut. I know this is a 21st rather than 14th century way of putting it, but both composers (as have many in between) are trying to convey the illusion of a world beyond the three dimensional world we inhabit, by consciously playing very similar games with time.

Regarding the Ondes Martenot, I found this interesting short film about it on YouTube - essential viewing for Star Trek fans:

So far I've been talking about time. As for space, spatial effects can be hard or inconvenient to create. The most obvious one is dance. Dancers (either as performers or participating listeners) can add a spatial dimension to music. Experiments with other spatial effects have also cropped up now and again in Western music. Gabrielli, in the sixteenth century, was famous for writing pieces in which the direction from which the music came from was an important part of the music's structure. However, this aspect of music only really came to the forefront in the twentieth century.

John Cage, in Variations V, a work written for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, set up a system whereby sound was controlled by the movement of dancers through a set of light beams. In breaking the beams, dancers operated photoelectric switchs which in turn triggered sounds.

Stockhausen -as religious a composer, in his way, as Messiaen and Machaut- endlessly experimented with time and space in his pieces. He experimented contracting and expanding musical space and time: for example, near the end of Mantra the entire piece is compressed into a short, virtuosic burst for the two pianists. In his electronic pieces, the direction the sound comes from or moves in is often as important as the texture of the sound itself. In Ylem (inspired by the theory of the universe expanding and contracting on an 80 billion year cycle):

"...10 of the 19 players stand on the stage around the piano; after a sound explosion they walk playing into the hall and take up position to the left and right of the audience (the remaining 9 players stay on stage). Towards the end they go back onto the stage, stand around the piano, and after a second explosion, all 19 players walk off the stage and out of the building, while continuing to play (the 9 players who were playing on stage have small portable instruments)." Stockhausen

Stockhausen pursued these sort of preoccupations most sensationally in his helicopter string quartet (there's an excerpt from from it below - a good note to end this post on). Love it or hate it, it is perhaps, in its way, as embedded in our view of the universe today as Machaut is in the 14th century view:

Monday, 14 December 2009

Stony River Challenge

As usual, Zg's attempt to blend in had raised a few eyebrows. He'd have to improve the recon probe before his next deep space mission.

Sue's challenge is to add a 140 character (max) caption to a given picture. For more details, see her blog at Stony River.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Time, Space and Making Music (1)

My last but one post and the comments it attracted got me thinking about space, time and music, and in particular, the way Western composers have played games with time and space. Time is to musicians what space is to sculptors. There is time as we usually use the word and the technical term time, meaning the pulse of the music. Music can seem to move fast, or slowly - or even at different speeds, simultaneously. It can create the illusion of a world in which time is standing still, running backwards, or even running forwards and backwards at the same time. Physical space is a bit more tricky to manage: more of that later.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) wrote the earliest complete polyphonic setting of the mass to survive, the Messe de Nostre Dame. (Polyphonic: multiple voices, singing different melodic lines). In it, he employed a technique called isorhythm. Buried in the musical texture are the notes (but not the rhythm) of a pre-existing plainchant melody. The pitches of the melody are assigned to a repeating rhythmic pattern of the composer's invention.  This is generally slow-moving. Over the top of this, higher voices sing ornate lines, more densely packed with notes. The plainchant tune is not easy to hear. As someone once half-flippantly put it, the music was so complex that "only God could understand it." There was no need for the listeners to understand what was going on, any more than they needed to understand the latin! Below is clip of the Agnus Dei from Mass:

This preoccupation with complexity -sometimes in fashion, sometimes out- has been a strand running through Western music ever since. Roughly speaking, it fell out of favour after the Bach era, but fell in again in the 20th century, partly inspired by our growing appreciation of the complexities of the world exposed by science. I'm speculating here, but it seems to me that Machaut's complexity grew out of the preoccupations of his own age and -although it's nigh-on impossible to think 14th century thoughts with a 20th century mind- it's difficult not to draw parallels.

Machaut was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, who famously wrote:

"Also in this He shewed a littil thing, the quantitye of an hesil nutt [hazel nut] in the palme of my hand; and it was round as a balle. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made"
The Shewings of Julian of Norwich (1373) (lines 148-51).
This is a startling thing to read, especially to someone living today: it sounds almost like the sort of speculation a modern cosmologist might come up with. I'm not suggesting anything out of the ordinary or supernatural here. As I suggested, it would be foolish to pretend that one can understand the 14th century mind, but it's perhaps not surprising that her intuition should lead her to think like that. Physicists today often talk about the importance of intuition in what they do, even if they don't call it "the eye of their understanding".

Friday, 11 December 2009

ArtSparker Challenge #3

I've enjoyed other people's responses to ArtSparker's Challenges - so I thought I ought to have a go myself...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Passage of Time

There was a really good half-hour programme on Radio 4 today (you can hear it here). Tempus Fugit was an exploration of human perception of the passage of time. Not only did I find the subject absorbing but I also found the way scientists have tackled the subject remarkably inventive. For example, when we are intensely frightened (during a car accident, for example) we seem to percieve time going by more slowly than usual (a phenomenon known as "time dilation").. One researcher, Dr David Eagleman, devised an unforgettable experiment to see if it in fact we actually do.

Scary fairground rides turned out not to be scary enough to provoke the effect, so Eagleman took to dropping human guinea-pigs from a 150 foot tower and catching them in a net: three seconds of free-fall terror. Strapped to their wrist they had a device with lights on which flashed so fast they couldn't be seen to be flashing unless the person looking at them really was percieving time to be passing more slowly than usual. It made for great radio: they always say the difference between radio and television is that on the radio the pictures are better. It left me feeling quite dizzy.

The upshot of the experiment was that although subjects thought their perception of time had slowed down during the fall, the lights had not been seen to flash. Their minds were playing tricks on them. The latest theory is that time appears to slow down because of the way we lay down memories of frightening events. It's a shame, really. The idea that we really could slow down our experience of a passing moment was a very attractive one.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Monday Poem

I see  Monday poems are still popping up, despite the demise of TFE's admirable bus. (Crashed by Einstein, as I remember? Oh, well. All good things come to an end). I wrote this poem about rock-climbing on a gritstone outcrop in Yorkshire a long time ago. I posted it when I first started this blog. Since probably no-one but me read it then, I thought I'd repost it.


From one angle
it looked
like the head
of a man.

I climbed up.
The grit slashed
the pale skin
on my knuckles.

I held on-
to the nose-bridge,
pressed down
onto the cheekbone,

rested my hands
on the forehead,
looked at the sky
reflected in the rain-

-pool worn
into the rough pate
of the stone.
I rested there,

a temporary statue,
relishing the touch
of a dark moon,
newly inhabited.

(c)Dominic Rivron 2000

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Electric Sheep?

We wondered today, were we androids, dreaming, or has the tourist board started to deploy electric sheep round here to impress the tourists? You would think they could make the eyes more realistic (click to enlarge).

Seriously, it's been raining hard all night and all day, so we thought we'd go out and take some photographs. I drove up the dale (Wensleydale) as far as Aysgarth Falls, while Karen snapped away.

West Burton Falls usually looks something like this (well, without the icicles):

Today it looked like this:

Meanwhile, the trees in the woods were up to their ankles:


I'd just thought I'd  finished writing this when it occurred to me to go out into the lane outside our house and see what it was like. It's still raining, and the beck that runs alongside the lane is still rising. This is usually a lane, with a well behaved beck running down one side. Tonight it's all stream. We're very lucky that most people don't suffer the misery of having their houses flooded out round here - we just get to see water at it's most spectacular (well, for the UK).

Karen (walking up the lane in her wellies, above) has just started a new blog to go with her digital camera. She has put two more shots from our afternoon out on it here.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

And the answer is...

...number 8!


Much to my surprise, I passed my driving test first time. I thought I'd made all sorts of mistakes. At the end, the examiner sat staring out into the middle-distance for what seemed like a long time.
"You've passed," he said, in a deadpan voice, still staring straight ahead.
"Didn't I drive straight across an unmarked crossroads without checking?" I asked.
"You don't seriously expect me to answer that?" he said.
I still think he sat, weighing things up, and decided that he never wanted to have to get into a car with me again.


Well, I thought, that's all life's necessary exams out of the way. Exams are for schoolkids and students. I can now get on with my life. I went round to the Lada garage and bought my first car - the first of several Lada estates. (They were great, I thought. I only stopped buying them because they became impossible to get).


Exams. Little did I know. Somehow, years later I found myself taking my chainsaw certificate, sawing down a 60ft pine tree while the examiner stood where he expected the tip to land.


I was a NUPE Shop Steward in my youth. I was a care assistant at the time, working for Camden Council. We're talking late 70s, early 80s: heady political days. Every now and again we had mass meetings at which the members of the shop stewards' committee were expected to address the membership. My enduring memory of these events was an old man who, whatever the hot topic of the day, always delivered the same speech with slight topical modifications. There was always general agreement with what he said. It was just the way he chose to say it. On one occasion, a good ten minutes in, as he reached the climax ("and, brothers and sisters, we must unite to fight this Tory government..."), his false teeth flew out and landed in the front row.


I once played a small part in a gig at the Band on the Wall in Manchester. NME or Melody Maker (I forget which) reviewed the evening's entertainment, describing our contribution as "a pseudo-exploratory metaphysical..." Well, if you read the previous post, you'll know.


Over twenty years later, I found myself walking up Ben Nevis. Spent a happy afternoon -along with quite a crowd- sheltering in the windowless steel box on the summit, passing round the whisky bottle. Next day, I walked up it again, by a different route.


I ran away from boarding school, never to board again. I have vivid memories of looking over hedge and seeing a queue of panda cars waiting at a junction. At one point we (there were two of us) hid in a barn to escape the attention of what we were sure was a police helicopter. As evening approached and it began to get cold, we gave ourselves up. Back at school, I was told, sternly, that I was being suspended. I never went back. I went to a different prep school as a day boy: it was a lucky break for me, They help me get myself together and, as it provided the choir for the near-by cathedral, I was introduced to making music.


Once, on holiday in Sweden (well, visiting a friend in Stockholm) I went for a swim in the Baltic. It was extremely cold. Looking back, I think I must have done it just so I could quote the fact in a list of things I'd done in my life.


I once did a gig at the Ulster American Folk Park - well, several gigs over a weekend. I was playing bass -temporarily- in a fiddle band, The Rosinators. The best part was sneaking out to a tiny bar just down the road from the hotel we'd been billetted in. I've never had the car-meeting-me-at-the-airport treatment before or since. It was only the second time in my life I'd flown and I've not flown since.


I went on some memorable journeys sat on the back of my friend Sam's old MZ, but I've never owned or ridden a motorbike myself.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Odd one out

Since there still seems to be plenty of room on the bandwagon, I thought I'd jump on. One of the following so-called facts about me is not true. Which one?

1. I hold a chainsaw certificate.
2. I've walked up Ben Nevis twice.
3. My first car was a Lada.
4. I used to be a NUPE shop steward.
5. I passed my driving test first time.
6. I once swam in the Baltic.
7. I ran away from boarding school, prompting a police hunt.
8. I used to ride an old MZ motorbike.
9. I once played at the Ulster American Folk Park in Castletown, Co. Tyrone.
10. I was once reviewed as “a pseudo-exploratory metaphysical ******** usually confined to Radio 3”.

Age? Stress? Reading through the list again, I momentarily forgot which one it was myself.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

By the Sea

A song for TFE's on-going poteen party. Since it's a bit of fun, I couldn't resist overdoing the sound effects a bit...

By the Sea by Dominic Rivron

Friday, 20 November 2009

The View from the Mantlepiece

This little collection has sat on our mantlepiece for quite a while. The pine cones were gathered from under the tree that overlooks Arthur and Evgenia Ransome's grave in the grounds of Rusland Church in the Lake District. (I didn't realise when I collected the cones but I read somewhere afterwards that Ransome had actually chosen the spot and remarked to the vicar how nice it would be to be buried under that particular tree). Behind them Che, James and Virginia (all finger-puppets I've been given by kind, good people at various times) sit in a row. Well, stand, or whatever it is finger puppets do when they've not got a finger stuck up them.

I often wonder what they're saying to each other, Che, James and Virginia, on a set dominated by giant pine cones...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Driving down
the motorway
the spray rises
from the wheels
like precious dust.
Sidelights shine
like rubies. This is
our nature, what
we are. It is
as amazing as
a beaver's house
or the intricate nest
of the Bower Bird.
It is also the case
that if we are to survive
we must change what we do.
We must not be
deceived by our
intelligence or our
into thinking
that we are what
we want to be
if in fact we're no more
than what we've become
or, to put it
another way,
into thinking
it will be easy.

After the Rain

on the sunlit grass
like a hole
in space:

Friday, 13 November 2009

Bloggers do it with Audacity

I never fail to be amazed that with free Audacity sound recorder software you can do what it took a machine you'd have to save up for to do twenty years ago. I thought I ought to try recording myself (as suggested by TFE and Poetikat: see previous post) singing Purcell's Fie, nay prithee John and overdubbing it.

I then thought I'd provide a "solo" version for anyone keen to sing along to. You can pick it up by ear or preferably follow the music - you can get it here and print it out. If you can record it (without me in the background: play me through half a set of headphones as you sing along) create a Soundcloud account(easy) and deposit it there, tell me where to get it and I'll try to create a mass bloggers ensemble, overlaying the tracks! Now there's a challenge. Don't go thinking you need a great voice (I haven't got one): it's more about going for it! The most important thing is to sing along with me as in synch as possible using the SingAlongaDom track, preferably singing the same notes.

If you try recording yourself I'd suggest printing out the page with the music on even if you can't read music. You'll be able to follow it to some extent and it'll make a difficult job easier. Also if you use Soundcloud make sure you "enable download" when you upload the file (it's obvious when you come to it). Also, don't delete your contribution from your own computer once you've uploaded it just in case I have download problems.

Fie, nay, prithee John by Henry Purcell

SingAlongaDom by Henry Purcell

It's More Fun with Three...

I've just spent a very enjoyable few minutes singing a drinking song by Henry Purcell (1659-95). It's a three-part round. You may know it:

(Voice 1)Fie, nay, prithee, John,
Do not quarrel, man!
Let's be merry and drink about;
(Voice 2)You're a rogue, you cheated me!
I'll prove before this company,
I caren't a farthing, sir,
for all you are so stout!
(Voice 1 or 3)Sir, you lie! I scorn your word,
or any man that wears a sword!
For all your huff, who cares a damn,
and who cares for you?

Singing it, I found myself reflecting on the words. I've never had any truck with the "things were better in my day" view of the world. It's reassuring to see that the current preoccupation with  the with alcohol-fuelled, yob culture is a preoccupation with something that has been around for a long time. At least we don't wear swords anymore.

If you want to sing the song, the sheet music can be found here.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Importance of Coming Together

The days are getting shorter and darker. The air smells of fire. Everything is wet and brown. Nothing will really dry out now until the Spring although soon, it will freeze. The leaves that are left on the trees are hanging, limp. You can still hear the birds singing but there are fewer notes, more rests.

One of the highlights for me of this time of year has just passed: bonfire night. For the last couple of years we've let off our own - this year we went to a display. We were driving home through Bedale when we saw a massive pile of pallets topped with a guy in the field where they usually hold car boot sales. It was already late afternoon so we decided we'd go home, drop off our stuff, grab some hats and coats and come back.

Bedale is not a big place and it was amazing to see how when thousands of people descended on it the usual rules ceased to apply. People just parked where there was a space to park: the whole place bristled with parked cars. The atmosphere was great and the fireworks incredible. I don't know how long it went on for - I lost all sense of time. The combination of the charity shop LP box favourite, The Planets Suite (which I really like) played full blast and a sky full of spectacular fireworks was overwhelming. Communal, exciting, straightforward, emotional, like a football match with the competitive bit taken out. Somehow they worked the Dr Who theme into it as well (and that would make the hairs on the back of my neck if I had any stand up on end even if I heard it through the world's tinniest clock radio). Part of me (not the hedgehog and cat-lover though) wishes we did it every Saturday night, from when the clocks go back to when they go forward again. But it would pall. Oh well, roll on Christmas...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Robert McTavish: the Unsung Mountaineer

Exploring the links list I mentioned in the previous post, I came across a dead link. Yahoo Geocities sites, apparently, have ceased to exist! Fortunately, I was able to retrieve information from the page I'd linked to and I thought I'd publish it here. Apologies to anyone already familiar with McTavish's doings...

Though many have heard of Sir Hugh Munro, creator of the famous list which gave birth to the sport of "Munro bagging", few have heard of Robert McTavish (1746-1795) - the unsung founder of Scottish mountaineering.

McTavish grew up in a fashionable suburb Edinburgh. He was a bright lad, though attracted from an early age to the hills. Often, his parents would frantically scour Edinburgh in search of him. More often than not, they would find him on the summit of Arthur's Seat.

The young McTavish went on to study law, but when his father was tragically killed by a horse, he inherited his father's fortune which, sorry to say, had been made in the slave trade. McTavish, an admirer of Thomas Paine, who held high hopes for the turbulent political changes of his age, always felt uncomfortable about the source of the wealth which allowed him to pursue his first passion: mountaineering.

McTavish was a contemporary and friend of Burns, who he met at a country dancing school in 1776. The "twa Rabbies" as they were known were a familiar sight in the dives and fleshpots of Glasgow. Burns wrote an epitaph on the occasion of his friend's untimey death (he died of typhus, aged 49):

On Mr McTavish
McTavish is to heaven gane
And mony shall lament him.
His talents midst the Bens they lay.
The English nane e'er kent him.
He scaled a' the fearfu' hichts
He hirpled doun the glen.
A braw, braid laddie was our Rabbie -
When will we see his likes again?

The dismissive reference to the English alludes to McTavish's education. His father had sent him to England to study law at Oxford University. He returned to Scotland an Englishman in language and manner, though as all who knew him could testify, still Scottish at heart. Burns was no doubt amused that the English were wholly unaware of McTavish's achievements. Unlike that of Balmart and Paccard, who had made the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, McTavish's achievements were unknown and unsung outside his native country.
McTavish was also known to McGonnagal, who wrote of him:
In Praise of Robert McTavish
How much praise can I lavish
On Robert McTavish?
From the loftiest Ben
To the leafiest Glen,
From Arthur's Seat to Ben Nevis,
He explored every crevice.
The bold mountaineer
Was totally without fear,
And only the very cynical could doubt
The voracity of his account of the ascent
Of the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye.
from "Forgotten Scotsmen" (1896)

How much credence can we give to McTavish's accounts of his doings? His journals leave us in little doubt that in his short life he scaled most, if not all, the peaks later catalogued by Munro, plus many lesser peaks besides. Living as he did prior to the age of Victorian reductionism, he was not particularly interested in the height of the hills he climbed, or in listing them. Unlike Munro, he successfully ascended the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye.
The peaks of the Cuillin on Skye were undoubtedly McTavish's favourite hills. The southerly peak(625m) of Bla Bheinn remains un-named and it has recently been suggested that the peak to be officially renamed Sgurr MhicTammas, in homage to the man.

Signals from Outer Space...

I bet no-one who visits this blog ever goes right down to the bottom of the right hand margin - and I don't blame them. Few people reading through their favourite blogs have time to linger that long on any one. There's a whole list of links down there.  I suppose they're there for my own benefit as much as anybody else's - it's a convenient place to put them. They're easier to access than bookmarks, and because they're listed, I'm reminded that they're there.

I've just added one. An astronomical poem on Poet-in-Residence's blog reminded me of a page I created a long, long time ago (you can date it by the corny design): How to Receive Radio-Signals from Outer Space - with a Wok! We'd been on a visit to the Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre. It's a great place to go. Standing at the foot of the huge Lovell telescope and looking up is a breathtaking experience. I can't think of any more impressive recent man-made structure in Britain. When we got back I wondered how crude and simple a radio telescope could actually be made to work. I had a go making one out of a wok. Once I'd cobbled it together, I optimistically stalked round the garden at night in my headphones, waving the wok, but received nothing. All I proved was that someone can, for the most rational of reasons, be involved in an activity which appears, to the outsider, to be totally senseless. Next morning, as I was telling Karen what a dead loss it was, I waved it in front of the window to demonstrate - and it worked! Well, sort of. It wasn't sensitive enough to pick up the distant hiss of the Milky Way, but it could receive radio waves from the sun. At least it worked better than the TV camera I made, when I was six, out of a cardboard box and a toilet roll. We'd been on a visit to a TV studio: some people never grow up.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

To the Woods...

Poet-in-Residence left a short comment about coppicing on this blog today. I started to frame a reply and soon realised my comment was turning into a post in its own right - and one which quickly turned from metaphorical to literal coppicing.

Some years ago I tried coppicing -or something very like it- for a living. My great plan was to find bits of old woodland people wanted cleared and offer to do it in exchange for the wood I cut out. This I'd make into charcoal and other green (as opposed to seasoned) wood products. The charcoal (which I made in oil drums - at least I hadn't invested in an expensive kiln) was a flop, along with the besoms, but scout patrol poles, tree stakes and clothes props sold like hot cakes. Well, almost. Pickup-loads of logs were reasonable money makers too, but exhausting to do with a chainsaw and an axe. The most interesting part of it all was building a traditional shaving horse and learning to make traditional wooden tent pegs with a draw-knife. Had I been doing this during the First World War, when many thousands of them were needed, I would have been onto a good thing. The demand, though, is not quite the same these days.

It might not have been a great success as a business but it was great fun. There's something about working with iron tools and fire that makes you feel like a minor operative in Mordor. Climbing trees to lop off their branches was like being paid to play. But not enough. In the end, I was making 80p an hour, so I sold my chainsaw. This was a bit of a wrench, as I had worked hard to get a certificate (and I can recommend the course to anyone looking for a holiday with a difference). I bought a cello with the proceeds. I never looked back.

All that remains is the pleasure of walking round woods when you can recognise the old ways people used to use them. For example, you can often find the remains of hazel coppices with oak trees (known as "standards") left to grow in the open spaces left by the lower-growing hazel. The theory was that with space to grow, the branches could curve outwards in the shape necessary for the prows of ships.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Tweets of the Dead...

Something I read on Dick Jones' blog a while ago got me wondering just how much of the early internet (well, the stuff I knew when we first got a PC) is still there? I still update my very old “tripod” site now and again, although it is rather like the old broom that's had three new heads and three new handles. This is almost certainly the case with most sites. Publishing what you want on the internet is almost as easy as breathing – but then so is deleting it.

I hunted round to see what I could find of the sites I used to visit back then. Perhaps it reflected what I spent my time looking at, but it seemed to me that one of the most enduring aspects of the internet was humour. There are people out there tending archives of jokes, urban myths and funny stories the way other people tend window boxes. I quickly found the rinkworks dialectizer (if you don't know it, try sticking your deathless prose in its cockney translator) and The Fun People Archive. (The latter, run by one Peter Langston, was a manually compiled and distributed mailing list. You sent in jokes and stories. He sent them out. I sent one in, once). The Archive was the first place I came across the case of the infamous exploding whale. It sounds like an urban myth, but, as you probably know already, it isn't: the original news-footage can be seen on YouTube. I suspect the details have been exaggerated over time, but I rather like this story as it's the only non-fictional case I've heard of of a whale getting its own back, even if it was posthumously.

It's only a few decades since the hapless Oregon Highways Department blew up the dead whale – but what would it be like if the internet had been around for a thousand years? The peasantry wouldn't have got within a hundred miles of it – but it would be good, now, to be able to read about the day-to-day lives of the barons and their hangers on, the monks, etc. I'm not just thinking of graphic descriptions of the black death and suchlike, but more commonplace, day-to-day trivia. Come the Restoration, Samuel Pepys would have been one among hundreds. Then there would be Oscar Wilde's Twitter page...

And what will it be like in the future? What if people in, say, 500 years time can read internet content going back hundreds of years?

This is all a bit of a game, I know. Machines are more vulnerable than books and, as I said earlier, deleting is easy. Most of all, no-one is going to want to keep skyscrapers full of computer hardware running just to preserve the tweets of dead people. But it does make you think. It's good to know there are web-archaeologists out there lovingly zipping up files and folders of web-obsolescence, preserving the way things were. I mean, can you remember when Yahoo looked like this?

Reading about Writing

Revising the last poem I posted (Rocking Stone Flat) I was reminded of something Charles Olson said. Originally, it ran:

it strikes me now
that now is then and time
no more than a list
of things to do. That then
is now and here I am
in the same wild place... etc.

Something about this passage annoyed me. The poem seemed to lose all it's energy here and fall flat. I changed it to:

it strikes me now
that now is then and time
no more than a list
of things to do. This is
the same wild place... etc.

A bit better, I thought. I had been too pleased with the "now is then" idea, I decided, and had footled around with it as a consequence.

... That then  
is now and here I am

had to go.

As Charles Olson said:

" A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, different from the energy which the reader, because he is a third term, will take away?

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by...


Charles Olson (1951)

I like reading what writers say about writing. It was pure coincidence that last night, after reflecting on Olson, I picked up Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia and came across this. It's good advice, although I'm not sure I can live up to it and I sometimes come across writing where I'm pleased the writer has ignored some of it (I quite enjoy blogs, for example, when people go off at a tangent):

"A first precaution for writers: in every text, every piece, every paragraph to check whether the central motif stands out clearly enough. Anyone wishing to express something is so carried away by it that he ceases to reflect on it...

One should never begrudge deletions. The length of a work is irrelevant, and the fear that not enough is on paper, childish...

When  several sentences seem like variations on the same idea, they often only represent different attempts to grasp something the author has not yet mastered. Then the best formulation should be chosen and developed further. It is part of the technique of writing  to be able to discard ideas, even fertile ones, if the construction demands it...

Properly written texts are like spiders' webs: tight, concentric, transparent, well-spun and firm."
 Theodor Adorno (1951)

Monday, 19 October 2009


I found this TFE Monday Project a particularly difficult one. I tried to approach it from several different angles and, in the end, having ripped up a couple of poetical efforts, I decided to approach it musically.

Lazarus is a short piece (37 seconds) which combines electronic sounds with the "real" sounds of the human voice (reading fragments of Plath's Lady Lazarus) and a German military band from the WWII era. At one point the band overwhelms the voice, but then the voice gets the upper hand, even multiplying to become three voices. The voice has the last word. I've half a mind to develop it into something bigger. It was made using the freeware Studiofactory programme -an exciting piece of software which emulates a synthesizer- and Audacity sound recorder software.

Finally, if your laptop has speakers like ours I can definitely say you need headphones to hear it!

19th October: There seems to be a problem with embedded sound files this evening of all evenings!  It seems to be working better now, but if you have problems you might find it works better if you try listening at

Lazarus by Dominic Rivron


I went for a walk yesterday afternoon over Rocking Stone Flat, a small but wild expanse of  moorland just outside Halifax. Although I'd not been there for years and years, and found I'd forgotten quite a lot about it, I have always thought of it as one of my favourite short walks in the Pennines: something about it feels intensely wild to me, even though it's right next to a road and a windfarm. I also spent a lot of time writing yesterday: a  post I'll be posting later this week and the poem, below:

Rocking Stone Flat

Reaching the edge
of the Flat, I find
I'm looking down
on a green rooftop.
There is a shape to things here
my mind makes sense of:
I've been here before.
And then there's a print,
in the peat, of a running-shoe:
I used to run along this path
a long time ago
and it strikes me now
that now is then and time
no more than a list
of things to do. This is
the same wild place
where the wind grazes
the tops of the grasses
and looking down on rings
of lichen on a stone
is like looking at a picture
of clouds in the sky.

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Thursday, 15 October 2009

Come Join the Dance

I pasted a few of these Soundcloud tracks a while ago. This one bears a strong family resemblance to Bottletops.

Come Join the Dance by Dominic Rivron

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Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Wind through the Grass

This week my head has been full of Radiohead. I can't get enough: on one hand they know how to make rich, interesting music (Kid A) while on the other they know how to sound like a "real" rock band (as in those quiet starts that explode moments later, or the crushing intensity of the guitar solo in Just). Their best music has a unique, ambivalent quality, too, which somehow manages not to interfere with its intensity. (It's almost as if they've taken our ideas of past rock music and used them much as Warhol used photo-journalism - as in their allusions to Bohemian Rhapsody in Paranoid Android). I thought it was just me until I read Thom Yorke saying something similar (he's talking about the album, The Bends): "It was like there's a secret camera in a room and it's watching the character who walks in - a different character for each song. The camera's not quite me. It's neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite". And again, on OK Computer: "Loads of the music on OK Computer is extremely uplifting. It's only when you read the words that you'd think otherwise."

It all began a few weeks earlier. Amy and I had been sat in the car on the edge of the moors outside Hebden Bridge (outside the Shepherd's Rest pub, for the sake of any local readers) eating fish and chips, listening to the Proms on Radio 3. I'd turned it on in the middle of a piece for string orchestra. We had no idea what it was: possibly Penderecki, I thought, at first. (Moments reminded me of his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima). It was one of those moments when the place you are in and what you are feeling at the time conspire together to make your mind more receptive than it usually is. Outside the wind was riffling the dry, long grass on the hillside, and it was as if the movement of the grass was actually creating the shimmering string-sounds we were listening to. Life was a film with a soundtrack, and I felt helplessly embedded in it.

When the piece finished we discovered what it was: Popcorn Superhet Receiver by Jonny Greenwood (the Radiohead member) and for me, it knocks spots off a lot of contemporary classical music being written in Britain at the moment (well, at least most of the things I get to hear). It is driven by a real expressive impulse. It is neither afraid of being challenging one moment nor afraid of being simple another.

When I was younger, attempts by classical musicans to make rock music (and vice versa) were usually dire and misguided. Deep Purple's famously dreadful Concerto for Group and Orchestra springs to mind. To make a particular kind of music one has to intuitively understand how it works and what it's trying to say: too often when people cross from one genre to another they only seem to understand the surface texture. The results are empty. Popcorn Superhet Receiver is different. This, for me, is the work of a musician who tries to make sound serve his creativity, be it the sound of a string orchestra or a Fender Telecaster. And what goes for Greenwood goes for Radiohead as a whole. As the composer and conductor Esa Pekka Salonen put it: "When I heard OK Computer, after five minutes I said, 'I actually get this. I understand what these people are trying to do.' And what they were trying was not so drastically different from what I was trying to do."

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Monday, 12 October 2009

A bit of a Poem

This week's Monday poem is, well, a bit lightweight.


fill me with helium
tie me down
take me for a ride
round dublin town

there, i'll tell you
in a squeaky voice
interesting things
about james joyce

Monday, 5 October 2009


All that remains
is the archway:
we suspect it was a place
of religious significance
orientated as it is
towards the summer sunrise.
Names of the dead
are written on the walls
and found artefacts suggest that
offerings, in the form of libations,
were made beneath them.

There is also evidence
of human habitation
in the surrounding area, traces
of the foundations
of long buildings (possibly
of a later date) and,
between the buildings,
avenues. These, we believe,
served a ceremonial purpose,
although it is hard to be sure.

All we can say is that
this was, most likely,
a place of great power,
a sacred place,
a gathering place,
a hub of both religious
and social activity,
a place to which people travelled
at key times of the year
to celebrate the cycle
of death and rebirth, a place
that leant meaning
to the lives
of those who built it.

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Sunday, 4 October 2009

“It's not far now, Mr Frodo...”

Channel 4 have been showing Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy over the last three Saturday nights.

OK, I must confess, as a teenager I flirted with prog rock. My friends were fans of Genesis, ELP and the like and, since the main topic of conversation was the “hidden meaning” of all those pretentious lyrics, I had little choice. Anyway, I was doing music A-level, which taught me that if music sounded boring it must be worth listening to again. And again, and again. (If only I'd spent my sixth-form years listening to Bowie. I quickly made up for lost time after leaving school. A year or so later, studying music at university, I was transcribing early church music by day, while pogo-ing with the best of them to Slaughter and the Dogs by night).

The other cultural “must have” among my school peer group was a copy of Lord of the Rings. This, I resisted. Some of my friends read it, others flicked through it, in awe of the hundreds of pages of dense prose. I resisted it. I might have cultivated an appreciation of indifferent music in order to belong, but I didn't want to be seen as a fully paid-up hippy. The general assumption was that a book as thick as the paperback one-volume edition must be wise and good. Mine was that a book, that thick, about hobbits, elves and wizards must be, well, shite.

When I got married a few years later, a group of school-friends clubbed together and bought us a hardback three-volume copy of the blessed book as a wedding present. By then I was into The Velvet Underground, The Clash (for the, er, meaningful lyrics) and The Sex Pistols (for the raw energy). It was safe to read Tolkien.

Come the millennium, there were the inevitable, slightly -even very- silly discussions in the media as to what was the greatest novel of the twentieth century. (If nothing else, they serve as a reminder to read and enjoy things for what they are). There was a straight high-brow, low-brow split: it was either Joyce's Ulysses or - Lord of the Rings. I -silly sod- remember feeling very smug and yes, a tad elitist. I had read and rated both of them.

I had one reservation about Ulysses: Finnegans Wake, I reflected, was perhaps just a nose ahead. (I had read it by then - smugness knew no bounds). As for Lord of the Rings, my greatest reservation was (and still is) Sam and Frodo's seemingly endless traipse through the Emin Muil and Mordor, punctuated by Sam's servile words of encouragement: “It's not far Mr Frodo... Imagine what it must be like now in The Shire Mr Frodo... Oh, Mr Frodo... Mr Frodo!... etc.” I have read the book out loud from cover-to-cover twice and I can't quote it from memory, but it does go something like that. (It is, I think, the weakest thing about the film too, apart from the improbably narrow ledges on the cliffs and making The Shire look like Tellytubby-land).

Perhaps I'm even being unfair to Tolkien here. As he explained:

My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.

Lord of the Rings is the psychodrama of a man who had experienced the trenches of the First World War. I know this is an almost commonplace thing to say about the book now, but when you read it in that light the book gains its third dimension. It's teleological view of the world and its class perspective are unlikely to endear it to Guardian readers like myself but, despite the fact that it's a fantasy, it redeems itself many times over for me by its rootedness in experience. Take Sam's first sight of an enemy corpse:

It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

(I had forgotten about this passage: I came across it in an interesting online article about Tolkien and the war).

If the trek across the Emyn Muil is always the low-point for me, there are certainly high points to make up for it. I must admit to getting goose-pimples whenever I even think about the business with the sword when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come across the Riders of Rohan for the first time (The Two Towers, Chapter 2). I was going to quote the passage but that would be unfair to it. Standing alone, it reads like cod fantasy. Tolkien the Anglo-Saxon scholar goes to a lot of trouble to prepare the scene and the fate of that world turns upon its outcome.

There are many more: the coming of the Balrog, the death of Boromir, the madness of Denethor (magnificently conveyed by John Noble in the film version), the relationship between Legolas and Gimli, Lorien... I could go on, but I won't . Not only is this post beginning to sound dangerously geeky, but it's years since I read it, and I'm getting the urge to start again. Time for a cold shower.

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Monday, 28 September 2009

Busy, busy, busy...

Just had a very busy -and pleasant- weekend, so I've not been able to write what I intended to. So, instead, I'm posting a couple of short poems which were spin-offs of earlier TFE Monday projects:

5 minute haiku

Sat in the bathroom
with a blank piece of paper.
What to write? Time's up!


It's late: dark rain
rattles on the glass. The wind
moans like a pessimist and I
must make the effort to get up
from my chair and go to bed!

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Friday, 25 September 2009

Supermarket Music

I had a dream last night. I was in a supermarket, conducting an orchestra. I don't know how the musicians could see what I was doing, since they were distributed around the various aisles: woodwind down by the baked beans and dogfood, violins and violas bathed in the cold light of the freezer cabinets, brass at the back of the hall, with the alchohol and crisps. A solo cellist sat by the checkouts. In the dream, the music gradually subsided, leaving only the solo cellist whose melodic line rose and fell to the movement of my hands.

Something like it would, I decided, make a wonderful piece in real life. The listeners could come and go as they pleased: there would always be a cacophonous wash of sound in the background but they would hear the music played by the musicians closest to them in some detail. At any one time, some musicians would be closer than they usually are in a concert hall, others further away, mostly invisible. Various soloists could wander around. There could be multiple conductors.

As for the form and style of the music, in my dream the music was discordant and varied between the frenetic and the static. There was no sense of musicians playing together in strict time. Thinking about it today I decided the music could ebb and flow like a tide: what would begin as discreet sounds surrounded by silence would build into a rich, chaotic climax, only to subside, then build again, and so on. It could go on all day. In fact, if the musicians operated a discreet shift-system it could go on indefinitely.

No doubt such a piece could be composed and organised. This would involve a huge effort. However, I offer it here as a "thought piece", as imagining it requires virtually no effort at all!

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Monday, 21 September 2009

One Day

Left click on the image to see it full size. The TFE project this week was to listen to another piece of music -in this case, Tracy Chapman's Fast Car- and write about it.

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Friday, 18 September 2009

Dad's Photos

Ever since I began looking at John Hayes' series of posts based on his father's photographs, I've been meaning to dig out my own collection - of my father's photographs, that is. I have inherited a carousel packed with slides. A lot of them are of me and -don't worry- I'm not going to post all the inevitable baby-in-the bath pictures and suchlike. However, I can't avoid the fact that I keep popping up.

The one above is of me, climbing. It doesn't say where, but I would guess it was in Devon or Cornwall somewhere. The next is one of my favourites, a team of shed demolishers, an old man called Mr Woods with assorted male relations. It was taken, I think, in the early '60s:

Then there's my mum and I, on Dartmoor:

And finally, me (again) at one of my less-than-recent birthday parties. I have no recollection of that pink jelly thing. We lived in the country, in Lincolnshire. The baby, the older boy and his sister were all neighbours of ours. I do remember the girl, bouncing along on a seat on the back of her mother's bicycle singing She Loves You, Yea, Yea, Yea as her mother cycled past down the unmetalled track at the side of our house. The song had just come out and it must have been about the same time this photograph was taken.

My dad probably took that photograph with the Kodak Colorsnap 35 he bought around that time. It's sitting here beside me as I type. It came out in the late 50s and -for the benefit of any readers who are about my age- seems to be more-or-less the same as an Olympus Trip.

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Monday, 14 September 2009

Words and Music

The TFE project this week was to listen to a piece of music and write about it. I put my chosen piece on the record player the other day, full blast, immersed myself and... Well, this is what I came up with:

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