Wise Men Say…

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My childhood was dominated by memories of The King. Elvis Presley, Aaron to be more precise. My mother was in love. She was smitten with this hip-shaking, breath-taking, king of Rock and Roll. We were the family from The Commitments who could not conceive that there was anything better than the lip-curling kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, the voice of a generation before us and one that could not be beaten. Our commitment to The King was complete and it was cemented with our mother’s undying love.

At that point, we never realised that she had another love, one that could never be requited; Rock Hudson. 

I had a particularly bad singing voice. People would stop me in the street just to complain to me about it. You see I loved singing, but singing didn’t love me. Unless I did Elvis Presley songs. Elvis and I, I like to think, were joined at the spiritual hip. We were both working class lads whose middle name began with A (mine was for Andrew not Aaron). For some reason, and this may have been only me who heard this, we both sounded like each other. I would practice at night upon going to bed. It would start with something rocky like King Creole and then move into a couple of love songs, Love me Tender and Only Fools Rush In. that helped to set the scene. With each hip-rolling lyric I was being transformed into The King. I even learned to roll my lip the way he did.

In the sixties, Elvis started to become a little uncool. He started making excrutiatinlgy unbearable films (movies to my American cousins) such as Kissin’ Cousins and Clambake. Regardless of being an Elvis Presley devotee, I kept it quiet if I ever watched these on Saturday afternoons. I did like Flaming Star, a decent western in which he showed a little acting ability and obviously Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and…the list is not endless. Still, I believed that I was becoming Elvis.

My mother loved Elvis whilst my father mocked him a little. Dad was a Frank Sinatra fan and, possibly like me, saw much of himself in his idol. He would never admit that he followed Frank, it was not manly and was certainly not the done thing in working-class West Yorkshire. I tried to keep my Elvis to myself. My mother swooned when one of his songs would be aired on the radio. She positively melted when he was on TV.

“He can only sing certain songs,” my dad would goad.

“Shut up, you. you’re only jealous!” She would snap back.

On those bitterly cold winters nights, I would retreat to the relative comfort of my bedroom, pull an extra coat on the bed, leave my socks on, roll my head to accompany the rock that was to come, and then sing my heart out.

“Shut up!” The chorus would come, “Shut up and go to sleep before your father gets back from the club.”

My singing would then take a downturn into the hardly-audible. I was praying the words, offering up myself to a greater power, the living god of Rock n Roll.

Getting older meant that certain songs could not be sung. The seventies brought Glam Rock, Prog Rock and then Punk Rock. The King must have seen it coming and decided to make himself less and less visible. Ironically, during this time, he was becoming more and more visible through his love of all food bad. His weight shot up as his fame dropped   down. I still managed a neat impersonation of him singing, In The Ghetto. That was a rather socially aware number that I believed was socially acceptable, As The Snow Flies. I have never seen snow flies, but I think that they must be rather hardy little pests.

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On August 16, 1977, The King died.

I was in bed, drifting off to sleep. Too old to sing his songs without my parents considering the option of sectioning me in our local lunatic asylum. I could hear the TV from downstairs. Mum was watching it whilst my dad shared a few pints with his mates at the club.

I heard a long drawn-out, “Oh, no.” Quickly followed by, “No. Please, no.”

I knew he was dead. I went downstairs and found my mum in tears.

“He’s dead, Mike. Elvis is dead. It’s not fair.”

My sisters were both downstairs at this point and they joined he in the ritual shedding of tears. Even my father was sad when he returned. The King was dead.

That night, I tried to summon up his spirit and channel it within me. I could think of no better use for my defunct voice box than to become the conduit for King Creole’s magnificence. It didn’t happen.

My mum got over her infatuation and moved on. She was never the same with her affections and never openly declared her love for icons until later when her somewhat secret love was no secret any more. Rock Hudson, dashingly handsome and quirkily funny in his outings in Pillow Talk with Doris Day, died on October 2nd 1985. He died of Aids related illnesses after hiding his sexuality for al of his movie-star career. My mother sobbed. My father shrugged his shoulders.

“If only he had met me. I could have cured him,” she declared.

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In those days, they had no cure for homosexuality.

Nor for unrequited love. 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

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?                    

 

God on Sex…

God wishes men to make love to their wives regularly. It’s a duty, a religious observance, so why block the bedroom door?

For men of independence, it is every day.

For labourers, it is twice a week.

For donkey drivers, once a week.

For camel drivers, it is once every thirty days.

For sailors, it is once every six months.

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So these are the lessons of becoming independent. Relying on nobody else to put food on your table means a better share in the end.

Blessed be the NUPTUALLED.

Exercise and Exorcise

Sunday morning has come around again; much too quickly. It came with two possibilities: a passive, meaningless stretch of twenty-four hours or a moment seized and gently squeezed of its goodness. We chose the latter.

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After a two year battle with the world, I appear to be content. Contentment is so different from its superficial cousin, happiness. Contentment doesn’t wear a showy smile. Contentment doesn’t belly laugh. Contentment doesn’t leave without warning, leaving a grey vacuum that swallows the pain of having to live without it.

Contentment just is.

So here is me, content. And this morning, to build upon this feeling of being here, we went for a run in the countryside. We being my lovely wife and me.

To start with, as we drove to our route, we chunterred a little about aspects of our lives. Our middle daughter has completed her A Levels and has put off university for a year. She now sits with her smartphone, sits and sits. Her bedroom is the stuff left by hurricanes and her mother is reaching the end of her patience. My wife’s workplace is undergoing change (the type of change that has become the byword and trite idealogy of educational institutions, “We must get better and better!”). She is feeling the stress from that and I, having gone through my own psychological wildfire, am on hand to offer a comforting  perspective.

As soon as we reached the area for our run, the world began to lift.

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It’s a difficult run but so rewarding. Up and up and up with calves straining against the effort. A desire to stop to ease the rapid breathing but a continuation in order to reach the top. Once there, the panorama is reward enough.

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We run in a rough circle that takes us along trails in fields and ones in woods. It is the woods that I most like. There is a stillness about so many trees so close together. They stand and watch our passage without comment. On more than one occasion I have been on the receiving end of an arboreal prank with hidden routes reaching up from the ground to catch the toe of my trainers and send me on a slow-motion tumble. Now, I keep an eye on them.

When our run has brought us full circle we are allowed to descend the steep climbs and make our way back to the car that is parked up by one of the most picturesque churches one could wish to see.

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Fully evercised and fully exorcised, we are content.

Checking Out My History

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There’s a woman I know who had an idea for a book. She entered a competition for ‘Women of Substance’ with this idea, and only this idea. She won and got a book deal.

The book was written by both the publishers and her with the publishers doing an inordinate amount of research. She wrote about what she knew best and what she thought about the most, herself. The book sold quite a lot and she is still living off of its popularity.

At the heart of the book was the heart of her success. Her prose were not so special. Neither was the story of her life (which bookended the real tale). The thing at the heart of it all was the revelation that her great grandmother was a woman who was found guilty, with her male friend, of the murder of her abusive husband. They were both sent to the gallows together and were the last couple to do so before capital punishment was repealed.

With this in mind, I set off to find my own past. Surely, between me and my wife, we could find a murderer, sodomite, or just an everyday lunatic who was locked up in a house for the insane and met every night with lupine howls.

I started the search and was confronted by how little our parents had told us. My wife has circumstances that make it doubly difficult to delineate a family tree. Having known next to nothing about my mum and dad’s families, even the discovery of maiden names of great grandmothers or the name of my father’s absent dad brought up a lump of sadness that was unexpected.

My continued search will be for the sake of discovery and to tell the story of ordinary histories.