Monday, 24 December 2012

Paddy McFadden

Paddy McFadden, my first father-in-law, was an important man in my life. He had been brought up in the Bogside in Derry, in Northern Ireland. He was a Roman Catholic and when I first knew him I was seriously thinking of becoming a Roman Catholic myself. (I was young, hotheaded and -although North London was hardly rural El Salvador- inspired by the liberation theology). An only child in a lapsed-Protestant family, I was also drawn by the magnetism of the Catholic family culture I'd encountered.

Through Paddy I learned that the importance of  not only the communion around the bread and the wine in church but also of the communion of minds meeting over a moderately-consumed bottle of whisky. He loved to talk about politics. He believed vehemently in the importance of education. Education had enabled him to join the civil service. Though retired when I knew him, he had risen to be the manager of the Employment Exchange in Littleborough (Coincidentally, his grandson -my son- and I were sitting by the Pennine Way just yesterday looking down on that area).

Paddy was a member of the Labour Party. He was, I think, a man of the centre of that party: his heart tended leftwards, his head, though, veered towards well-intentioned realpolitik. He wanted the opportunities he had had to be available to everyone. He stood for election and became a councillor on Greater Manchester Council. One cause he espoused passionately was the establishment of a war memorial to the members of the International Brigades from Manchester who had fallen in the Spanish Civil War. He was a great Orwell fan but it went deeper than that: he had also known, as a child in Ireland, people who had fought in Spain in the "Connolly Column".(I remember him talking about the "brave young Christian Brother" and other characters in the Christy Moore song, Viva la Quince Brigada - Paddy was a real link with an important part of the past). I speculate as sadly he's no longer here to ask but I think like many people from his background and geneneration he felt he understood from his own experience what motivated militant republicanism in Ireland. However, he felt that needless violence was deeply wrong and that the less glamorous humdrum work of government was not only more morally acceptable but also more likely to deliver results for oppressed people wherever and whoever they were. There was a passionate firebrand in Paddy (he kept a case of old Wolfe Tones records in the spare room) but being a humble man he was happy to direct his passion where he felt it would be most effective. I hope I've got that right. In the war, he had been at Dunkirk. When asked about it he always said his enduring memory was of digging latrines on the beach. However, he was awarded medals -which ones I don't know- and chose not to receive them. Whatever else he'd been upto we'll probably never know.

In his youth, Paddy had been a keen walker. He had spent a lot of time in the Peak District, walking over Bleaklow and Kinder Scout. I think I'm right in saying that though these adventures he met  his wife Margaret (my ex-mother-in-law). These have become favourite places of mine, too. His walking companions had included a young Bernard Cribbins. Years later, Cribbins found himself on This is Your Life and, as a result, so did Paddy. We all went along to the studio to watch. My ex-sister-in-law Sue discovered, to her delight, that someone we don't know just recently happened to post a clip from the show on Youtube, featuring Paddy! Watch out for him: he's the man in the pixellated image on the left which I took from the video (I could hardly align him on the right, could I?)

Sadly, in the last few years of his life, Paddy contracted Alzeimer's disease. He died in the early 1990s. Before that, I was lucky enough to go back with him to Derry.

Elegy for Patrick

OK, so the Irish songs you taught me
were sentimental, to say the least,
but once in your bones you could never get them out:
a vendetta of words, almost a eucharist.

Outside Aunt Mary's house the liturgy
is written on the wall. We take a walk
around the city, searching for a place
we'll never find. Perhaps it's blown away.

Paddy's been away so long, he says,
he can't be sure. We'll ask. (Meantime,
we'll do the sights: see how the cannon
that originally pointed out to sea

now point at the bank. The irony's not lost).
When asked, Aunt Mary says:
Oh that! It was the boys on the corner did it.
They made such a clean job of it as well.

In a way, his loss of memory began
there, in Derry, as we walked around.
The first to go, the trivial monuments.
From thereon in, the semtex took a hold.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Reading, dreaming, listening...

I've been reading the late Christopher Logue's recreation of The Iliad, War Music, today. I'd forgotten just how visceral and violent Homer can be. Take this:

  His chariot bucked too slow over the rutted corpses,
And as Patroclus drew abreast of him,
The terrified boy let the horses baulk,
Leaving the reins to flow beside the car,
And cowered in its varnished basket,

  They passed so close that hub skinned hub.
Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then,
And gracefully as men in oilskins cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men detach
A sardine from an opened tin.

I was going to say it's a thought-provoking poem to read in violent times but, on reflection, I suppose all times in human history are violent. It's an interesting poem to read at any time, which is probably why people in successive ages read it and re-invent it.


I had a strange dream the night before last. I was living in a town where there were two drop-in  centres run by two different religious groups. I had friends in both and often dropped in for a chat. I said religious, but neither centre espoused a particular religion. What each promoted was a particular approach to religion.

The first held that a past age of miracles should be recreated with the aid of technology. When I visited, the people there had just built (and were testing) a body-suit in the form of a god often portrayed as being surrounded by an aura. In this case, the aura was powered by calor gas.

The people at the second held that for what we now think of as religion to survive, it should be stripped of all things irrational, from miraculous traditions to esoteric theologies. They believed that once stripped down, enough remained for people to live their lives by to make the exercise worthwhile. They also considered it beneficial that the process of stripping down could bring religions closer together - the rejected traditions, they felt, were often the things which  set one religion apart from another.

I spent more time at the second centre. I had a long chat with a man called John in a comfortable yet sparsely-furnished, brightly-lit room. After a while, there was a knock on the door. The new visitor was someone I knew.

"What a coincidence," I said. "John - meet John." But I needn't have bothered. The two men obviously knew each other. The John from the centre leapt to his feet. John the visitor stood his ground. Both men stood face-to-face, clenching their fists, eyeballing each other and growling. They obviously knew each other already. At this point I woke up.

And finally this - for no other reason than I like it and it takes me back to the seventies and late student nights in Whalley Range in Manchester, drinking strong tea, smoking Woodbines... Woodbines were filterless, which was handy when you were a poor student. If you ran out it was a simple matter to roll up the nubs. And even, at a pinch, the nubs of the nubs...

It's a good job I gave up.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A Quiz!

Not long ago I finished reading Ulysses. Quite a book. Interesting, the things people have said about the book over the years. One myth that started early on, I suspect, is that the book is just the record of one man's thoughts, walking round Dublin. It's a lot more traditionally structured than that. I found myself reading a story about how someone who finds himself excluded devises ways of coping, of sustaining civil, even friendly relations with the people around him - even when they treat him differently to others in ways which range from almost noticeable to the downright hostile. This is reflected in his relationship with his wife who is repeatedly unfaithful to him. Bloom too, in his way, plays the field, as evidenced by his letter to one Martha Clifford. He seems to be unable to move beyond a world of (often masochistic) fantasy. One is left wondering if, in his case at least, the dysfunction has been brought on (or, at least, exacerbated) by the death of his infant son, Rudy.

I read the book once before, a few years ago. I must say I found reading it a second time much more rewarding. To amuse myself and with one eye on a blog post, I decided to compile a quiz as I read, one question per chapter. One can work out the answers either with the help of the book or a search engine. Either way, you don't have to read the book. In fact, doing so would be a pretty long-winded way of working them out. That being said, if Ulysses gains one new reader from this, it was worth doing.

1. What three things should an Irishman be wary of?
2. What did Mr Deasy think Stephen would find very handy?
3. What is the live dog called?
4. What did Milly buy her father for his birthday?
5. What did the soap smell of?
6. Who darns Mr Bloom's socks?
7. What opera is like a railway line?
8. What sort of cheese does Bloom have in his sandwich?
9. What did Stephen drink with Dan Deasy's ducats?
10. What was not on the slab?
11. "From the saloon a call came, long in dying." Who had forgotten what?
12. Who won the Gold Cup?
13. Who kissed Molly under the Moorish Wall beside the gardens?
14. Who is the "remarkablest progenitor barring none in this chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle"?
15. Bloom's real name is Higgins - according to whom?
16. What flashed "through his (Bloom's) busy brain"?
17. What is home without Plumtree's Potted Meat?
18. What year did the Blooms marry?

Anyone who has read the book will know I've left out one of the most intriguing questions: who is the man in the macintosh? Personally, I think gossip quoted about the man in Ulysses is as unreliable as gossip often is and I suspect the answer lies in Joyce's collection of stories, Dubliners.

I wrote the questions -along with the answers- on a tatty old envelope I used as a bookmark. I'll endeavor not to loose it and publish the answer later. Have a go!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Vidovic plays Walton

Thank you John Hayes of Robert Frost's Banjo for drawing my attention to this. I really like this piece by Walton and this -by Ana Vidovic- is a quite special performance of it:

Saturday, 3 November 2012

I know this is a bit silly, but...

...I can't resist sharing it. I was idling away my time the other day thinking about brains. I was thinking how the associations my brain is capable of were far more interesting than a search engine could achieve. I might have less information in my brain than exists on the internet (do I? Now I type it I'm not sure) but my brain's search tools can throw up all sorts of associations way beyond the abilities of an internet search engine. Moreover, my brain's search engines usually operate outside my conscious control.

Both brain and internet have their strengths. I can wonder what sort of music I feel like listening to. My brain can reflect on all the genres I'm aware of and express a preference for one. The internet could throw up a genre I was previously unaware of. My brain could suggest I search the net for something new or even pick up an instrument and invent a new genre.The internet will only do what I ask it.

Thinking along these lines, it occurred to me that although the internet can't reproduce a search akin to my subconscious associations, my brain could attempt a crude search along the lines of an internet search engine - a "brain google" if you like. Take a word -any word- at random, let your mind freewheel and see what memories are associated with the word. This is not at all like the traditional psychoanalytical word association - it really is a matter of trawing one's memories for ones where the word might prove useful. For example, I tried it using the word "over". These were the first four "hits":

1. Cricket at St Chad's school. The score board was also a shed where the scorers sat. My mum had knitted me a white cricket jersey.

2. A game we played at school called OWZAT! You played it with polyhedral dice. It was simply a random game of cricket. One die told you what the batsman scored off each ball. The other die told you if the ball was a wide, etc. One self-explanatory facet simple said OWZAT! Owzat! was a serious pursuit played with proper cricket scoring books.

3. Amateur radio. Over, funnily enough, is not a word people use. More likely to say "Back to you, old man". (Seriously).

4. Playing cricket for the ASLEF cricket team, which I did in my 20s. I didn't work for ASLEF, but had a friend who did. Their office-workers were keen cricketters but could't quite raise a team without a few players from outside. Me, I'm a lousy cricketter. I once had to bowl the last two overs of a match against Kent NUM. To my amazement, I took a wicket - the only one I ever took in my brief cricketting career.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Good Morning, Good Morning...

This is not my favourite time of year. However, it's also one of my busiest. Somehow I have to charge up my batteries until I feel dynamic and irrepressible. I've taken to throwing back the living room curtains as soon as I get up, breathing in deeply and making the most of that pale blue glow that passes for morning and...

Salutation to the Dawn

Listen to the Salutation of the Dawn! 
Look to this day! For it is life, the very Life of Life. 
In its brief course lie all the varieties and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth, the glory of action, The splendor of beauty.

For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision; 
But to-day well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every to-morrow a vision of hope. 
Look well therefore to this day! Such is the Salutation of the Dawn. 

This hymn from the Rig Veda must have been posted on the internet many times. It probably clings magnetically to the doors of a million refrigerators. And why not. 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Welsh Interlude

Just back from a week spent in North Wales. We stayed in a cottage we often stay in in the coastal village of Borth y Gest, just outside Porthmadog. It must have been good because when I sit here trying to think what we actually did there I find my mind going blank. What did we do? Not a lot - but we had a great time. We walked some of the Miner's Track on Snowdon. We went out at night to photograph the lights of Portmeirion across the water. We knocked about a bit round Beddgelert. We visited Plas Newydd, a National Trust property on Anglesey (I've blogged about the place before). We also went to Sarn Pottery (founded in 1970 by Oldrich Asenbryl) and spent a happy half hour chatting with Oldrich about jazz (most particularly Miroslav Vitous, the Czech bassist who used to play with Weather Report). The pots he makes are, I think, strikingly original, with an improvisational quality about them which, I can't help thinking, owes a lot to jazz.

Talking of music, I've found myself  nurturing a growing obsession with all things 18th Century. When stationary -and not otherwise occupied- I've been reading Tristram Shandy and when driving round Wales, whistling bits of Handel's Water Music. OK, so there are worse ear-worms to be infected with but I soon found I was driving myself (and Karen) nuts. In desperation I stopped at the first likely-looking shop and bought a CD of it to listen to instead.

Bang up to date, and on a lighter note, I've just discovered Johnny and the Baptists...

When we got home yesterday we found we still had a couple of free days so we've made a conscious effort to continue the holiday even though we're back in the land of (if not back to) the grindstone. Today we went to Seaton Delaval Hall. Imagine how pleased I was to find John Theodore Heins' The Music Party at Melton Constable hanging on the wall there.

Having an internet connection again and catching up with things in the land of blog, I discovered that The Solitary Walker has incorporated a series of interviews with poets he's published in his online poetry magazine, The Passionate Transitory. Follow the link and click on "Quinterviews" (Quick Interviews) or even, if you haven't already had a look, have read of the first issue itself.

Oh well, tomorrow I better dig out those blunt knives...

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A Prelude

it would be wrong to say
nothing's where it should be
I couldn't organise disorder
as effectively as that
no - what you see
reflects a state of mind
some things (not necessarily
the right things) make it
to the top of the pile
others are subsumed
their discovery coming
as a pleasant surprise
seen from the window
by one travelling on
quite a different train of thought

sometimes I think
so much work has gone in
to putting it all together
if (as they say) time is money
and (as I said) what you see
reflects a state of mind
then I have paid a price
for all that I am
don't be fooled
originality here
as everywhere
is merely a matter
of rearrangement

I found a Beethoven Sonata
I still can't play
(proudly inscribed in '76)
underneath an advertisement
for over 50s life insurance
I never followed up
(see what you're looking at
and you'll read my mind
sometimes you'll get it wrong
but rest assured
the evidence is there
you may even get to know me
better than I know myself)

Friday, 28 September 2012

Water, water everywhere

On Tuesday, I struggled to get to work. The road I usually take was closed. I took an alternative route. Even so, the dips in the road were full of intimidatingly deep pools of water. By mid morning the outlook was so bad we went home. The surface water was terrifying. I left my car in a layby, put on my wellingtons and set off home on foot with my cello and an umbrella.

The first innundated dip in the road I came to turned out to be deeper than my boots but so what I thought. At least nobody drove through the water as I was walking through it and flooded wellingtons are completely trivial compared with a flooded house. I squelched on. I got to our village to discover that the beck had turned into an even bigger torrent than usual on such days. The wellingtons were overwhelmed again as I cautiously made my way through it, the torrent being the road to our house.

We were lucky. The water hadn't risen high enough to flood the house. Other houses were not so lucky. Usually the beck only rises high enough to impress us all with the awesome power of Nature. This time it brought misery pure and simple and left people wondering when it'll happen again and if it could be even worse.

When the water level finally fell, it revealed a road stripped down to its foundations...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


It's getting colder and the nights are getting longer. Soon everywhere will look brown, grey, damp and (to me) depressing. However. there's one consolation that keeps me going through to Spring and we had a grandstand view of it last night. There was no moon, very little cloud and, being a village, very little light pollution: as astronomers say, the "seeing" was good. The sky was overflowing with stars and the massive arch of the Milky Way positively overpowering. One was immediately aware of the central part of the galaxy there, above one's head - so much so, I felt, that I had a sense of walking upside down in relation to the centre of the galaxy rather than (as I suppose one usually feels) right way up in relation to the centre of the earth. The night was so clear it seemed as if that the different colours of the stars (blue, red) were accentuated. The Andromeda Galaxy was dimly visible to the naked eye, over the bungalow at the end of the lane.

There are other consolations (snow men, icicles and the fantastic patterns of ice for example) but there's nothing quite like the night sky in winter. One can go in search of landscapes that please the eye but on a clear moonless night  there's hundreds of thousands of lightyears of landscape to look at just outside the back door.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

To A Butterfly

The other day The Solitary Walker and I paid a visit to Dove Cottage in the Lake District, the house where Wordsworth spent what were probably the nine most productive years of his life. There was much to see - from Wordsworth's cuckoo clock to his skates. The skates may have inspired great poetry but, according to De Quincey, the poet, when skating "sprawled on the ice like a cow dancing a cotillion". De Quincey's opium scales lurked in the same glass case.

It was raining so heavily that going out into the garden was out of the question - which was a shame, as Wordsworth composed a great deal of poetry there, returning to the house to dictate it to either his wife or his sister. I left feeling an overwhelming urge to read some - something I hadn't done for a while.

When I finally got a chance to fish out the collected poems, I opened the book -as I was most likely to do- at one I didn't know, although I'm sure it's well-known to Wordsworth fans. I ought to read more. Ezra Pound once urged aspiring poets to "read as much Wordsworth as [they could] stand". Anyway, this poem dates from the poet's time at the cottage and turned out, with its intimate tone, to be a very appropriate poem, I thought, to read straight after a visit to it:

To A Butterfly

I've watched you now a full half-hour,
Self-poised upon that yellow flower;
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless! Not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!

This plot of Orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister's flowers;
Here rest your wings when they are weary;
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We'll talk of sunshine and of song;
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.

Friday, 24 August 2012


Aquarius of Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Zodiac" from BOULDER PAVEMENT on Vimeo.

In 1974, Stockhausen wrote "Tierkreis – 12 Melodien der Sternzeichen". He had been inspired to do so by a dream in which he saw musical-boxes appearing from the belly of a "bird man". The work consists of a series of musical-box melodies, one for each of the signs of the Zodiac.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Haunted Castle

This morning I've been looking for materials on Youtube for a series of lessons I'm planning to teach next term about 20th century classical music. I thought one way into "atonal" music might be to get a group to create some to fit to a silent horror film - so I started searching for a suitable film.

It doesn't take long to get distracted when searching Youtube! I soon came across this and I decided I just had to post it here. It's the sort of thing I'm looking for - sort of. I'll certainly add it to my list of possibles. I know very little about film and I certainly didn't realise moving films were made as early as 1896, as this was. Pay a 3-minute visit to George Melies' The Haunted Castle and you too will have seen what's widely billed as "the world's first horror film". Make sure you're sat down and, if of a nervous disposition, not alone...

Monday, 13 August 2012

Shandy Hall

Went to Shandy Hall yesterday. I've often thought of going, although we've never got round to it before. Shandy Hall, not far from Thirsk in North Yorkshire, was the home of Rev. Laurence Sterne, writer of Tristram Shandy.

Tristram Shandy was, according to Italo Calvino,  "undoubted progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century." I've not read it. I have had a go but didn't get very far.  I thought that by visiting Shandy Hall I might feel inspired to give it another go. 

We went on one of the regular tours of the house which, I have to admit, I can't remember as much about as I'd like - although it has inspired me to have another go at the book. I'll have to go again, which I'm more than happy to do, as I really enjoyed it. (I've decided to join the Friends of Shandy Hall next time I visit - it costs £7 a year to do so, for which you can visit the house and gardens as often as you want). I do remember that Tristram Shandy should be an inspiration not only to would-be experimental novelists but also to would-be self-publishers. Had Sterne not been determined to see the early volumes of the work into print, it would probably have remained unpublished. I also discovered that Sterne and Samuel Johnson didn't get on well, much to the embarassment of their many mutual friends. Johnson dismissed Sterne's work, saying (in 1776) ""Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." Voltaire, on the other hand, thought it superior to Rabelais.

There's more than a house at Shandy Hall. There's a second-hand bookshop and a garden. Also, in the garden, there's an exhibition on about self-publishing, DO or DIY,  created by Information as Material, a writer collective which describes itself as " publish work by artists who use extant material -selecting it and reframing it to generate new meanings- and who, in so doing so, disrupt the existing order of things." The text used in the exhibition can be read online, here, although it's more interesting to encounter it in Rev. Sterne's garden.

A second exhibition is also currently running in the outbuildings at the hall: Found in the Fields, an exhibition of prints by artist Carry Ackroyd. The works on show are inspired by and incorporate fragments from the poetry of the 19th Century poet John Clare. I'm just beginning to get into his poetry so I found this exhibition really interesting. One of the prints is based on a poem I didn't know, about ants. I think it's magnificent - and although in many ways it's a product of its age, there's also much about it that's modern:

The Ants

What wonder strikes the curious, while he views
The black ant's city, by a rotten tree,
Or woodland bank! In ignorance we muse:
Pausing, annoyed,--we know not what we see,
Such government and thought there seem to be;
Some looking on, and urging some to toil,
Dragging their loads of bent-stalks slavishly:
And what's more wonderful, when big loads foil
One ant or two to carry, quickly then
A swarm flock round to help their fellow-men.
Surely they speak a language whisperingly,
Too fine for us to hear; and sure their ways
Prove they have kings and laws, and that they be
Deformed remnants of the Fairy-days.

John Clare

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Hackfall Wood

Somehow or other I've managed to live here in Wensleydale without ever even knowing that Hackfall Wood existed! I owe the fact that I do know to a chance remark by a friend when I mentioned I was looking for somewhere to go for a swim.

I googled the place, to see if I could find a map of it. I not only found a map: I also discovered that the woodland has various follies hidden in it along with a hydrolic fountain which stands, in the middle of a pool, hidden in the depths of the wood. When you find it, you have to wait a few minutes for the pressure to build up and...

But I'm telling the story the wrong way round: I found the fountain on the way back from Black Robin Whirlpool. I had set myself the task of finding Black Robin after reading Les Taylor's memories of the area online (Les was born in 1925):

At the sharp bend in the river below is the Black Robin Whirlpool where village boys were warned not to swim.

It sounded alluring: I just had to check it out. If it was too dangerous a place, then I'd give it a miss but otherwise... I packed a towel just in case.

As it was it turned out to be one of the best swimming places that, in my limited experience, I've ever come across. The whirlpool doesn't seem to be a literal whirlpool of the water-going-down-the-plug variety, more just rapids, albeit arranged in a wavy line. Behind the rapids, a deep, wide bathing pool extends upriver for quite a long way. I could imagine the rapids could be quite turbulent if the river were higher but the river was quite placid today. A triangular area of pebbly "beach" sticks out from the bank into the river here, with a small area of grass and bushes on its far side. An elderly couple were there when I arrived. She had just finished her swim. It turned out they had found the place by following similar online clues to myself and that I had indeed found "Black Robin".

I changed into my shorts on the pebble beach and climbed into the peaty-brown water of the bathing-pool.  I soon discovered why parents might have warned their children not to swim here: where the pebble beach turns into a riverbed it suddenly slopes down - entering the water I found myself out of my depth in moments.  It turned out to be quite warm as cold water goes and within a minute or two it felt heavenly. Having swum down to savour the natural jacuzzi that is the Black Robin rapids I made my way upstream - it was quite hard work swimming against the current. There's nothing quite like swimming along a river, your eyes at water level. The river surface stretches away like a huge, glassy floor. If the stretch of river is surrounded by steep, tree-covered banks as this is, you get the bonus of being surrounded by towers of greenery that rise up not unlike towering, fluffy clouds in stormy weather: the effect is of a giant, green sanctuary with a glass floor and a sky-blue cieling.

I returned downstream breastroke, only needing to make a minimum effort as the water carried me along, back to the jacuzzi. Once out and dried, I sat here and ate an apple. Life is good...

click to enlarge

The Poetry of Margery Clute (20)

If you missed the earlier installments, which provided some background  information regarding Margery Clute's poetry, you can read about her here.

The Lofty Muse

This life is not a Vale of Tears
As many people think;
The rain that falls upon the ground
Falls that the plants may drink.

Soon blow away the clouds that blot
The sunlight from the bower –
Then we are grateful, one and all,
To see the blooming flower!

Yet when Death’s shadow falls across
Our path, where can we turn?
‘Tis true, we face a certain end
Beneath a mossy urn,

And yet, take heart – all is not lost!
Live for the day, I deem.
Enjoy the insignificant part
You play in Life’s great scheme!

And ne’er forget the lofty Muse
That inward bends the ear
Unto the wordless Song of Life
That knows no earthly fear!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Having Fun with Arnold Schoenberg

OK, so I'm a fan of Schoenberg (the 20th Century composer), but this video I've just come across has shot to the top of my personal Youtube Top Ten - and not just because it's about him. It's so, well, cheerful - when it could just be dour and pedantic. And cheerfulness is a Good Thing (with a capital G and T):

It goes a long way to explaining the sense of fun in what might otherwise be considered by listeners to be one of his so-called "difficult" pieces of music (part of his Serenade, Opus 24):

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Poetry of Margery Clute (19)

If you missed the earlier installments, which provided some background  information regarding Margery Clute's poetry, you can read about her here.

The Traveller

A Traveller upon the hill
One windy day I met.
I greeted him with civil wave,
One whom I'll ne'er forget.

His clothes were stained with much travail,
He bore a sturdy pole,
His leather bag betrayed his call,
His eye, a Wandering Soul.

His beard that to his knees hung down
Betrayed his august age -
Old as the rocks that Nature set
Upon that moorland stage.

“Old Man,” quoth I, “What brings you here
“What Fate draws us together?
“Why dost thou walk upon the Moor
“And in such windy weather?”

“I travel far,” the Sage replied,
“To find I know not what.”
“That which the Wisest seek,” quoth I,
“Though many know it not?”

“The same!” He fixed me with his eye
And grasped me by the arm.
“You know its whereabouts?” quoth he.
I trembled with alarm.

“That which the Wisest seek,” quoth I,
“Though many know it not
Was known in day of old, I deem:
‘Tis now all but forgot.”

He dropped his gaze, relaxed his hold.
“I fear, ‘Tis as you say.
“I travel far, I travel wide,
“I journey night and day.

“The wild lands beyond the Tyne,
“Beyond the Roman Wall,
“The Eastern Plains, the Western Hills,
“My eye surveyed them all!”

“I saw the Eagle on his Perch,
“The Badger in his Den,
“The hedgehog in his leafy lair,
“The cockerel and his hen,

“The Sun by Day, the Moon by Night,
“The rocks beneath my soles,
“The fish beneath the cataract,
“The rabbits down their holes!

“Yet ne’er I saw that which I seek
“Or heard of its existence!
“Though I have travelled far and wide
“With –some say- strange persistence!”

I left him there, the Traveller,
To seek his one desire,
And made my way home, down the hill,
To a bath before the fire!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Clarinet Trio Revisited

I've been working on improving the computer generated sound file of this piece, correcting a couple of typos in the score I spotted and equalizing the sound. It's still merely computerised but I hope it's a slight improvement.

To save anyone scrolling up and down, I'll reiterate what I said before about the piece, with a few added thoughts:

The first movement is a rondo - a musical term for a multi-storey sandwich in which a tune acts as the slices of bread, in between which various different fillings are spread. Another way of describing it would be, using letters for musical passages, ABACA...etc. One could also think of it as a chaconne - roughly speaking, a classical term for a piece based on a repeating riff.

The third movement is dedicated to the memory of the poet, Barry MacSweeney. The Northumbrian smallpipe tune, Too Few Coals, Too Little Money figures prominently. At first its appearance is conventional. However, as the piece progresses, the performers play wild, atonal melodic lines against it until, at last, the tune vanishes altogether. A second tune, often treated canonically, is based on a fragment of the clarinet melody heard at the end of the first movement.

While I was composing the piece I came very much to associate the first movement with the spirit, the second with the mind and the third with the body. The first, I think, strives to transcend itself, the second is more ruminative and the third, as befits the body is more dancelike (the incorporated melody, too, alludes to the body and what it needs). That's just the way I see it.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Clarinet Trio

I've just finished writing a piece for clarinet, cello and piano. I was motivated to write it on hearing The Weaver of Grass, who plays the piano, accompanying a mutual friend who plays the clarinet. The possiblility of writing a piece in which I could join in (on the cello) occurred to me. I hate writing music in a vacuum and like to be able to imagine a performance of any music I write so, whether we get to perform it or not, the catalyst was there (I doubt we'll be able to do the first movement at the fair lick the computer keeps up). It's in three movements and last just under 8 minutes.


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Withdrawl Symptoms

The Tour de France is over for another year. Every day for the next week now there will be moments when I'm not sure what to do with myself. I'll fidget, wondering what it is that I'm missing. Withdrawl. Watching Bradley Wiggins pedal up those mountains I was reminded, by his physique and style, of the figure of Miguel Indurain - and realising how many years it was since "Big Mig" won the Tour I realised how many years I've been watching it.

Cricket? Yawn. Wimbledon? For Wombles. The Tour de France is something else. It's the sort of thing you imagine they might get upto in Valhalla on Sports Day. For years, I think, a lot people have been put off watching it by the drug scandals that have rocked it for as long as anyone can remember. However, I suspect it's now cleaner than it ever has been. The Tour is now proving that it is bigger than its troubled past.

For me, there's nothing quite like it. The last four stages, thanks to Wiggins, Cavendish, Froome and the rest of the Sky team,  were particularly gripping - if the words "Arise, Sir Bradley" aren't heard soon then there's even less point to the honours system than I thought there was. Still, it would be a shame to forget all the other dramas that made up the 2012 Tour. What sticks in my mind is Stage 8: Thibaut Pinot, at 22 the youngest rider in the race and riding his first Tour, broke away and rode on to win the stage. His performance was almost upstaged by that of Marc Madiot, his team manager and former racer, leaning out of the team car behind him, yelling and waving his arms in -I presume,as my French is limited- encouragement. Unfortunately, Madiot's (potentially Oscar winning) performance has been cut down to a few seconds in ITV4's 3 minute stage highlights.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Ennerdale Outing

The opportunity arose the other day for Robert (aka The Solitary Walker) and I to climb some hills in Ennerdale in the Lake District.

Ennerdale lies on the Western side of the Lakes. This is -unless you happen to live close to the North West coast- more difficult to access than the Eastern side and, consequently, less frequented by tourists. The villages tend to be what people round here in the Dales refer to as "working villages" - places people live and work rather than places people visit for holidays. In the East it is easy to find yourself in a long, slow moving line of traffic snaking from one tourist hotspot to another - not so in the West (well, not so often).

We parked in a car park beside Ennerdale Water, under Bowness Knott. There were only a handful of cars there when we arrived. We grabbed our backpacks and set off along the forestry road that runs along the edge of the lake passing, as we did so, the only people we saw all day. Once we left the track and crossed the River Liza we had the valley to ourselves.

Our intention was to walk the ridge that runs from Haycock (797m) to Pillar (892m), crossing Scoat Fell (802m) in the process. From the lakeside we had only the evidence of the map to tell us where they were: an unbroken blanket of cloud hung in the sky at around the 550m level. All we could see of our first objective, Haycock, was a brown tongue of ground that rose up out of the pinewoods to the left of Silver Cove and disappeared into the cloud. We made our way cautiously through the woods - we had a bad feeling about the accuracy of our old map where the areas of forest were concerned. (This was well founded. I checked later and the Forestry Commission information on the map dated from 1981!). We followed a path by a stream through the trees to the foot of the tongue, crossed the Silvercove Beck by a footbridge and started the long slog up to the ridge of the mountain.

We stopped to eat half way up, enjoying the view over Ennerdale Water as we did so. We had to enjoy the view while we could: a short distance above us the hillside faded into the clouds. We set a bearing for future reference and, fed and watered, carried on up.

Soon the views vanished and we found ourselves envelloped in a white glow. It didn't take long to reach the ridge. A dry-stone wall runs along its length so route-finding was a simple matter of walking up to it and turning left. A few minutes' walk interrupted by a short easy scramble  over Little Gowder Crag led us to the summit of Haycock.

I don't really mind walking over mountains in cloud. Though they obscure spectacular views, clouds make up for it by contributing to the grandeur of the situation. And when the clouds are torn apart to reveal the view below, the view seems all the more spectacular for it. Not only that, but navigating by map and compass is a satisfying game best played in poor visibility.

Dry-stone walls, on the other hand, lull one into a false sense of security.  The one we were following  ran along much of the ridge, over Haycock and on to Scoat Fell. When it came to an end we were still envelloped in cloud. I was all set to go off in the wrong direction (I would have taken us on to another top, Steeple - not necessarily a bad thing). Robert spotted the ridge proper through a break in the cloud.

We soon found ourselves on Wind Gap, a narrow col that joins Scoat Fell to Pillar. Breaks in the cloud were becoming more frequent and we were treated to more spectacular views of the valleys either side of the mountain. We pushed on up the steep, loose rocky slope on the far side of the col. I wondered how long it would take us to reach the summit as there were a lot of contour lines on the map at this point, all very close together. We were pleasantly surprised, though, and soon found ourselves on Pillar Summit which Robert immediately recognised as he had climbed the hill before  (he had previously approached it from the opposite side). We sat in the stone shelter close to the trig point, consumed more sandwiches and set a bearing that would lead us through the cloud, down back into Ennerdale.

There was a "right of way" shown on the map. However, we found little trace of an actual path. There was precious little grass either: for most of the descent we were picking our way over huge natural rockeries or running down scree. The shortcomings of the map soon became apparent: the forest below looked significantly different to the one shown. A whole new area had been planted, had grown and been felled since the map had been drawn. We soon found ourselves picking away down beside a desolation of felled conifers, their bleached, skeletal remains simply left where they had fallen. We were slightly worried by this - we had both heard of initiatives to "re-wild" Ennerdale and remove some of the forest (it had been heavily forested during WWII as part of the war effort) and hoped the felling would be followed by a clean-up, to allow the land to recover. (Anyone interested can find out more at

As it turned out, the lack of a useable map made the walk more enjoyable, not less. It did momentarily cross my mind that we might find ourselves benighted in a huge conifer forest, but only momentarily. So long as we kept working our way downhill we would get back to the start, eventually. It doesn't get dark until quite late at the moment and we had plenty of glimpses of the hillsides through the trees to guide us. After a while we found ourselves on a magnificent path that wound down the hillside, through the trees, along the bank of a roaring, tumbling stream. This came out on a forestry track close to the valley-bottom. All we had to do was head West.

It had been a day of low cloud although, luckily for us, the rain had held off - until now.  Light mizzle suddenly turned  into large, saturating drops, thoroughly soaking us on the long, final trudge back to the car park. Who cares? It would take more than a bit of rain to spoil a walk as good as that.

Unfortunately, neither of us had a camera with us. Fortunately, plenty of other people have been snapping away up there so it's not the end of the world. Just click here.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Silent Accordion

I was just lamenting the fact that I had not got round to going to visiting two exhibitions while they were on -Edmund Burra in Chichester and Grayson Perry at the British Museum- and thinking that I needed to stir my stumps and get going when I felt the urge. And then I saw this, posted on the blog of the artist, Natalie D'Arbeloff. It's a short film based on an accordion book she's made, entitled Therefore I Am. Sometimes you need to get up and go to see art but sometimes it comes to you. Another accordion-folded book made by Natalie is currently part of an exhibition at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth (see her blog for pictures and details).

Therefore I Am from Natalie d'Arbeloff on Vimeo.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The Naming of Plants

I saw the other day the The Weaver of Grass had written a post entitled The Naming of Plants. I immediately thought of the famous Henry Reed poem, Naming of Parts, which contrasts the poet's prosaic instruction in the art of killing during the Second World War with the goings on in the garden outside. I was disappointed to find that the post -interesting though it was- had nothing to do with the poem. What follows is just a bit of fun - but like many such things it acquired the hint of a dark side when it got going...

Naming of Plants

with apologies to Henry Reed

Today we have naming of plants. Yesterday,
We had weeding. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after planting. But today,
Today we have naming of plants. Though gunfire
Can be heard coming from the television,
Today we have naming of plants.

This is Galium Aparine, which is also known as Goose Grass,
The preponderance of which will become clear to you, once in the garden.
This is Epilobium Angustifolium, known as Rosebay Willowherb.
At last, on TV, the firing has stopped and sirens
Can be heard. As for what's going on beyond the borders,
Who knows? We can but wonder.

This is Urtica Dioica, the removal of which can be
Unpleasant without gloves. And please do not let me
See anyone attempt it in a short-sleeved shirt. One can do it
Quite easily, so long as no flesh is exposed. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see them
(They are, surely, malevolent) until it's too late.

And this is Taraxacum Officinale. Its intention
Is to conquer the earth. All we can do is our best
To rid ourselves of it: we call this pulling up the dandelions.
We do it in Spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
Men in uniforms can be seen running (on TV).
Someone said it was another kind of Spring.

And Spring is when the trouble starts: it is
Perfectly easy if you have strength in your fingers for the Goose Grass,
For the Willowherb, the Dandelions, and time to weed
(Which, in our case, we have not got). The guns
Remain silent. All will be well, perhaps, after all.
And today we have naming of plants.

(c) Dominic Rivron  2012

Urtica Dioica = common nettle.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Open Gardens 2012

Our village is holding an "open garden" day today. Everyone who wants to participate throws their garden open to the public for the day. People come for an afternoon out, buy a ticket and wander round the village soaking up the atmosphere of the gardens. There's also a scarecrow trail. K and her friend A made ours - he's a painter.

We are blessed (cursed?) with a large garden which leaves you with two choices: either get into gardening or concrete it over. K is a keen gardener. I get stuck in if I have to and enjoy it when I do. Anyway, open garden day means do the weeding and mow the lawn.

We finally got the garden straight late yesterday afternoon and I thought it would be a good idea to photograph it all. All sorts of bits and pieces have ended up in our garden over the years, as well as the plants. Look out for the stone coat of arms (inherited from my dad), the toilet (complete with aster), the hedgehog-box and the cups sinking in the sink (the carefully sliced cups came from a friend's old shop window display).

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

For scarecrows from past years, click here.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Three Unrelated Things

Firstly, I made another Wordle the other day (see below) - this time based on my own poetry. I created a page for it all (well, quite a lot of it) on this blog a while ago, here. I was intrigued to see what the wordle maker would make of it. It might even save people the trouble of reading the extended version.

Secondly, tonight, browsing Youtube, I discovered someone had posted one of my favourite Star Trek moments:

And thirdly? Apologies to anyone who has seen this on Facebook or elsewhere on the net. I saw it a while ago - and found it again this evening. (I'd like to credit it, but it seems to have "done the rounds"). Who said irony is dead? (Sorry about that. Cliché, at least, is clearly alive and kicking. Oh no! I've done it again!).

Friday, 29 June 2012

Big Books: A Quick Guide

Discussing "wordles" on Jessica Maybury's Perfect Fourth blog (where she had wordled some of her own fiction), it occurred to me that one of the fascinating things about wordles (when they fascinate)  is that they create the impression that they mimic the way we store things -the past, ideas, books, films, other people, even- in our heads. Purely fanciful, but I thought it would be fun to turn a few big books into wordles - it might even save those of us who haven't read them the trouble (I usually have a book on the go but I haven't read a fair number of them). OK, so the one above is a bit on the short side compared to those below. I was going to title them but as it turned out they either more-or-less titled themselves or were more intriguing without...

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Taking it Easy

We went to Beningborough Hall yesterday - a National Trust property near York. It contains a lot of portraits on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. I can't tell you much about it, as I enjoy such visits most when I just look around without reading a lot - I can never remember what I've read anyway. There were a lot of 18th century portraits - you could tell what they were because the people in them were wearing wigs. It's a period I find quite interesting. The only trouble is, history went in one ear and out the other at school and still does. I know it kind of began with Handel and ended with Haydn, that it was the era of Voltaire, Thomas Paine and of Dr Johnson (I think my interest was triggered by visiting his birthplace in Lichfield and reading his book Rasselas not so long ago). The fashions were cool, I think. People wore buckles on their shoes, men wore wigs and (when not bewigged) floppy silk hats and banyans. Then there were the coffee houses, where people discussed ideas and politics. And it wasn't all thinking, talking and writing: the century ended with the French Revolution.  As I write this I'm suprised I know even this much (assuming I've got it right): perhaps it just goes to prove the best way to learn anything is just to let it soak in.


A photo of Notre Dame on The Solitary Walker's blog reminded me of this. Cathedrals always do. The composer, Messiaen, was the organist just up the road at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité.  For me, it's music with a phwoar! factor...

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Medicine Sessions

When I posted the other week about Manchester Musicians' Collective I found myself feeling somewhat nostalgic for those days - music that was not just produced to be commercial, music with a risky edge, creative acts enacted for the sake of being creative, artists (of all kinds) following their noses wherever they might be led. Then I find that The Medicine Sessions over in Ireland have  been posting their Youtube videos on Facebook (readers of Vick Guns' Watercats blog will know how they came about). There's definitely more than a whiff of that spirit (among others!) over there. No need for nostalgia. The other day I momentarily regretted that I couldn't just press a button and recreate the musical atmosphere of 1977. Today I similarly regretted that I don't live down the road from this pub...

There are great videos there of poets (Niamh Bagnell, and Peadar O'Donoghue - to name two I'm familiar with) and musicians, such as...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Went to Gateshead and Newcastle yesterday to see ~Flow, an installation floating on the Tyne that uses various electronic circuits and mechanical contrivances to turn the Tyne (it's turbidity, salinity, etc.) into sound. It takes just over an hour to get there from our house. We left it a bit late and it was touch and go when we arrived, not long before closing time, at the Quayside. ~Flow turned out to be moored on the Newcastle side of the river. We had parked on the Gateshead side only to find the Millennium Bridge raised to allow a sailing boat through.

Anyway, it wasn't long before they lowered the bridge so we were able to get across and see what was happening for ourselves. From the outside, with its water wheel, ~Flow looks like a cross between a Mississippi paddle boat and a garden shed. Inside, its creators have done for river-water what Hammer Horror did for the reanimation of human flesh. There are more than enough bottles, wires, cogs, levers, etc., to keep anyone whiling away the school holiday happy. It was well worth the visit. We drank it all in -metaphorically speaking- and retired, satisfied, to the Baltic Mill café.

There wasn't much on at the gallery there (although there are three exhibitions just about to open) other than an installation by Richard Rigg entitled "Lacuna". This takes the form of a shed half-filled with earth from a Scottish mountain. Mountain hut... Mountain in hut instead of hut in mountains... I can't say I felt that gripped. I would like to see the piano he'd modified so that all the notes played middle C though - only that wasn't being exhibited on this occasion.

On the way home I decided I under-rate myself as a visual artist. Anyone who wishes to view my installation, Garden Shed (2012) can do so by appointment. From the exterior it presents us with an ever-so-slightly rotten shed. The interior, however, presents us with a series of quasi-archaeological layers: rusty shears, sheets of black plastic, old buckets and empty plant pots address the issues of impermanence and alienation, the dichotomy between the desire to create and the need to survive... I could go on. Suffice to say, it has now taken on an aesthetic dimension which had, until now, eluded me.

I surprised myself. I think the new in art should be taken seriously. As Pound said, "make it new" (I'm sorry - that quote gets seriously overquoted). But then what is the new? Imitations of the new are old. Can one always spot the new when one sees it?

Also, I think I still have an echo of something Grayson Perry said ringing in my ears, to the effect that he was pleased to be a part of the 'modern art' world, but that he was concerned that many contemporary works of art were less interesting than the buildings they were exhibited in, relying on the milieu of the gallery space to confer the aura of an artwork upon them.

Talking of Grayson Perry, I've been glued to his current TV series All in the Best Possible Taste.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Manchester Musician's Collective

I've been meaning to post these for a long time. Manchester Musician's Collective began life in 1977 and I was a member for a while in its early days. As the leaflet explains (click on it to enlarge), we used to meet every other week in the Northwest Arts Centre basement. At first the meetings were musical events: people brought music they'd written to be played and people improvised together. As the collective took off, the meetings -I think- became more of an opportunity to plan and organise the regular gigs at Manchester's "Band on the Wall" club. Looming final exams concentrated my mind wonderfully and I drifted away.

The collective attracted a diverse range of musicians. I was a music student at the time. I was very much into 20th century music and trying to compose. An electronic piece I made, Onami, had one of its two performances at this gig. (I think I kept it for sentimental reasons - if so, it'll be in the attic somewhere, a crumpled tape on an old reel-to-reel spool). I also took part in "The Tent Poles" (finally billed as "Pride" as it came on before The Fall) - a structured improvisation, as I remember, devised by John Bisset (see the final Youtube video, below). These early gigs were pretty eclectic. Prominent among the members at the time were the percussionist  Dick Witts, experimental composer Trevor Wishart and the band, The Fall.

I tried searching Youtube for the bands and people involved in the gigs listed on the 1977 handout. Below is a selection from what I found:

Formerly "The Elite":

John Bisset ("The Tent Poles"/"Pride"):

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Science Shapes Tomorrow

Some time in the late sixties or early seventies I received a book by Gerald Leach as a school prize. A venerable gent presented it to me on the stage in a marquee on the school lawn to a round of parental applause. It was called  Science Shapes Tomorrow. The said gent glanced at the title as he shook my hand and proffered the book. "Don't let it," he whispered. (As it happens Leach, the author, probably shared some of the implied misgivings as he went on to be an early champion of environmentalism).

Anyway: fast forward. I've not lost my taste for "pop" science. I'd like to understand the real "classical" stuff but the Bachs and Shostakoviches of science usually go right over my head or, at best, in one ear and out of the other. I have often enthused about things scientific to my children with the result that they sometimes buy me pretty daunting looking tomes for Christmases and birthdays. I'm making my way through a couple right now.

These arrived simultaneously: Cox and Forshaw's The Quantum Universe: Everything that can happen does happen and Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel. The first is a lucid explanation of quantum theory for the layperson who is prepared at least to try and think about it. I've got half way through and I think I know a little bit more than I did about how things may or may not be in two places at once. I made the mistake of putting it down for a couple of days which means I'll have to start it again - which I will, as the authors' explanation is compelling and I think people should have a rough grasp of what they're going on about. I hope it's where I left it.

Kaku's book, on the other hand is eminently readable. It borders on being the kind of romp which, if they're not careful, tends to get respectable scientists into trouble. However, it never quite crosses the line, as far as I can see. It does use the carrot of sensationalism to lure the reader into some pretty serious sounding scientific speculation. It ranges from asking if telepathy is possible to wondering if will we ever be able to travel to distant galaxies. The first, no: but we can increasingly interface with the brain electronically and crudely control the brain from the outside with electrical devices. The second, yes if we can build unmanned starships the size of coke-cans or even "nano-starships" the size  grains of sand, or learn to build bigger ships actually in space. The Andromeda Galaxy in 2.6 million light years away - but if we travelled at 99% the speed of light, it would only seem like 23 years to the astronauts on board (I think I've remembered that right). Performing such feats is a long, long way off - but even just thinking about it makes me think we should place more emphasis on developing manned space travel. We Earthlings scaled down our ambitions after the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, during which three of us got to spend a long weekend on the moon (moon dust smells like burnt caps from a cap gun apparently - a rather pleasant smell I've always thought). Had we carried on we'd have established a moon base and visited Mars by now. We would be contemplating voyages to places farther afield. As it is, we've developed robot missions to the planets and beyond while restricting ourselves to working in near-earth orbit. The robot missions have been fantastic -who, for example, could forget the footage of the Titan landscape sent back by the Huygens probe?

However, as I was recently watching archive footage of the Apollo 17 astronauts on the moon, it struck me how machines just can't rival the inquiring mind of a human. If the technology breaks, a human will try to fix it. If a human sees something unusual, it'll investigate it (see the "orange soil" video, below). Unmanned missions might be cheaper: but how many unmanned missions (and expensive launches) does it take to gather the information that might be gathered in one manned mission? I ask this question because I've no idea what the answer to it is.

There are those who argue that in a world where there is poverty it's impossible to justify the cost of space travel. I don't hold with this - we need to combat poverty and go into space. For all our sakes we need innovation and space travel now -as much as flint tools in the distant past- is innovation. Then there's the rather more wooly notion that to understand our place in the universe we need to explore it. In a distant future we might find we need to be up to speed on what lies out there - even if we've evolved into something else by then.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Blackstone Edge

Daniel and I went for a walk to the top of Blackstone Edge the other day, as we do from time to time. As usual, we parked by the White House Inn on the A58 and followed the Pennine Way footpath South. An icecream van has parked in a layby close to this spot for as many years as I can remember. We'd bought ourselves icecreams and were sitting in the car eating them, when we saw a crowd of 20 or more white-robed people descending the Pennine Way path from the Edge. They all piled into the cars parked around us and drove off. Daniel said he'd seen the same group on his previous visit. Intrigued, I searched the internet for any reference to white robed people on Blackstone Edge, only to discover that the group had been seen  frequently there and that other people who'd seen them were intrigued too.

I always find it fascinating the way these round basins form on the top of gritstone boulders:

The view North(ish), from the summit:

Wandering round the hilltop I was reminded of Alan Burnett's post on his News From Nowhere blog about the commemoration of a Chartist gathering there.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Young Musician Prize 2012

I don't very often get the chance to watch the BBC Young Musician competition when it's on but I did catch the end of it this year. The finalists were pianist Yuanfan Yang, cellist Laura van der Heijden and recorder player Charlotte Barbour-Condini.

Charlotte Barbour-Condini performed the Vivaldi Recorder Concerto. This was a fantastic -if unusual- performance. Barbour-Condini had incorporated cadenzas of her own which at times made the recorder sound not unlike a Japanese shakuhachi. The concerto movements themselves were played with a passion. I'm not up-to-date with current thinking on how music of that period should be played but I suspect it was not a performance for the purist. Not that I wanted it to be. She managed to make the piece into something people not otherwise into classical music might flock to listen to.

Yuanfan Yang gave an excellent account of the Grieg Piano Concerto. I think it is often the case that overplayed,"hackneyed" pieces start their lives as masterpieces and it is good sometimes to reclaim them, to try and listen to them as if they hadn't been played a million times before. However, I think he would have done himself a favour had he chosen a different work. If you want to let the world know that yours is a voice to be listened to then make the listener curious.

Which brings me on to Laura van der Heijden's winning performance of the Walton Cello Concerto. This was a very judicious choice of work, I thought. To use an overused word for the second time, it's a masterpiece of 20th century music and (unlike the Grieg) it doesn't get played enough. This wasn't just a winning performance - it was a masterly, illuminating one. Van der Heijden brought an insight to it I'd expect from an exceptional cellist twice her age (she's 15).

It's hard to imagine a better advert for classical music. The prize? £2,000. And in the week when Britain's got Talent is won by a dog. The prize? £500,000. OK, I'm not comparing like with like - the Walton is about enlightenment, while Pudsey's act is about entertainment. Both, in different ways, involve hard work.The point is I'd have given both prizewinners about £20,000 each and done a bit more to encourage viewers to turn on to Young Musician. BBC4 is a great thing. However, the space a preponderance of digital channels creates for coverage of the arts can also have the effect of sidelining the arts, as only those who know they want to watch a programme change channel and watch it.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Of Pluto and Submarines

Busy weeks can seem rather blurred when one looks back on them. Last week, for me, was a case in point. However, somewhere in among all the music teaching, kettle-boiling, shirt buttonning, teeth cleaning and car driving I managed to watch a couple of films: most recently, there was Breakfast on Pluto, an adaption of Patrick McCabe's novel of the same name. In it, for those who don't know, transgender hero Patrick "Kitten" Braden manages to stumble through the cultural and political minefield of "the troubles" in Ireland without -mainly thanks to his disarming persona- getting killed. I'd not seen it before. Having seen it and enjoyed it, I might read the novel.

Then there was Das Boot. I'd seen it before, a long time ago. I'd forgotten how spellbinding it is: a film that manages to draw one into the drama of war while at the same time leaving you in no doubt as to the tragic futility of it all. There are great performances all round: not least from the people behind the cameras, the composer of the filmscore and the orchestra who play it.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Eskdale Adventure

I sometimes wish I knew the Lake District better than I do. My rather patchy knowledge arises partly from a fixation with the number 3,000: a bit of a Munro thing, a preference -certainly the past- for walks that end at a summit over 3,000 feet high.
So it is that my knowledge of the Western side (which unless you live over there is less accessible) is a lot less well-developed than I would like it to be. I have been to Wasdale a few times and climbed the 3,000-foot Scafells from there but I had never been to Upper Eskdale, until yesterday that is, when F, N and I set off on an exploratory walk.

Upper Eskdale is enclosed by a horseshoe of impressive peaks, the highest of which are Scafell Pike and Scafell, which it shares in common with Wasdale. In the centre of the skyline a pleasingly pointed Eskdale Pike rises above the Esk River much to the satisfaction, I imagine, of people with cameras who don't want to venture too far from the thin ribbon of country lane that winds past the end of the valley.

The only way in is on foot: there are no roads, hotels or campsites within the horseshoe, only footpaths, hills, crags and the Esk River. If you want to get here by car you have to brave the Wrynose and Hardknott Passes, or take 12 miles of winding country lane from the South, or take a circuitous route around the Lake District itself to approach it from the West.

The Esk river is more of a stream than a river here and, for quite a lot of its length, takes the form of pleasantly rocky bathing pools linked by waterfalls. Next time I visit I'll take a towel. As it was, we were restricted to the banks. Much to our amazement -and amusement- as we walked up the valley, we kept running into a group of four young men dressed in helmets, T shirts and wetsuits who were swimming, gill-scrambling and tombstoning their way up the river. They were good-natured lot. They had something of a "Three Men in a Boat" aura about them (well, four in this case, and no boat) that made one feel as good to be alive as they evidently did. It's easy to be a Jeremiah where tombstoning is concerned. The Jeremiahs in this case may be right: speaking for myself, I definitely lack the nerve for it, and don't relish the idea of swapping in a split second a life spent swimming in rivers for one spent in a wheelchair. If nothing else though, these guys certainly made a good case for the importance of having fun.

We stopped for lunch by the side of a rocky pool before tackling the steepest part of the walk. This turned out to be not particularly arduous: it soon emerged in a high basin overlooked by the highest local peaks, Scafell and Scafell Pike, which is an imposing presence seen from this side. One of the joys of walking for me is the discovery of high, secluded valleys in which signs of habitation are invisible and which are accessible only through a certain amount of effort. My imagination being prone to hyperbole, I was reminded in this case of Shipman and Tilman's discovery of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary.

The summits of these mountains were not our objective on this occasion. We crossed the the Esk by teetering over the dry tops of its rapids, thankfully without falling in, and made our way back via a different, high-level path. The mountain tops were free of cloud. The air was sharp and clear and the peaks of the hills that surrounded us stood out in a continuous line, inviting one to walk along it: Scafell, Scafell Pike, Ill Crag, Eskdale Pike, Bowfell, Crinkle Crags. Not today. Walking the "Eskdale Horseshoe" will have to wait -but not for too long, I hope.

Thursday, 3 May 2012


As part of my work, I'm currently trying to make a list for my own use of  pieces of classical music that might kindle the interest of young people in the genre. This is one I'm certainly putting on it.

Claude Debussy wrote Syrinx for solo flute in 1913. The original Syrinx, for anyone who doesn't know, was a nymph in classical mythology.Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she found herself on a riverbank. She asked for the assistance of the river nymphs, who obliged by turning her into hollow reeds that made a haunting sound when the breath of the frustrated god blew across them...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Lost Fire Brigade

I thought I'd start an occasional series of reviews of poetry books from the rather random collection I've built up over the years. I had the idea when I fished out this book, looking for a poem I remembered from it. It was -is- a rather brutal, surreal poem and it's from The Lost Fire Brigade by Spike Hawkins:

lights seen

The rainbow hid in the car
Until the car stopped and
the man got out
and threw away his entire

Spike Hawkins was born in 1943 and The Lost Fire Brigade was published in that year when so much else happened, 1968. The poem I've just quoted is fairly typical: short, surreal and with a twist of dry wit. Several of the poems were anthologised by Michael Horowitz in Children of Albion. Edward Lucie-Smith included the poems Hawkins is most well-known for -his "Three Pig Poems"-  in British Poetry Since 1945.

The book has a real whiff of the world so brilliantly portrayed in the film Withnail and I. Indeed, had there been a role for a poet in that film, it would have had to have been Spike Hawkins:

put britain back

    for the arts council

Welcome poverty
I love you

The clue to the title of the book, too, is in this poem. In 1967, a group of protesting poets had lit a fire outside the headquarters of the Arts Council. put britain back was certainly topical but my favourite poem in the book is brown light, with its musical ending, in which "a flurry" of sandwiches:

...finally dropped at my feet
Their springs broken
Like small fishes panting clank

If I didn't already have a copy, would I buy it? Undoubtedly yes, and not only for its value as a historical artefact, which is not inconsiderable in my opinion. As Adrian Mitchell said, "Hawkins is an unclassifiable, moon-tanned animal who was banned from Noah's Ark and so decided to start his own Deluge." However, if I found it in a second hand bookshop next to Horovitz' Children of Albion: Poetry of the 'Underground' in Britain and was forced (by dint of a lack of cash) to buy one or the other, I'd go for the Horovitz. Horovitz made an excellent job of picking the wittiest and pithiest of Hawkins' fragmentary poems.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Blogospherical Encounter

I've visited the Pennine town of Hebden Bridge many times over the years. I found myself there again yesterday, kicking myself as usual for not contacting blogger Tony Zimnoch to see if he fancied meeting up (Tony also writes a Hebden Bridge blog). I decided enough was enough. Somehow or other, I'd find him. For a moment I felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes. Surely, it would be easy enough to do if I applied a bit of ingenuity. It actually didn't take that much. It just so happened that at that moment I found myself outside Hebden Bridge library. Of course, they'd have a local telephone directory. I went in, asked for it and flipped through it straight to the last page. There he was.

I found his house easily. He was in and we spent a very pleasant three-quarters of an hour chatting. We both had to get on after that: he had a curry to make and I had a dog to collect. We resolved to meet again for pint, if possible with the other local blogger known to us both, Alan Burnett, or to drop in should we be passing each other.

 Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera but Tony did, so he snapped me and posted the results on his blog. I was slow on the uptake - my ingenuity, such as it is, obviously hasn't caught up with the digital age. I could have borrowed his camera and asked him to email any pictures I took to me! Oh well.


This morning, I got up with a crazy urge to jump in the car, drive off and climb a mountain. Any mountain would do - probably in the Lake District, somewhere around Ullswater. However, according to the Met Office the weather had other ideas: a double dose of rain and gale-force wind before lunch and the same again after was not appealing. So here I am, sat at the laptop in front of the electric fire, writing a blogpost with half an eye on The Belles of St Trinians.