Bookends…

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If gale-force Fortune sweeps you off you feet,

let it; ride it; and admit defeat.

 

There’s no point in resisting; it’s too strong –

willy-nilly, you’ll get swept along.

 

Palladas. Tony Harrrison

 

It was an unseasonably warm October night. The high winds of the midweek had ceased and it was still. My own turmoil was resting, licking its wounds, trying to heal itself. This was the second time we had ventured out on a Saturday evening to see my favourite poet. The first time had been a wrong call; I got the month wrong. Perhaps my father was right when he insisted that I was dateless. My wife shares this acute judgement of the strange being that is her husband. A month late, but on time, I prayed that the firmaments were now in line.

The last time that I attended a reading of his poetry was almost thirty years ago. I had gone along with a good friend and sat suitably in awe of the greatest light in modern poetry. I considered him to be one of us (UZ) rather than one of them. I came from working-class roots and confronted the received-wisdom that denied the masses so that the few could prosper. It was through his poetry that I found mine. I also found a torch that lit up the tunnels in which I could work away at the foundations of that which chose to imprison me.

It was Harrison’s School of Eloquence that originally pulled me in:

How you became a poet’s a mystery!

Wherever did you get your talent from?

I say: I had two uncles,Joe and Harry –

one was a stammerer, the other dumb.

Heredity

 

If my father had ever written verse, I would have liked it to have been like this. My dad was a realist, not a dreamer like his son. He could not waste words on silly rhymes; life was too short and there was work to be done. So, I took Tony Harrison at his word(s) and made him my surrogate muse. Each time I came across well-trodden feet, I stopped in wonder at the things I had previously not seen. It was like waking-up for the first time, every time, and seeing the world afresh.

I was saddened and surprised by how few people had turned-out to listen to the Rhubarb Bard. There was a time when he was admired as ‘one of the most prodigiously gifted and accessible poets’ alive. He could ”speak the language” that he spoke at home, but use the form of sonnets to drive his point home at the same time. When I first read him, it was at the behest of Mary Eagleton, the sister of Terry Eagleton, another well-read socialist interpreter of higher learning. I was like Tony’s uncle; “mouth all stuffed with glottals”. My public reading had never been good, even if I did have the accent to suit the verse. After tripping through his lines, I went home to sit in my undergraduate bedsit and study his words. They were mine.

That was years and years ago in the long, long ago that will not disappear.

Tony Harrison came to the front of the small gathering, apologised for not having his microphone attached, had it attached, then shuffled the white pages of his world of words. We were in Beverley Minster, a grand building that has been used by TV companies to ape its better known cousin, the palace of Saint James. And Tony, though not in the pulpit, was at the front. When he started to read, I fell into the time between the pages and saw not an old man, now gone eighty, but the Tony Harrison of some forty years before. I caught myself mouthing the words that he was speaking and realised that I was performing an act of devotion. I nodded when lines long deep in my own memory were recited. Other people disappeared into the shadows of the ancient hall and there was Harrison speaking directly from within me.

My fellow audience members were probably retired teachers; their sensible clothes suggested as much. I recognised faces from the past and shared a greeting or two. Nobody applauded when he reached then end of individual poems. My hands were itching to give him a warm ovation, but to my shame I followed the crowd. It was like being at an opera or classical concert. Everything Harrison stood for was being filtered into their sense of the world. I actually wanted to cheer and to shout encouragement or agreement, but I merely nodded and mouthed the words I knew.

At the end of the reading, there was a little Q&A. An interviewer asked generic questions about poems that had been written decades before. It was obvious and a little puerile. I filled a void of silence when I held the microphone to tell him that I was pleased that it was being held in that setting as I had worshipped him as a poet. The wife said that that was a little corny and she was right. But at least it was honest.

A question that wasn’t asked, but was partly addressed by the poet, was about the impact he had had through his writing. At its point, his eyes fell towards the floor and he thought for a moment.

“The world has gone back to what it was like back then. I thought it would have changed. I hoped that it would have got better, but it’s back to where it was. Isn’t that what history teaches us? And we never learn.”

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“…what’s between’s

not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.”

 

 

Monkeys, Mirrors, Metacognition, And Me…

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“You should take a long look at yourself in the mirror,” anybody could have said. 

It could be a case of: not completely liking what you see, liking it a little to much, or not even recognising that the thing in front of you is actually you. 

There are times when I look deeply into the person who stares at me from the mirror and I try to see if we are truly as one. If I look long enough, I see the image bleed-out its precision until only a blur stands before me. Eyes change, mouth changes, hair changes until I am an amorphous mass with out any meaning. I have to blink in order to resume normality.

From Science:

Strange as it might seem, not all animals can immediately recognize themselves in a mirror. Great apes, dolphins, Asian elephants, and Eurasian magpies can do this—as can human kids around age 2. Now, some scientists are welcoming another creature to this exclusive club: carefully trained rhesus monkeys. The findings suggest that with time and teaching, other animals can learn how mirrors work, and thus learn to recognize themselves—a key test of cognition.

“It’s a really interesting paper because it shows not only what the monkeys can’t do, but what it takes for them to succeed,” says Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College in New York City, who has given the test to dolphins and Asian elephants in other experiments.

The mirror self-recognition test (MSR) is revered as a means of testing self-awareness. A scientist places a colored, odorless mark on an animal where it can’t see it, usually the head or shoulder. If the animal looks in the mirror and spontaneously rubs the mark, it passes the exam. Successful species are said to understand the concept of “self” versus “other.”

By Virginia Morell

 

I found it interesting that humans did not actually have this cognitive skill inherent in their circuitry whereas other animals do. It’s taken me a goodly time to realise that the person in the mirror is actually me and not some distant memory.

It appears that the little rhesus needs to be trained to accept that the thing it is looking at is itself and not another. And when it looks around the edge of its reflection, there is nothing there. Other creatures have an initial reaction that oscillates between fear, surprise, and aggression. Yet writers have often journeyed into that territory beyond the mirror, that otherness, and that is where I have been for this last year and a half.

It is that otherness that lies through the looking glass that has helped me to rediscover that self that almost became extinct (before I wondered in and through the false assumption that a mirror is just some frame of material that reflects light rather than absorbing it).

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

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Must dash now.. I’m late for something that is very important.

 

 

 

 

Theft and the Tragic Cycle

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The thing about coincidences is that they do tend to happen, if only by coincidence. Take my daughter’s bike for example; as somebody did the other day.

In the great pantheon of stealing, bike theft comes in at a very low ranking.

If Aristotle was to pronounce upon it, he would state that bikes in themselves cannot be seen as tragic. Bikes are not high status and therefore do not deserve to be invested with tragic qualities. The theft of a bike is the taking of a shell from the seashore.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, may have been a secret cyclist, if they had had them in his day. He could have written a play about Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins and his tragic flaw. A working title could have been, Measure for Measure in Plastic Bags. Other great writers may have also wanted to add to the genre with EM Forster and his Froome With A View, Alan Silitoe and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Ride, and Robert Pirsig’s, Men and The Art of Road Bike Maintenance. How the world would have spun on its axle.

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And this is where coincidence rears its expected head. As well as being a coincidence that these great writers of our shared cultural past did not write one word on the travails of  turning the wheels (or having them stolen), it was a coincidence that on the morning of the bike theft that my wife and I deleted photographs of the bike in question from my iPhone. They had been there in order to sell it. It didn’t sell, but we don’t have to worry about that now – do we?

One last addition to the growing list of Tour de Force literature could well have been Lord of the Big Ring by a bloke called Tolkien.

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I do hope that bike burglar meets his Mordor.

Win At All Costs! Or Not…

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Eugene Christophe Tour de France

I always associate the Tour de France with colour. Firstly, there are the colourful fields of sunflowers that have come to symbolise this yearly adventure and then there are the team kits. In 1919, just after the slaughter of the Great War, the Tour set about its pilgrimage around the departments of France. As money was in short supply and industry had not yet recovered from the black and white of conflict, dyes, ironically, were not in abundance. So, the decision was made to wear grey. The problem here was that if everyone looked the same, how could anybody identify the race leader as the peloton flashed past? The answer was to kit the leader out in a different coloured shirt, yellow.

It was the Frenchman, Eugene Christophe who was presented with the first ever maillot jaune after he had led the race for several stages with only five to go. Some in the watching crowd thought this rather amusing as the poor bicyclist looked like a canary so, they laughed. Christophe was non-too impressed. This, after all, was his renaissance as he had been denied victory in the 1913 race through an unfortunate series of events. Christophe had taken the lead from Odile Defraye of Belgium and was building a commanding overall lead when he was hit by a stray motorcar. Remember that this was 1913.

Anyway, the upshot of this was that Christophe was unhurt, but his front fork had been snapped in two. As many cyclists appreciate, bodies can heal themselves but bikes cannot. I’ve seen plenty of cyclists take a tumble, tear off skin, splinter bones, and bleed, but the first thing many of them do is to check that their bike is alright. Cyclists are a selfless sect.

Poor old Christophe’s race was run, but he was accepting non of it. Instead of throwing in the towel, he threw his injured bike onto his back and ran eight-and-a-half to the next village, where he found a forge. Like many of his ilk, he was a skilled mechanic and was able to forge a new fork. He ought to have received a jersey just for that! However, he made the mistake of asking a seven-year-old boy to work the bellows that fed the flames. Never play with flames in the Tour de France unless you wish to be caught and punished (eventually…ask Lance Armstrong).  As a result of his ingenuity, Christophe was penalised 10-minutes for using outside assistance.

You would think that this story deserved a happy ending, but it didn’t get one. In the 1919 race he broke his forks and came third. Again, in 1922, he was in the top three contending the race when…guess what? Yup, the bloody fork snapped again. It would appear that no matter how hard you try, no mater how good you are, or how unlucky you have been, sometimes destiny does not smile on you.

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Going nowhere on a tragic cycle…

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The problem with tragedy is that it never has a happy ending.

Tragedy ends in death.

It starts with a bad decision, leads on to disgrace and downfall, scrapes you through a period of suffering that appears never likely to end before there is a realisation, ‘Fuck, that’s what I did wrong’ or, ‘Fuck, I still don’t know what I did wrong.’ Regardless of self-awareness or not, the tragic circle wants to play itself out.

You, if you be the tragic hero, have been brought low for a reason: hubris, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia, or just the fact that the unknown gods are wanting to have a bit of fun with your oh-so-mortal concerns, once it happens, you are doomed.

And then you die.

Not fair, but then apart from democracy what did the Greeks ever do for fairness? As far as I can see, they spent their time in white sheets, bestriding the known world, creating stories that spoke of our eventual doom, admiring each others’ butts and keeping their wives in a state of servitude that made slavery look humanitarian. Deeply flawed themselves, the enlisted a guy called Aristotle to run out a series of rules that would govern the purity of tragedy. It wasn’t the Bee Gees but it did stay at number one for an awful long time.

So, Mr Morbid philosopher, why is it that you are so interested with me at this moment in time?

Reminders of tragedy surround me. I walk into a school or college and Macbeth springs out. Willy Loman makes a dramatic entrance or Tess Durbeyfield ambles along. And at the back of all this is me, the witless teacher who is being employed to stand in front of groups of young people and explain the importance of the tragic. Some deep irony, I am thinking.

Now, if what Aristotle says is to be believed, there is no way out for me; I’m as good as a gonna already. What’s the point?

The point is that I have to earn my right to be released into the dark embrace of an even darker infinity of complete darkness. Why struggle when the fisherman of fate has got you, hook, line and sinker, and he’s pulling you from the waters of Styx by your very own testicles. What a ball-ache? No wonder we are leaving the Common Agricultural Policy – it’s got Greek written all over it! Tragic.

So, back to me and my little problem with being trapped in the role of a tragic character.

I am not a hero, never wanted to be, not even when I had a Jesus complex. I have not committed any great error of judgement, unless one thinks that going into the teaching profession was significantly grave to determine that I should be staked out on the bare rock of Mount Olympus in order to have my eyes eaten out and my liver exhumed (only for it to be played out again at the next day’s matinee showing).

Yet here I am, standing at the foot of some great precipice, staring up at dark clouds that are threatening to dump their even darker load of shit upon me just for the sake of theatrical rules. It is simply not fair.

I am an ordinary man. I have had moments (usually sleep or drug induced) when I may have thought otherwise, but after much self-evaluation and expert analysis, I can sadly say that I am normal. So, why, why, why am I being employed as a plaything of the Gods?

And what makes it ever so galling is that these bloody gods are not my gods or anyone else’s gods as they have been bloody well dead for centuries. It’s like being stalked by a ghost of somebody who was, in life, and agnostic a non believer, a sceptic. You don’t bloody exist, this tragic wheel on which I have been tethered does not exist, these coincidences of literature that my students are studying do not exist in the way that a non-existent Fate would have them exist. But when I look at my arms, I realise that the reason that I can’t move them is that they are tied to some forever turning wheel that will not let me get off unless I completely check-out.

Reminder to self: what strategies can I use to get out of tragic proceedings?                    

 

Do you have a Mushy Middle?

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I am hoping that the answer to that is no. However, in the last few years I have discovered (along with the rise of the right) there is a less strident and more sloth-like  movement that favours the, well the ‘well’ person.

‘Well’ means that you haven’t really given it full consideration. You haven’t looked into a matter deep enough because it doesn’t fit in with your world view. Your world view is most probably that things happen and it is usually better not to involve oneself with those ‘things’. Things like feminism.

I heard an educated person (happens to be a woman) talking to another who also happened to be a woman. They were talking about ‘Feminism’. One of them had been asked by one of her students if she was a Feminist. She had replied with the opinion that she thought her opinion was personal. Later, when pursued on the matter, she had told the student that she wasn’t.

“I think it has gone too far,” she concluded.

I wanted to respond to their conversation but restrained myself.

Read, read and read again…

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‘England is sick, and…English literature must save it. The Churches have failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature now has a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, above all, to save our souls and to heal the State.’ 

George Gordon  Professor of Literature  Oxford University 1922

During the course of my life, I have always believed that to be the case. If God could no longer save souls, then books should. In thinking this, I was not the originator of this idea. Since the nineteenth century, when the influence of the church began to wane, it became obvious that something had to step in to save the day. And it was with a certain biblical irony that books became the vehicle of choice.

Life is a route-planner.

We start our journeys at some particular time and place and finish them at another. Life is similar to a time-out from the general tedium of the omnipresent tedium of not living. But, whatever journey we are on, is never going to be an easy one. Life is best with things that beset life, namely life and death and suffering and the Conservative Party. Without these things, it is difficult to claim that one has ever lived, especially if one is already dead meaning that ones opinion no longer counts as only a very few can hear it. It’s a shame because I think that the dead are possibly in possession of more wisdom than the not dead. If you knew how you were going to die, a wise person would probably do something else on that day. Simple wisdom for simple thinkers.

I honestly don’t know where my route-planner has got to, these days. I think that I can remember having it when I set off. Indeed, I think I can remember setting a destination, somewhere like ‘Contentment’, ‘Peace of Mind’, or ‘Moderately Successful With a Beautiful Wife, Wonderful Children, and a Volvo Estate’. The last one always seemed to accompany the ones that went before.  The problem with these destinations is that they cannot be found on traditional maps. The route-planner just instructed me to point my car in any direction of my whim and then set off to see where I could get to before I died.

At the moment, I am here.

Here is an existential crisis. It is a place betwixt and between. A campsite in a town that one never planned to visit. Sounds good, but I have been here before.

Each and every year (not quite as we sometimes decide to ‘staycate’), my wife and I take the girls on a family holiday. The holiday usually involves packing up lots of things: bikes, tents, sleeping bags, phrase books, and a selection of real books to read when we are not doing the activity ‘thing’.  We do tend to have a destination, but go out of our way to not plan the trip. We regard the journey to our destination as being just as potentially enjoyable as the end product.

We aim to be relatively aimless and land on campsites that we have never visited before in a bid to be random adventurers. What does happen, always happens, is that we pitch-up in a place that slowly reveals itself to be familiar. We are like frogs that have a road map implanted in their DNA. No matter how much time has elapsed since their last journey, no matter how many generations have passed, they still take the same route; inexplicably. And so it is with us.

Ah, Ah! Those knowing human beings would say. Man is not a frog. Man is a work of divine creation. Man needs guidance in the way that mere Anura do not. It would not be proper for many of us to get ‘squished on Life’s highways’. Ah, Ah! I respond. I agree. But then I would point out that I was using the biblical device of hiding a lesson within a story.

And that is my point. Literature is scripture with a number of letter changes. From both, we find out what we need and ought to know about the touring holiday that we like to call Life. As God probably no longer exists, as we can’t be bothered with him/her, we need a new type of route-planner, one that is fit for our cultural needs.

Here are a few suggestions:

             These                       OR                  This

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