Sunday, 26 August 2012

Out of the lion's mouth?

The title of my blog came from a little truth-or-dare story I wrote as a teenager. The lion's mouth was carved from stone and located in a Mediterranean possibly Italianate city, for where else in the world would such an object be located?

In a sense it was oracular. People came to ask it questions but it never spoke. Those who dared put their hand in the lion's mouth and legend had it that if they entertained falsehood the lion's jaws would clamp shut on their wrists.

The reason I brought this up is that yesterday I discovered via Google that there was a novel published in 1917 called 'Virgilia, or Out Of The Lion's Mouth' by a writer called Felicia Buttz Clark (it's a free Kindle download), so I thought it timely to explain the origins of the title. I've not yet read it but think it's set in ancient Rome on the cusp between paganism and the beginnings of Christianity.

But that's not my story.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Flames and Flowers

I remember when I wrote this I was captivated by the poems of Pablo Neruda:

You lit a flame within-
Unaccountable rhythm of my soul,
Moving the tides of my identity
To a land-locked conclusion.
Blood of my blood that sings
Like a bird in my skull.
Simple heart that I hold;
My hands are warm with you.
If words mean nothing, my love,
Then let us talk like mutes;
Writing on windows
Condensation of our love.
Writing on walls
Illustration of our feelings.
Walking on pavements,
Listening to pomegranates
And radio symphonies
As orchids bloom in your hair
With the wildness of woodland dreams.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Music criticism

Notes toward an evaluation of music criticism.

01. Every piece of music has an intrinsic value for someone.

02. It is impossible to impose an impartial value system on any performance of music, whether recorded or live.

03. Each one of us has their own value system, based on their own likes and dislikes.

04. Sometimes the individual's value system overlaps with the value system of others.

05. Every value system is shaped by the society we live in and the tools it uses (institutions and media) to empower its ideology.

06. But we have the individual choice of joining cores of enthusiasts (peer groups) outside the ideology of the power structure, where our value systems can overlap with people of similar tastes and preferences.

07. We also have the choice of being open-minded- a floating value system, if you like- of being free not to choose. This, however, denies the selection process essential to logical thought, or places us in the realms of the arbitrary.

08. The value systems we use can either inhibit or liberate us, though, by the nature of the value system being a system, they would tend to inhibit us.

09. A newly adopted or forged value system then CAN initially liberate us but by nature eventually ossifies and inhibits the user. Every value system is inherently entropic.

10. In an ideal world the value of music criticism should be to inform and educate the listener/audient, to widen and stretch their existing value systems.

11. In reality the writings of a music critic say more about the value systems of the writer than about the music.

12. The published observations on a piece of music or a musician by a music critic attach themselves to, and become part of, that music or performance without the consent of the composer or musician. That is the price of positive endeavour, that it attracts a negative or inappropriate opinion.

13. The audient/listener can have their perception of the music coloured (or muddied) by the observations of the music critic. It is very difficult to listen to music with open ears.

14. To be truly receptive to new music (this term also means music unfamiliar to the listener as well as freshly penned music) one has to be disciplined to listen only to the 'voice' of the music, and no other voices can be allowed to intrude.

15. The audient/listener discovers new music either through contact with their peer group, or through the media. This music will then already be encoded with values, some appropriate to the new piece, some inappropriate. The listener may decide to listen or not to listen to new music based on the encoded information. Inevitably this information will colour the listening experience; the degree of t(a)inting depends on whether the listener can follow the 'voice' of the music without the background noise of encoded information.

16. The music itself is already loaded with cultural signifiers, creating a specific set of expectations. The signifiers may be in the instrumental scoring used or in the styles or forms of music adopted. A string quartet, a sitar and tabla, a symphony, a Wurlitzer organ, a waltz, a brass band, an opera, a country & western ballad, a pavane: already we have certain expectations of form, shape, colouring. Already we are making decisions based on our preferences.

17. The composer or performer working within the western musical tradition may feel inhibited by the burden of these cultural signifiers. It is only by looking between the notes and beyond the enclosed resonances of the notes that one can lose the inhibitions and let go.

When music does this, it touches a realm beyond language.

Neil Talbott
(see also Dr David C Wright and 'I hear music...' elsewhere in this blog. Also well worth exploring are the blogs 'On an overgrown path' and 'The rest is noise')

Saturday, 18 August 2012

I had a project to paint masks. This acrylic was based on various photos from the Gulf War.

Gentlemen , do you like blondes or redheads? Well, here's the best of both worlds.

Friday, 17 August 2012

You don't have to know

Maybe you don't have to know much about nature to appreciate it. What I mean is that learning all the fancy names of the plants and animals still doesn't capture the way a bird holds its wings to its body and defies gravity for an instant, or the simple miracle of the dandelion which begins life airborne as a seed on a parachute, trusting its destination to the whim of summer winds. If you could only focus on that simplicity, and then retain it; but no, it slips away and the burden of personal knowledge obscures the vision.

Trying to hold fast to a particular view in memory- of hills rolling out to invisibility, or the slant of sunlight through a pine forest, or the comforting roughness of the ground over which insects move oblivious of your intrusion into their world; these are remembered more as windows of stillness through which break the sound of a wood dove soothing the atmosphere, or the remote sound of voices littering forest paths which in turn absorb and leach away all meaning until the voices are as brittle and fragile as paper-thin porcelain.

I am in Leicester sitting under a tree in a park, reading, but I am not in Leicester. The tree I sit under and the immediate area of ground I occupy have been planted into the landscape of the novel, and I look out for someone- a stranger, but someone I know- to come up the rise towards me.

He will point at the book I'm reading as he stands over me and I will show him the title. He will nod in approval and sit near me without asking, without saying a word, because he is in his own world, and I in mine.

His attention is diverted by the view anyway. I clear my throat but still he does not turn. I look at the back of his neck, black hair curling on a blue check shirt, before returning to my book.

The sun goes behind clouds and I look up. I never heard the man move but he has gone. I stand up and look around the tree but he is nowhere in sight.

I shrug, close my book and run down the green slope, skipping when I think no one is looking. A cold beer waits in the fridge, and a phone call from a friend.

A Little Night Music

It was music I had in mind when I wrote this. But it's also about fear, loneliness, hope and perhaps redemption.

Wired to the centre,
You approach the house
With a certain feeling
Of apprehension.

Dark wings unfolding-
A face shines in the night,
A warm wind snags fretfully
When you open the door.

Elegant music:
A roomful of strangers,
A quartet of tantalising women
Who smile: skull-white roses.

One who approaches
With a glance that robs you
Of the right to be alone,
Thief of your withered soul.

Sound of the knife-edge,
Your emotions are keyed.
The accidentals are random;
A theme soars in anguish.

Wingspan of the milk-flecked sky,
You bank and wheel in the high winds.
Talons of gold, feathers of blood,
The stars that were never there before.

Bird of power and grace ascending,
Turn your face to this wan world;
Remember the dead ones,
And pity the living.

Clouds of midges

They are not oriented to me, the observer. No awareness of me on their paths of perception. There may be a central point round which they spin, hover, cut trajectories; this point could be held by a single midge, but this is not apparent. Or- there may be a knot of cool air molecules, or a static twist of a scent that holds them in its orbit, or a flux in time.

Is this your car, sir?

As a parking attendant my duty is to look at car interiors (for tickets or permits not displayed correctly).
The appearance of a car's interior can give a lot away about their drivers. Baby seats and bibs, CDs, books, letters, bills, unfinished lunches, toddlers' outfits, coats, hats, baseball caps, gloves, work overalls, scarves, shawls, sports equipment, vests and shorts, tracksuits, shopping bags, hand-written notes, discarded parking fines, paper tissues, tools, pens, umbrellas, hanging car ornaments/beads/figurines/toys, window stickers promoting causes/passions/silliness/tastelessness, seat covers, blankets, flowers, sunglasses and so on.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. Such a rich diversity of human characteristics on display: each car interior is an open book waiting to be read.

Robert Simpson

The issue I had with Robert Simpson"s music was that it was too intensely cerebral. Also I don't always agree with his choice of composers he champions. Nielsen and Beethoven fine; but Bruckner?
The music itself? Words like integrity, strength of purpose and stubborn refusal to be anything but his own man occur. His music takes no prisoners. It can be stern and uncompromising but also visionary and startlingly violent at times in a cosmic Varesian sense. If the above summary makes it sound humourless, then in a general sense it is but Simpson's music does display small doses of wit and charm. And the music is also intensely physical.

Monday, 6 August 2012

A bedtime story for your children

This one concerned a rather snooty monkey called Michael. He was a rather clever chap who, though he liked swinging through the trees as much as any of his species, did not like mixing with his fellow monkeys; partly due to his superior intelligence. He liked to be alone to think out things for himself.

One day he decided to break out of the rain forest and ended on the coast where he encountered a lighthouse. Now being an intelligent monkey he knew what lighthouses were about, they were places where you could be all alone and no-one would bother you. So he went along and knocked on the door and asked the lighthouse keeper for a job. The keeper told him he could clean the lights mirrors and the outer windows but couldn't pay him much.

All I need is a regular supply of bananas said the monkey.

We don't get much call for bananas here said the lightthouse keeper.

So what do you eat, asked the monkey.

Mostly fish said the keeper. So Michael the monkey said he would have to think about that, but decided to go back to his rainforest.

Anyway he built a lighthouse in the middle of the rainforest, on a platform in the trees he erected a tower with spiralling steps and a candle and mirrors at the top. The other monkeys ignored him and went about his business, though the other animals were curious to observe.

The first night Michael lit his beacon and stood duty was the most terrifying he had ever experience because the light attracted the most vicious carnivorous beasts from miles around. The roars and wails and hoots had him quivering in a corner and it was only when the beacon went out and the morning sun came up that it ws safe for him to flee his construction.

Michael was now beginning to wish he had more support for his endeavours, friends even, but was at aloss at first to know how to break out of his isolation. So he went back to his lighthouse tower in the daytime, knowing what an act of folly it was to build it. Who wants a lighthouse in the middle of a rainforest. There are no dangerous seas and no ships to be wrecked on rocky shores.

While he was up there in his lonely tower he noticed a pillar of smoke rising up in the distance and being a bright monkey he knew what it was. So he rushed down and told the other members of the local monkey troop what he'd seen but they just laughed at him.

However the laughter didn't last long when news came of a raging fire in the rainforest and the wind was blowing it their way. They soon fled with the rest of the animals, and thereafter learned to respect Michael's opinion, and even offer their friendship when they realised his value as an individual in their community.

vignette- a transcendental moment

Sunday 6th May 1979…Awoke to the warm glow of sunlight filling the room and the sounds of nothing – not even birdsong. It was 8:30. I felt as if someone had performed a lobotomy while I was in the grip of an alcoholically induced sleep. I drank too much beer last night and I felt quite convinced that a piece of my brain had been removed. I keep telling myself to give up drinking – it does me no good. The after effects are always bad.


To clear my head I decided to go for a walk in Abbey Park, and something rather strange happened.


I was standing in a tree-shaded walk overlooking the boating lake feeling relaxed and at peace with the world, listening to the water lapping, a counterpoint of birdsong, people laughing in the distance, the rustling sound of the trees about me and a faint buzzing sound which I could not identify but was either an insect or a more distant model airplane.


I looked at the boating lake, the ducks wading in the shallows, a minnow darting through the water, foraging for food, the reflection of sun through branches. I was totally open to everything around me. I had never ever felt so hypersensitive before this moment. My hands were tingling in my jacket pockets, so I brought them out slowly as if they were precious objects to be handled with reverence. They felt heavy but I wanted to lift them high, to outstretch my arms. However I felt, even then, a little restricted by my self-consciousness. So I simply stood absolutely still and rested my tingling hands on the rough fence before me. It was covered with pine needles, lichen and bird droppings.


Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a feeling of immense calm expansiveness, and my body felt as if it were beginning to fall away and I was about to soar upwards above the trees, and over the lake. But just as abruptly the transcendental moment was broken, and I was jerked back. I realised that I had closed my eyes, and thus opened them again, fixing my gaze on some people in a boat coming towards me, and knew it was over – that moment of supreme self-forgetfulness, that near-merging with everything.


It was beautiful, deeply moving. I felt awed, privileged to have had such an experience. Wish I could have described it better but even now my head is unclear. Still, it was extraordinary and very real.

A character study - a night at an English pub (vignette from the late '70s)

Our local pub is full of interesting characters. No doubt everyone has a local pub full of interesting characters but time and many pints of bitter have perhaps given me more insight into, and certainly more familiarity with, the type of people that frequent my local rather than any other locale.

My wife D and her family – mother, father and sister Z all drink in the bar and always in the same corner, naturally right against the bar, rotating between this and an infernal fruit machine. Blind John Bedford is always placed in the corner space between the bar and the fruit machine but he remains a silent witness to the comings and goings; he never acts as referee. I think of him as a beer-bellied Buddha, calm in his contemplation of his disability, cheerfully accepting the blows that fate have dealt him; and he enjoys the coarse repartee far more heartily than I ever could.

The Chillies (that is, my in-laws and my wife) enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the fruit machine. They give to it freely and it gives a show and the occasional token gesture, a spin of the fruits cascading into finality keeping its worshippers in suspense- just that little bit more and we might hit the jackpot. The machine is a big tease- always about to give them everything but –no – it holds out and in the end takes all that they gave in the first place. So the machine is a character; a god with its worshippers, a mother that takes all but never gives, a dream machine and at the end of the rainbow of lemons, oranges, bells, grapes, plums is a mythical jackpot: a stealer of souls? A jackanapes? A villain in armour: tarot-marked pennants luring the gullible? No more of this hateful machine, on with the cavalcade of characters…

There’s Bill who could be mistaken for Picasso, and Des looking lean and permed, and Manuel who is how you imagine a Manuel but best of all there’s Jim the Miller, and easily my favourite character.

Jim is an ageless figure, over sixty but youthful looking with his trim figure and face which is handsomely etched and tanned like a Punch with his fleshy nose.

Jim comes in, looking dapper in his blazer and with his ageless smile says ‘hello, me ducky’ and puts his hand on your cheek to illustrate how cold it is outside tonight. ‘A bit nippy’ he usually says as he rubs his hands vigorously together.

‘All right, Jim?’ we ask jovially.

‘Still breathing, me ducky; still breathing’ he laughs as he pulls out his pipe, a dark piece of gnarled wood with a bent mouthpiece, the bowl of the pipe as handsomely etched as Jim’s own mahogany features.

Jim uses his hands in the most natural God-given daily task – gardening. He retains a freshness, a love of life itself because he holds an unsullied view of all living things; an old man but youthful, un-withered by the canker of cynicism that attacks the least and most among us. Jim saying ‘the older you get the faster the years fly by! You know, it goes like lightning’ without rancour.

I reply ‘frightening really’ but I could see he was unperturbed. To him the escalating passage of time was a natural thing, as natural as the seasons that fly by in their cycles of death and rebirth, as natural as the growth of a plant from a seed given the care of his hands, sunshine and rain; as natural as the clouds scudding across the sky.

But me – I was frightened by the image of a carousel accelerating so fast it flung you wild and fast away, away to be brought short and smashed like a limp doll. I felt time knotting up in my stomach, and I was going to say to Jim ‘with the days slipping by like that as fast as greased lightning don’t you ever think of the time you’ve wasted; because I do. My God, I do.’ But I recognised the question was superfluous to him and he could read the question in my eyes, and I could see his answer. I felt humbled for that moment.

‘Ooh yes, the Fridays come and go just like that. You don’t notice the other days, boy. Oh, no.’

‘Did you see the film last night, Jim?’ He cocks his head, sucks his pipe. You go on ‘the one with Cary Grant in.’

‘Ooh yes, that was a good ‘un. I like a good film, you know.’ Jim laughs often and his Adam’s apple bobbles as if sharing the joke. ‘Of course – the old stars, boy. There’s nobody around to beat them nowadays. Your new stars, boy- rubbish, ooh yes. A good plot and a bit of entertainment, that’s what we used to get. None of this sex and violence rubbish, me ducky. Oh no.’

You don’t argue because, corny as they were, the old films do still retain a certain ‘magic’ with their sugary naivety.

When we go home from the pub the stars are hard and bright in the night sky, our alcohol and hops-tinged exhalations plumes of luminous steam.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Wearing the world

The hiker.

He had been out of his head for a long time now, and it seemed as if he would never return. 

The scent wafting from the undulating grasses made him feel almost delirious, but he pushed on for he wanted to reach the base of the mountains by nightfall, and the narcotic effect of the grasses made him apprehensive about stopping for even a short rest.

The trail he followed thrust ahead like a crooked stick of ebony lightning against the rich creaminess of the veldt. It must have been cut by generations of migrating animals. A vein of hope through this landscape, a portent perhaps of what lay ahead. Despite the glowering purple height far ahead and the track he followed the view was one of unbroken monotony. 

He was now in the heart of the country; only a handful of men had penetrated this far inland before. Of these, only two men had ever returned, and they had said little of their adventures- and they only had small pebbles, for which they nevertheless made extravagant claims, as evidence of their journeys.
It was rumoured that these chips of glacial debris, which the scientific media labelled 'the dreaming stones' possessed telekinetic  powers. Some had claimed to have seen the stones levitating and passing through walls and persons with no damage occurring to either. Others had heard the stones speak. Unfortunately, most of these apocryphal tales originated from gossip and folk legends and were not given much credence generally. Other men like to keep their dreams to themselves: the two who  had returned from The Heartland died with theirs, and the stones were not found among their belongings.

The backpack troubled the hiker, its straps chafing his aching shoulders. He was hot and uncomfortable and his throat tight and dry from the pollen of the grasses. He longed for water but the supply in his canteen was perilously low. Goaded by his own dreams the hiker dragged his weary frame on towards the beckoning mountains.

Eventually he came to a halt, despite fears of the grasses' narcotic effects overwhelming him, and took a mouthful of water with a savoury rusk.

While he rubbed an analgesic ointment into his raw shoulders he looked back across the expanse of the grasslands. The monotony of the landscape was really an illusion he thought now he had come to pause and let his eyes linger over it. Though, apart from the hewn track, there was little evidence of local fauna, the sea of grass had a corporate existence of its own, its own repertoire of sounds- nearby rustlings as individual stalks jostled for position, and a hushed whisper in the background where the voices of the soft wind and a myriad grasses sang together in a chorus of almost infinite numbers in an hypnotically endless song.

And it moved like the fur pelt of some huge exotic beast breathing in its  sleep, the soft but persistent winds furrowing illusory paths through the expanses of grass, revealing a muted band of shades passing from off-white to a tawny gold.
The hiker found that the soul of the veldt was getting to him, communicating its euphoric seductiveness, and he felt a lingering contentment.

He heard someone calling to him, a human voice, other voices shouting from a far off place, and there was a shape- not very distinct- coming toward him through the rolling yellow grass. He shook his delirious head and looked again, but there was nothing but the endless veldt, the fierce eye of the sun, and the dreaming wind. And...the mountains. The hiker forced himself to his feet again.

The writer

He had been out of his head for a long time now.
He returned to his surroundings, perceiving the typewriter before him and the open window through which floated the aroma of  newly-mown grass and woodsmoke from a bonfire, the cup of cold coffee and the burnt out cigarette in the ashtray. 

He looked at the photograph of his wife on his desk and tried to blank her out from his thoughts. Her sudden departure two days before had upset his writing routine; his daily quota of words had dropped to about five hundred. The novel he was working on seemed a superfluous thing, the words he laboured over futile sound symbols. Even the threat of unpaid bulks accumulating could not spur him on. He rise to make fresh coffee.

As he returned to his desk the telephone rang. He picked it up and said without thinking 'Jane?'. It was a woman's voice, but not hers. Monica, one of Jane's closer friends. He told her about Jane's sudden flight and asked her to let him know if she heard anything, for Jane had left no message, and most of her clothes were still in the flat. Monica muttered a few reassuring noises before ringing off.

He felt empty- washed up- with the receiver purring in his hand.

Minutes later another cup of coffee was turning cold on his desk.

The hiker.

At first he was unable to recollect where he was but, as his head cleared, he remembered it was past dusk when he has bedded down among the rocks and had been unable to see enough to make out the lie of the land. Besides, he had felt too tired and hazy to care much about his surroundings after the trek across the grasslands.

He took stock of his surroundings- there was scant vegetation, some mosses and lichen clinging to volcanic rocks (probably a rhyolite), yet there was something about their texture that reminded him of granite: a strange hybrid moulded by unknown natural forces. There were straggly clumps of the narcotic cereal in little fertile pockets amidst the rocks but generally the immediate area looked quite arid. Many of the dips and crevices in the rocks were water-filled and, after tentatively tasting the water in one of the rock pools he bathed his face and drank greedily.

The land sloped gently upward toward the mountain for about half a mile before rapidly increasing in precipitation and soaring to about four thousand feet above the plain. He could not see any accessible gaps along the base of the mountain. There was no alternative but to tackle the slope head on. It was a sombre thing to look at, a soaring slab of rusted grey rock like a bird of prey with outstretched wings ready to launch its huge granitic mass into the still, clear air.

After traversing the half mile through that barren terrain he fastened crampons to his boots and pulled on a sweater because he was already beginning to feel a drop in temperature. The first part of his ascent was an easy uphill walk but halfway up the incline became so steep he had to use handholds to pull his body upward.

After groping and scrabbling on the rock face for what seemed an interminably long time he had the fortune to find a narrow ledge that seemed to lead all the way up to the summit. 

The ledge stopped abruptly twenty feet from the top and the hiker nearly lost his foothold. He swore in frustration and his legs trembled a little when he looked down the sheer precipice.

He had reached his first impasse. He knew he couldn't go on because his body ached from the last part of the climb, and there seemed to be no way forward. Securing himself to a piton on the rock face he rested on the ledge.

If he had had enough pitons he could have climbed the vertical wall above quite easily, but he only had three which he needed to use again. His only choice was to retrace his steps along the ledge and see if another way would reveal itself.

The hiker's hopes were restored when he found a way twenty yards down the ledge. At that point there was a crack in the rock face wide enough to admit him about nine feet above the ledge. If he could drive one piton in about halfway up then he could hoist his frame up into that crack, where he had a hunch he would find a gap or chimney leading to the top.

Half an hour later he squeezed out of the top of the rock chimney onto the summit.

The view on the farther side at once excited and dismayed him. A vast volcanic crater gaped at the sky like the charred eye socket of a corpse. At its centre lay the silvered lens of a lake, a receptacle for the nebulous threads if waterfalls weeping down the crater wall on the far side. There were no trees or vegetation, but an air of oppression hung over the area, full of the funereal shadows of black basalt. It was a place he thought where men go to die, where souls lie heavy in the crater floor, beneath the water. And he felt as if his bones had turned to lead as he picked his way down the scree-covered slope.

(notes: I like this and can now see ways of spinning this out further. Who is the hiker. How did  he get to setting off on this trip. Why are the heartlands relatively unexplored? Why aren't they harvested for their narcotic properties? Are there letters and other documentation to be quoted from. Where does he go to next and who will he meet and what other dangers await him?)