Saturday, 30 May 2009

A Blast from the Past

Christmas. Probably 1981. Living in a flat on the second floor of a terraced house in St John's Way, Islington. The 'landpeople', Martin and Margo, live downstairs. I work as a Care Assistant. I am a lazy skinhead. I smoke. I have appalling dress-sense and a bit of a beer-gut (when I stand up), not helped by the fact that my limited selection of t-shirts usually gets shrunk in the wash, along with my cardigans. I live in a dream, always in the Then, hardly ever in the Now. Certain of things. The poster. You can't see it all. It's a soldier being shot, with the text 'Why?' in one corner. It's not the famous Cappa shot. Is it posed? The question didn't occur to me then. I wouldn't put it on the wall now. I still feel the impulse which led me to do so but something about being older perhaps, thinking more about what it would be like for the man, stops me. The blue box is full of mainly classical records, waiting for the day I can afford to buy a record player. There is an old, white telephone. The star on top of the tree is home-made.

I found this photo the other week and thought I might post it. I was nudged into doing so by a collection of old photos -including a similar photo- on John Hayes' blog, Robert Frost's Banjo. I mention this as I'd hate to be held solely responsible for inspiring a meme, but 200 words, let's say, written in the present tense about an old photo of oneself seems quite a good one to pass on.

Sunday, 24 May 2009


I actually love having a garden but, as for gardening, I would very much like it to garden itself. Writing is a great way of clarifying one's thoughts and, writing this one down, it occurs to me what a slothful attitude this is. I realise that now and again I just have to push the lawnmower around, much as I have to push the hoover. I also realise that if I get on with it, I quite enjoy it.
It's a good job. We are faced with, and will have to do something about, the convolvulus. To continue with my analogy, convolvulus -or bindweed- is the equivalent to a nasty mess in the fridge that you just can't leave, only ten times worse. It is persistent, invasive, destructive and virtually impossible to get rid of. It's roots spread out, popping up shoots. Each shoot grabs an unsuspecting plant by the ankle and goes on to grow up its stem in a spiral. Before you know it, where you once had, say, a rosebush, you've just a mass of pale green leaves. If you let it, it will go on to produce creamy-white trumpet-like flowers.
How do you get rid of it? If you keep digging it up, it keeps coming back. There are all sorts of clever things one can try doing - sticking canes in close to the roots to trick the plant into growing up the cane, for example. In the end, though, you have to face the uncomfortable truth: you're going to be digging this up again and again for a very long time.
One thing about it I find intriguing is its ability to wind itself around things. I suppose being able to tell where sunlight is coming from is a form of sight, but it's uncanny what acrobatics plantlife can get up to without looking. I'm sure we could built a virtually blind robot specifically designed to wind itself around lamp-posts. But if we did, and you tore it to pieces, you'd find it was full of discreet components: not one big idea, but an accumulation of good ideas cobbled together. Tear convolvulus apart and you find it's just made of green stuff. (I never was good at biology). That's millions of years of evolution for you.
If there are archaeologists in the future, they will be able to find what little remains of this house by the thick tangle of convolvulus growing where it used to stand.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Just for a Moment

A few minutes ago I was walking down the lane, past shoulder-high cow parsley on the banks of the beck. I stopped on the bridge to look down at the water flowing over the stones, its patterns always changing, always the same. Walking back, I was surrounded by birdsong. I had an intense feeling which, I realised, I often get when I'm out and about and I suddenly realised what it was. Part of me wanted to go back to being a primitive hunter gatherer, to stop being stretched and twisted out of shape by a synthetic, modern society. (It's odd, I should add, how sometimes a thought which strikes us at a moment of revelation can seem commonplace when we review it afterwards). I just wanted to wander the world, taking what food and shelter I could find. I know it's an irrational feeling. Modern society was built step-by-step by people who started out as primitive hunter gatherers, who were probably driven by intense feelings of their own: that there there had to be alternatives to cold, hunger and uncertainty.
Perhaps I'm wrong to say I wanted to go back and it would be more accurate to say there is a primitive hunter-gatherer in me, trying to get out. Perhaps there is in everybody. Just for a moment out there it seemed desirable to have a lot fewer possessions, fewer words, perhaps, and a simpler view of the world which I didn't need to accept, reject or explain to myself because it was simply the way things were. Living any other way, at that moment, struck me as cumbersome, unnatural and inconvenient to the mind.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Another Place

Thursday was Karen's birthday and she decided to celebrate it by visiting Antony Gormley's Another Place. For those who don't already know, this is a sculpture situated on the beach at Crosby, on the outskirts of Liverpool. It takes the form of 100 life-size, cast iron nude men, distributed over a 3 km stretch of beach. Gormley's own body -as is often the case with his work- was used to make moulds for them.
It's stunning: we spent all afternoon there, walking among them. Time flew. At high tide they are all more-or-less covered, at low tide, exposed. At other times some can be seen in their entirety on the beach while others can be seen out at sea, up to their waists and necks in the water. The effect is uncanny and visually engaging. All the iron men are set facing out to sea, gazing at the passing ships (there are a lot of these, close by, as the beach is next to the docks) and the off-shore windfarm which, when we visited, was wrapped in a sea-fret that would have had Turner fumbling for his note-pad.
In the end we made for a takeaway. We bought ourselves a pizza and returned to the beach with it, sitting in the car in the rain to eat it, along with a birthday cake we'd brought with us.

Thanks are due...

Thanks are due to John Hayes for awarding me a Friendly Blogger Award. It always makes you feel good to be told you're friendly and I rather like the jpg that comes with it, too. I did wonder if it said "Friendly & Weird Blogger" on it at first (quite good, I thought) but no, it say "Friendly Blogger Award". Must be the glasses. I have agonized about who to pass it on to...

Thanks are also due to Ernesto, for awarding me the Creative Blogger Award. This requires me to list seven things (not people) I love in no particular order. So here goes:

Being by the sea
Drinking the odd malt whisky
Jordan's “Crunchy” breakfast cereals
Watching Star Trek (any series) and Dr Who (all-time favourite Doctor: David Tennant)
Sitting in the garden (but not when it's raining or snowing)
Spending time with friends
Eating bread (white, thick sliced) and marmite in bed

And while mulling over my list of seven things, I discover I've been awarded a Premio Dardo award by Lyn, which is given “in recognition of cultural, ethical, literary and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing”. Thank you, Lyn.

Who should I award these awards to? I'm spoilt for choice, since I read the blogs I read because I consider them to be friendly, creative and original. I find it quite impossible to choose.

As regards the Friendly Blogger Award, it seems to me that a good friend is both an attentive listener (or in the case of a blog, reader) and game for a laugh. As a result, I have devised the following self-awarding system. If you regularly visit this blog and can answer the following questions, feel free to -in fact, please do- award yourself a prize: a Friendly Blogger Award. Just copy the picture from the right margin!

All the questions are based on past posts to this blog and the answers are obvious when you find them. You are allowed to use the “search blog” facility, of course.

Here we go with the questions:

Which part of the body is primarily involved in the practice of “boku maru”?

Which book, published in 1941, incorporates engaging illustrations explaining how the human body works?

What did Karl Marx squeeze while writing Das Kapital?

Who wrote a haiku about being a snowman?

Great Aunt Maria is more commonly referred to as what?

Have fun!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Dreamer that Remains

The composer Harry Partch was born in 1901 in California to missionary parents who had recently returned from China. He spent most of his boyhood in southern Arizona and New Mexico. It's not going far wrong to imagine him, as a child, living on the set of an old cowboy film. He played piano in the cinema and his juvenalia included “Death in the Desert”, a story with piano accompaniment. He went on to study music conventionally, writing two movements of a piano concerto which he later destroyed.

I first came across Partch's name at school. Most books on twentieth-century music then afforded him a photo and a couple of paragraphs. Nobody played me any of his music though and there was none to be found in the local record library. I discovered it later thanks to a friend's CD of his last work, The Dreamer that Remains.

The Dreamer, scored for voice and ensemble, was made for a film about Partch of the same name by Stephen Pouliot. He describes returning to a small town of his childhood to find that the easy-going street life he remembered had been replaced with signs that forbid loitering, “even in public parks, where a couple of people want to lighten the darkness with a little loving.” Partch, who was gay, wanted to show two men in a park at this point but the idea was vetoed. Instead we're shown a boy and a girl.

What follows is extraordinarily comical: “even the cadavers in the funeral parlour – they, too, are forbidden to loiter”. The aforesaid cadavers then sing a chorus, which begins:

Let us loiter together / and know one another...

The moment is straight out of that zany world of American comedy that includes The Simpsons, The Flintstones, Sgt. Bilko, et al.

Partch is famous for developing an unusual scale. Most Western music is written using a 12-note chromatic scale – the seven different white and five black notes of the piano keyboard. To cut a long story short, this scale is a compromise which has evolved over time and Partch came to the conclusion that he needed to unpick the work of this evolution. Expressive vocal melody as he conceived it required the voice to exploit smaller melodic steps. His scale is often referred to as a 43-note scale, but this is slightly misleading: what he developed was a means of accurately constructing scales using first principles. He first put these ideas into practice in a series of settings of the Chinese poet Li Po, for voice and adapted viola. The choice of poet is significant: although a lot of what he wanted to achieve sprang from Western (particularly Ancient Greek) culture, foreign influences on Partch's music are to be found over the Pacific as well as over the Atlantic.

If you make music using an unusual scale you need instruments to make it on and most traditional Western instruments are tied to the conventional chromatic scale. The adapted viola -he fitted an ordinary viola with a longer neck- was the first of Partch's many projects in instrument building. He followed it with an adapted guitar and, over time, a whole orchestra of fantastical instruments (with equally fantastical names), which work as effectively on a sculptural as they do on a musical level.

Although famous for his scales and instruments, the aspect of his music which perhaps mattered most to Partch -certainly later on- was what he called its corporeality. By this he meant that a performance of his music had to involve the whole body: the performer had to express themselves in movement as well as sound and the overall effect had to be seen as well as heard.

Partch was a difficult man to get on with. He found it very difficult to come to terms with life and never stayed anywhere for very long. For a while he lived as a hobo, an experience which became the basis for one of his most famous works, U..S. Highball. For most of his life he moved from place to place relying on grants, the generosity of supporters and the interest of educational establishments. A major headache was finding homes for his growing collection of instruments and a pool of performers who were capable of both playing them competently and getting along with him.

Hearing The Dreamer that Remains prompted me to explore his music further. I soon latched on to a few personal favourites. Windsong, the music for a short film, Daphne of the Dunes, is a compelling, hypnotic piece. Eleven Intrusions has an approachable simplicity about it. In U.S. Highball, remembered fragments of the speech and graffiti of the hobos Partch rode the trains which float like ghosts over train-like (but never too trainlike) musical textures, a moving memorial to a lot of largely-forgotten people. If you want to dance like crazy when there's no-one else about (or even if there is, if you feel uninhibited), stick on Pollux from Plectra and Percussion Dances, full blast!

There are some really good photos of Partch instruments on the website of an ensemble who still perform his music, Newband.

You can play virtual versions of the Partch instruments yourself here.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Seen in a Certain Light

The sky's blue-grey, the grass
intensely green, as after rain.

A herd of cows looks painted on
till one of them gets up and walks
to prove me wrong.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Next Big Idea?

This is not the first time I've written about walking the dog. Not my dog, you understand: "the dog" is usually one of two possible dogs I take for a walk when their owners can't. I'm a cat person myself, and don't relish the thought of owning a dog of my own although, if I'm honest, I've got quite friendly with the two dogs in question.

I may not be one hundred percent sold on dogs but I do enjoy the walking: especially when it involves -as it does at the moment- moonlit walks across fields on windless nights. For some reason, the light and the stillness imbue the landscape with a magical quality that I sometimes experience when I look at a room reflected in a mirror. (It's the only way I can describe it and I suspect that mine is a common experience). The outdoors feels as comfortable as my living room and the sky infinitely more interesting than the TV. I want to stay out all night (although I never get round to it and usually have a good reason to need a good night's sleep) and I begin to fantasize about cloaks and wonder why they ever went out of fashion. A good heavy cloak with a hood would be almost as good as a tent, with none of the drag of getting out the poles and pitching the latter. You'd just pull the cloak round you and pull up the hood. The train of thought is always the same. I'm sure you could design a cloak full of all mod cons: well, spacious interior pockets and a light, at least. OK, so a bathroom would be a bit much but who needs a bathroom when they're making themselves comfortable in a field? I'm always reminded of an exhibition we visited a while ago about the work of the ARCHIGRAM group of architects: as they put it, "the solution to an architectural problem is not necessarily a building". People wear space-suits in space, so why not "earth-suits" on earth, suits which would do away with the need to live in houses? No mortgage, no clutter, no housework. No big rooms to heat, so it'd probably be pretty green too. Why on earth hasn't the idea caught on?

Friday, 1 May 2009

So that was April...

I took this photo of Hercules standing in for Atlas in Portmeirion a couple of weeks ago. Something about it seemed to capture the essence of this month, so I decided to post it. OK, so going on holiday is not exactly onerous: the main reason posts on this blog have hit a record low this month is that we spent almost half of it on holiday in Wales. However, since we got back I've had a lot to sort out, principally my guitar pupils' grade exam entries.

There's a lot to think about: not just the serious, musical aspects like will people have their pieces and scales ready on time but also the organisational side. This matters a lot: for example, making doubly sure names are spelt correctly and presented the way their owners want them to be on their certificates, not to mention making sure people know on what day and at what time they need to show up. Perhaps because I don't see organisation as being my strong point I try doubly hard to get these things right.

On top of that, Karen took a whole load of night photographs of Portmeirion while we were in Wales. You can see some of them on her photoblog, Taken with a Twist. We're currently trying to get them printed out and framed as she has an opportunity to exhibit them locally with a view to selling them. (Talking of pictures on blogs, a friend of ours, Denise, has just started blogging and has just put one of her quite wonderful paintings -one of Venice- on her blog).

I overheard the following the other day. It gave me reason to feel old:

First child: My dad's just bought a typewriter.

Second child: A typewriter! I know what that is! One of those funny things that goes click-click.

I now know what it must have felt like to witness the birth of the motor-car and the demise of the horse and cart.