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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