There’s much to be said for the well-made door. This one, smoked black by time, hangs like a heavyweight, shuffles through his quarter-turn singing deep of the long years, of a conspiracy once of oak and iron: studs and hinges, chamfered panels, bolts and latch.
Speaking too of what it is to witness: the quotidian passage of the unwary child who swings in passing, left hand yielding to right hand round the circle handle, intimate, even loving for that moment that she dances out of dimness into brilliant light, every candle in the hall a celebrant.
People turn and smile and turn away again and the candles gutter, each in its turn, sending up a thread of smoke towards the unregarded ceiling high above the vaulting beams, black with smoke and time.
And the door stands ajar, poised in its prescripted journey, something of the dusk of the outer chamber tainted by the dying light beyond.
This until the old man, remembering the book he left behind, lifts a burning candle high and – slow, a little circumspect, but steady, book under arm – steps from waning light into the dark beyond and shuts the door.
EVERY DOOR HAS ITS VOICE
Every door has its voice and every voice speaks its single word into the singing bowl through the days. Hear each time that importunate tongue kissing the word ‘closed’ into a brass mouth.
And hear too in memory the voice that calls, “I’m home!” and the voice that answers, “We’re in the kitchen!”.
And then hear too the voice that gasps its severance from enclosure, mouth tugged open, jaw ajar. Then ‘closed’. This is the voice that doesn’t call “Goodbye”.
As we move deeper into the 21st century there can be few across the span of generations whose lives have not been, or are not now, touched by that broad musical genre whose pan-cultural influence has been an integral part of our lives at least since Philip Larkin’s identification of the year 1963 as its prima causa. ‘Let me tell you, baby, it’s called rock-and-roll’, this nomenclature widely attributed to Alan Freed in depiction of the rhythm-and-blues he played on the Cleveland radio station WJW.
But it was the advent of the Beatles and their darker alter egos the Rolling Stones that ensured that none should easily evade the social declassification, the stylistic innovation, the sexual liberation and the powerful notion that anyone can dance that so swiftly followed. And nearly 65 years from Lonnie Donegan’s presentation of the guitar as an instrument across which anyone could finger three chords, only advances in technology have modified to any degree the original template: still the guitar is the weapon of choice and still it is the man who wields it with a will who is the warrior hero.
Since the potency of rock-and-roll derives from its synthesis of lyric, melody and instrumental delivery, attempts in fiction to cast a net of words over the process have, in general, delivered little more than arid analysis or histrionic reportage. As far as I’m aware, poetry has, by and large, left the territory unexplored. So my desire to try to write a sequence of poems about an individual musician’s experience of the suffocation of creative endeavour by the payload of commercial and cultural overlay that is so much a part of the phenomenon seems ill-advised, even a tad arrogant, so many having failed thus far.
But that first superstructure and the skeletal infrastructural notions that followed them won’t go away. Originally I wrote a first stanza, a sort of chorus that I decided would intersperse subsequent sections. Now it just sits at the top of the poem as a sort of testament to what it is that in performance fires the adrenaline and pops the endorphins. The rest – the narrative content, the pumped language and the form that contains it – keeps shifting every time I return to it. All that reiterates after the abandonment of one version after another is the drive to bring something into being. So here is how it lies across the page at this precise point in time…
BRIGHT STAR, BIG SKY
Johnny walks the wire tonight. The walls expand; oxygen pops in his blood; mercury climbs behind his eyes. He curls his language out across the lights to another riptide congregation. Sweat is the sacrament, tears are the benediction, communion the key.
Johnny is anonymous. Chrysalis days…
Johnny One-Note, tangled up in dreams and visions.
(“Moonstruck waster!” That’s what his father says.
”An education being pissed away”). Slung across
a stranger’s bed, he wakes into noonday light:
60 watts and flickering, filtered through
a bedsit shade. She’s done her best, he sees,
on student pickings: strung a map of Tuscany
across the kind of wallpaper that no-one ever buys
(it grows on loneliness, like fungus). She’s standing,
back turned, by the sink and brewing tea.
She’s wearing bare brown legs and Johnny’s shirt.
Turning, she grins the grin that would have hung out
the moon to dry last night, drunk or sober.
He grins back. Under a pile of dirty clothes,
an old guitar. He lifts it out, leans back
and tunes to open G: I gotta mojo hand…
Johnny on a scout hut stage…
Gerry’s daughter’s 9th birthday and Johnny’s depping
with Les Paxton’s covers band. “Do we know The Birdy Song?
Darlin’, of course we do. We wrote it!” Clicking in
a beat of four on his sticks, Les shouts, “Key of G!”
and in they go. Johnny watches the time go shuffling
round the wall-clock face while kids in Cinderella lace
and Batman blue careen around the floor like phosphorous.
A 20-minute break, a fag and a can of Foster’s. “This
is a piece of piss”, the singer says. “Fifty quid a man
for sleepwalking through horseshit. Stick with us, mate.
Beats rehearsing in your garden shed!”. Johnny sighs
and shrugs the Gibson back around his shoulders.
Just another 30 minutes ‘til the folded fivers, then
time enough for pie and chips, another can of Foster’s
and an early night. Johnny clangs eight bars of
John Lee Hooker bang into the middle of a disco set
and grins like a kid as the engine skips a beat: Let that boy boogie-woogie. It’s in him and it’s got to come out…
Johnny is a sudden Baptist…
Lifted out of moil and toil by his gift of rapture,
a sanctified sinner in his bliss, dancing his art
before those first great gatherings, between
such humble walls, within such unconsidered streets.
But faces tip and spin like moons in moving water
and everyone’s a stranger, born again inside this
roomful of blues. Curling the notes like lemon peel
across the darkness, Johnny jigs and reels between
drum riser and a bassman on the nod. He snarls
like a jackal, cries like a child and a kind of wisdom
leaks like steam through the architecture
of the song: old shadows, smoke over fields, green
leaves in the river, someone else’s dream cut free
and floating like a cotton boll, blown by a shower
of notes through time and into the here and now.
Under strip lights, lost amongst the coiled leads
and boxed guitars, Johnny, cross-legged, smiling
like a Buddha, presses the last few acid drops
out of a sweated fretboard: The blues are here to stay…
Johnny is a buccaneer ashore…
Swinging down from the bus with hours to spare;
logistics in the car park for the crew: the amps,
flight-cases, drugs and booze. For the band,
some time to kill on High Street, Anytown. A cloud
of silver frames them here on land. The static
crackles; ozone tints the atmosphere. Heads turn
as they hit the bars. The girls who speculate (always
the one who stares you down, unsmiling, certain).
Guys who smoulder, hunched and lary – somebody
walking and talking the dream, so close, so near
the penumbra. They sniff the air, the moth-dust
hanging, breathing a draft of the other side. Johnny
watches the world through smoke – fag on, shades down.
An anthem chimes from the downhome jukebox.
Johnny’s fingers close around the tune. He grins
and shuffles to the rhythm, chewing out the words:
I’m a man, I spell M-A-N…
Johnny stranded on dry land, a cod philosopher:
Too many lights and all too bright. Some girl who’s
seen it all gets busy with a powder brush. (Another
laid six lines of powder like a fateful hexagram
along the bar in Hospitality). Three fingers semaphore
a backwards countdown and the camera light blinks red.
Johnny is locked inside 8 million televisions. Every word
is sound turned into light; each syllable, however slurred
or hesitant, a bubble from the fount of truth. He muses:
it’s a pronouncement. He wonders: it’s a proposition.
His inquisitor – all permatan and silver thatch – grins like
the smiler with the knife and, with the world as witness,
he slices Johnny paper thin like Parma ham. And Johnny,
skinned and pinned to the electric wall, his sorry truths
and petty lies still drying under a studio sun, hides behind
his National steel and sings the blues: All the friends I had are gone…
Johnny as Christ self-crucified…
Ecce homo hanging high above the crowd, a Breughel skull
chinning his shoulder. This is the fable of blue veins,
the night sweats, needles and the damage done. No
bolt holes, cavities or accommodating shadows here
in the feasting hall. He’s stripped and pinioned,
trussed and trimmed like a gamebird and we’re diners at
the banquet. So it is, as ever, at the end of that crooked
path: from adrenaline dream, through days and nights
in which he ran his fingers raw and every inhalation fed
the shower of notes he blew before him, until under
months of a neon sun and a sulphur moon to slip and slide,
peep and hide while the music turned to dust and vapour.
And then one morning just like all the rest, in a white house
in a white room with a porthole in the door and keycard lock
on the other side, Johnny picks one-fingered at a keyboard:
a minor C, a steady climb, a two-bar rest,
and four notes down and then a hand-span resolution
wide across the major chord. Da capo then a steady
climb, a two-bar rest and four notes down and then
two hands, settling like wings across the octaves.
It’s dark outside when Johnny pushes back the chair.
Stars shining silver in a chain. A silence all around
the world. He sleeps and in his dreams that night,
a breve, a semi-breve, a minim, crotchet, quaver, semi-
quaver, linked and shining like that chain of stars. And,
when he wakes into the light, he spans the keyboard, walks
the short walk, long walk back towards the crossroads. I got the key to the highway and I’m billed out and bound to go. I’m gonna leave here runnin’ ‘cause walkin’ is most too slow…
Johnny as willing phantom…
More so now in age he walks like a man pacing out
his own shape in the ground. He whistles up the dog
and climbs the path towards the Dower House.
Security trips the switch: lights burst against
the dark like flowers. Ambushed by their blooming,
Johnny ducks, combat weary from the paparazzi wars.
He punches in the code, pushes at the Tudor door.
An owl hoots in the spinney. Johnny turns, breathes
deep and smiles into the night. Later, in his room
of blues, he reaches down the Gibson and brushes out
12 bars, unplugged, whispered, razor-thin, a chanted
chorus over and again: It’s a long lane that’s got no end; it’s a bad wind that never change…
There was still something I could do: I could tell the world. Leslie L. Hardman, ‘The Survivors: The Story of the Belsen Remnant’.
A couple of years ago, with my sons Lindsay (who lives and works in Germany) and Reuben and grandson Josh, I visited the site of Bergen Belsen concentration camp, an hour’s drive from where Lindsay and family live. We walked along the gravel paths that bisected the terrain, now reclaimed by grass and trees. The August day was pleasantly warm and had we been walking anywhere else in the gentle countryside in that part of Lower Saxony, the air of tranquility would have been appropriate to both weather and surroundings.
But every few meters there were reminders of what once had been in place there. Individual gravestones and granite memorials recorded the 50,000 deaths of prisoners interned between 1938 and 1945. Most of them were Jewish, but Belsen also housed Russian prisoners-of-war, Gypsies, homosexuals and survivors of the Warsaw Rising.
But of the horrors revealed after the liberation of the camp in 1945, the most graphic relics by far were the mass graves. Great featureless barrows covered with couch and tufted hair-grass amongst which wild flowers – harebells, daisies and celandines – grew, they lay around the perimeter of the site. Each one was surrounded by a low retaining wall, across the shorter end of which was inserted a raised flat eminence engraved with the number of the dead. Along the top of each eminence visitors had placed stones, some of them marked with scribbled names.
The main pathway led directly to a tall, tapering pylon made from slabs of granite set on a raised platform accessed by a wide span of shallow steps. Behind it was a long wall of the same materials bearing inscriptions commemorating ‘those who died in this place’. Its embossed lettering was filled and topped with the same collections of variegated single stones,
Returning towards the entrance area, we went into the museum building. Constructed out of huge square blocks, it managed an extraordinary synthesis of the forbidding and the dignified. Long rows of ceiling-high panels bore documentary evidence – photographs, official documents, identity papers, handwritten statements of personal witness – of life and death within Bergen-Belsen. And let down into the floor of the walkway between the panels were reinforced glass-covered chambers, each about the size of a packing crate and illuminated from the sides, in which were contained artefacts found beneath the huts when they were destroyed after the emptying of the camp.
A great deal of thought and planning had gone into the manner of the preservation of Bergen-Belsen. The absence of any of the accommodation huts, the vehicle parks, the workshops, the guards’ quarters, the administrative buildings that had once filled the grim estate and the restitution of the heathland and copses that had gone under their foundations creates a powerfully moving sense of a territory both haunted by the unendurable horrors of the past and yet now salved and dignified by nature. It’s an extraordinary place – an eloquent testimony both to utter destruction and tenacious survival. I shall never forget our quiet, slow day amongst the harebells and the graves.
THE PATH TO THE MEMORIAL.
THE MEMORIAL WALL.
A SINGLE GRAVE.
STONES ALONG THE ENGRAVED WALL OF A MASS GRAVE. (Anne Frank and her sister Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen).
TWO OF THE DISPLAY CABINETS SET INTO THE FLOOR DISPLAYING ARTEFACTS FOUND BENEATH THE BURNED-DOWN HUTS.
There is the heaped equality of spectacles, the comfort of linked arms – wire, gold and tortoiseshell, the white opacity of the tilted lens.
There is the kicking scramble of empty shoes, piled like bean pods, shelled of movement, scuffed and dusty from the longest walk in the world.
There is the hollow clothing, the empty-handed gloves, the headless hats and cap, the hanks of hair, bagged, sprung teeth in boxes, stamped and labelled.
Bones we know; we scrambled up and out of the millennium on bones. These clothes, these artefacts endure, undiminished, unconsumed.
There never was a golden age of bucolic bliss in our green and pleasant land. No black-iron range in a stone-flagged kitchen, no sides of cured ham and dried herbs hanging from the rafters, no hollyhocks and roses in full flower gathered around the brightly painted cottage door. Instead, two rooms, dirt floors, rats in the thatch and unglazed windows; frostbite and chilblains in winter and cholera in the summer, and infant mortality and early death the year round.
However, given a choice not driven by economic necessity, in post industrial revolution times, most folk would have preferred to starve surrounded by trees, fields and birdsong than trapped within the streaming walls of urban terrace or tenement. And if the rural idyll represented pictorially by Constable and his acolytes, or musically in the lush meditations and melancholic of Vaughan-Williams and Delius, is romantic indulgence, there is a seed of truth planted deep that, for some, has flowered into reality.
When my father was 11 years old he contracted a form of rheumatic fever. As part of the treatment, the doctor prescribed respite from the frequent smogs that afflicted even the outlying regions of London. So skinny Jack Charles Jones and kid brother Frank took train from Balham Station to Kings Cross and thence to Market Harborough in Leicestershire. From Harborough station Uncle George Jeffrey (actually just a friend of my grandfather’s; they had been footmen together at Luton Hoo Hall in Bedfordshire, just down the road from where I live now) picked them up in Auntie Nellie’s trap and returned all three of them to the Nevill Arms in the village of Medbourne.
George & Nellie had been landlord and landlady of the Nevill ever since the former left service just before the First World War. One of two village pubs – the other was the Leather Bottle, a distinctly inferior hostelry – the Nevill was an impressive building, significantly older than its establishment as a tavern in 1863. Even George’s volatile temper and generally bleak view of the bulk of humanity failed to keep the public at bay and, as a local, the Nevill was favoured way beyond the bounds of Medbourne. Nellie Jeffrey possessed a sweetness of nature in such stark contrast to her husband’s misanthropy that my father, in later years, judged the polar opposition of their personalities to account for the pub’s popularity: people were fascinated by the balance of the foul and the fair.
After that first long summer holiday in 1922, Dad returned every year for the next 12 years. A couple of photos show him in raffish sports jacket and flapping cricket whites straddling a stile and gurning wildly for the camera from the midst of a picnic party on top of Nevill Holt Hill.
The last time he visited Medbourne, he was in his late 70s. I drove us both up there from Guildford, where my parents were then living. George and Nellie were, of course, long gone – the former from a heart attack, the latter, tragically, after falling into the kitchen fire. Their only son Mal was living with his wife Maureen at Nutbush Farm, bought by George & Nellie after they sold the Nevill. The farm had long ceased to be a going concern. George loved his animals – his beasts, as he called them – but, coupled with absolutely no head for business, he had his father’s profound mistrust of and dislike for his fellow man (he was a little less disenchanted with women).
Dad and I got on well with Mal. He had passions. There were three principal preoccupations – his beasts, Reliant 3-wheelers and clocks (the tiny living room was full of them, chiming for a good 10 minutes either side of the hour). He was also a dedicated hoarder and upstairs he had stowed away nearly a century’s worth of family artefacts. There were ancient laundry boxes full of Victorian nick-nacks: postcards, seaside souvenirs, paperweights, button-hooks, candle snuffers, a lady’s pearl-handled revolver, and sealed sandalwood cases of Corona cigars, George’s particular weakness.
One night during that last visit, just after supper, Mal reached for his pipe and realised that he’d left his tobacco pouch at the filing station where he worked part-time on the pumps. We heard him rummaging under the huge double bed in the spare room. There was a muffled cry of triumph followed by the sound of his stocky legs stumping downstairs. He dropped into his armchair and tugged open the lid of a plain cigar box. Knowing my penchant at that time for a good Corona, he thrust the box towards me. I looked down at the cigars nestling like torpedos, unexposed to the air since their incarceration many years before. In fact, their vintage to within two or three decades was not difficult to estimate. Each simple, white, unadorned band bore the same three letters in gold – WSC. I looked up at Mal, busily crushing a cigar back to dead leaf form and cramming it into his pipe bowl. “Mal”, I said quietly. “Have you any idea where George got these cigars from?” Mal shrugged. “Some gift while he was in service”, he answered indifferently in his Leicestershire drawl, drawing the match flame down onto the composted cigar. “Do you know what WSC stands for?” He shrugged again & leaned back into his cushions, puffing hard. “Winston Spencer Churchill”, I answered. And I carefully slipped the sandalwood sheet over the remaining cigars & closed the lid.
During my father’s first visit to Medbourne, he wrote a diary. On the surface, it’s an unremarkable document, but it has interest for two features – his precociously fluent compositional style at the age of 11 and the picture that emerges of a countryside absolutely unmarked by any elements of modernity. The day-long rambles through fields and through woodlands would have shown my father a setting virtually unaltered since the 5th century when the Saxons laid down the foundations of farming processes that still prevailed. In reading this plain little journal – written as an assignment to be carried out during his absence from school – one is acutely conscious of the massive changes that were close at hand. Although, in fact, that corner of Leicestershire was relatively untouched by the post Great War metropolitanisation of rural areas within 10 miles or so of the big cities – Leicester, in this case – that took place in the ‘30s, in all respects Dad saw the last of the uncompromised older ways.
When I went up to Medbourne as a child there remained enough of the traditional patterns to allow a taste of those times. Auntie Nellie kept the pony and trap; Mal rode down the hill into Medbourne on the carthorse; in the evenings the grown-ups sung music hall songs and parlour ballads around the out-of-tune piano. And I sat high on top of the haywain after a harvest gathered in by scythes, sickles and reaphooks alongside the only combine harvester for miles around.
But all is change there. Now Medbourne is a retreat for wealthy Leicester immigrants. New detached houses straggle up Manor Road hill, their gardens and their paddocks for the kids’ ponies fenced out of the fields and meadows. The Nevill Arms flourishes still, its fascia largely unaltered, its view across the packhorse bridge to the church largely unchanged. It offers a high end menu within and the ‘popular but personal’ Café Nevill on the rear terrace. The beer it serves is, I believe, Ruddles from nearby Rutland and the pub is still a gathering place for the inhabitants of the villages all around. Few of them, if any, however, are agricultural workers. And Medbourne itself is now designated as a suburb of Market Harborough.
When A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin is asked by grown-ups what he’s going to do today, he says, “Nothing”. My dad’s diary is all about doing ‘nothing’. Jackie and Frankie Jones were busy doing nothing in the fields and lanes around Medbourne at around about the same time that Christopher Robin was roaming the pathways of the 100-Acre Wood near Crowborough in Sussex. And I for one am proudly fogey-ish enough to lament the passing of the glorious nothingness that once abounded in the open countryside.
My Visit to Medbourne (July 29th to September 1st 1921) by Jackie Jones (aged 11)
July 29th. Today has been a very exciting day, because we are going for our holiday. Frankie while he was in the train put his head out of the window, daddy was afraid he would lose his hat, so he told me to put it on the rack, which I did. Suddenly I said, “Frankie’s hat has blown on-to the lines!” Daddy looked up to the rack, but Frankie’s hat had gone.
July 30th. I got up at 8-o-clock this morning and Frankie came with me to feed the hens. After breakfast I got a racket and ball and played till Gwen, my cousin, came to play tennis with me. For the net we used two posts stuck into the ground with a piece over the top. In the after-noon Roland, my friend, came; we had another game of tennis. When Roland went away Gwen and I beat down a jungle of nettles.
July 31st. I went out before breakfast today and me [and] a little boy named Billy Adams. When I asked him whose boy he was, he said, “My muvver’s”. He then asked me my name and I told him Jackie Jones, he would not believe me and said, “There’s no such word as that”.
1st August. To-day we tried to get up the tennis net but without success. Roland, Gwen, Frankie and I went over to my Uncle’s garden to pick gooseberries in the morning.
2nd August. When I was going up the street this morning with Roland, I met Bob and Frank Bull. Roland was going hay-making that afternoon so we decided to go also. In the afternoon, we did go. A boy named Reuben Garfield found a hedgehog and threw it in the river but it swam a-shore again.
3rd August. We went up on to the moors this morning to gather mushrooms when we brought them home we found that they were all poisonous. This afternoon we were going to get some hay but it rained and we had to go into the club room and play.
4th August. To-day we did succeed in putting up the tennis and we all played. The side that I was on won two sets. I went with my Uncle and Frank to get the puppies this evening. As we were going along Frankie who was talking about cows said, “And he crowed just like a cow”.
5th August. Today we found some time so we marked out the tennis court. In the afternoon we had to go into the club room because it was wet. When we had been thinking some time we decided to play hide-and-seek.
6th August. To-day the weather has been very showery, but we did go for a walk in the evening. It started to pour with rain about 10-o-clock at night.
7th August. This morning when I got up, I looked out of the window and I noticed the brook had risen 4 or 5 ft and was still rising. The water was all on the roads and it suddenly dawned on me it was a flood. Everybody was a-stir, the cattle had to be fetched from the flooded fields. All the other rivers and brooks round about me were flooded too. Roland came over when the water [poured] into his house. Many cars got stuck in the flood and had to be drawn out by horses. In the afternoon, we went down to see the flood on the fields. When we got there we saw nothing of the fields but a mass of water. When we were coming back Roland and I were fighting and having games with my cousin and brother.
8th August. Roland has gone to Ashley to-day for a week and Gwen to [blank] for the night. This afternoon I went down the waterfall to have a game of quoits. I was just going to play when my mother came to say that tea was ready. Today is my brother’s birthday he is 6 years old…
Jackie Jones died peacefully in 1999 at the age of 88. Not long before he died the two of us reminisced about Medbourne and our separate and shared memories of place and people. When I mailed out notification of Dad’s death to all the names in his battered and bulging address book, condolences came back from Roland Orton and Bob Bull, both still at that time living near Medbourne 70 years on.
Little Frankie – my larger-than-life Uncle Frank – died in 2004, peacefully like his brother. He was 89. For the last 30 years he had lived in the seaside town of Salcombe in Devon, where for the greater part of that time he worked as engineer at the famous Salcombe Yacht Club. An heroic drinker, his life was commemorated in the Ferry Inn, each participant toasting Frank in his favourite headache, a ‘blacksmith’ – a three-quarter pint of Guinness topped up with barley wine.
Medbourne is a two-hour drive up the A1 from my bit of North- Herts. Each summer I ponder just the wrong side of a provisional decision the possibility of the journey. And then – reinforced with a pint of Ruddles County at the Nevill Arms – the walk up the Manor Road hill from the village. Nutbush Farm is gone; there’s a huge house sitting on the rise where once the farmhouse stood. But there will remain unaltered patches here and there where I can stop for a moment and watch Jackie and Frankie Jones chasing butterflies with Roland Orton, cousin Gwen and the Bull brothers, or Mal driving his few cows into the tiny milking parlour, pushing at their rumps, growling “Goo on, goo on, ya buggers!”…
And what of Mal, last of the Jeffreys? Maureen’s patience with her husband’s stubborn insistence on running the farm his way in the face of the swift and mighty changes taking place in agriculture across Britain was unwavering. And when the farm failed and Mal had the first of a series of increasingly debilitating strokes, Maureen become the sole wage-earner, cleaning and serving meals at Nevill Holt Prep School a short walk away from the farm along Manor Road. Then finally, the long Medbourne saga came to an end in May 1999 when Mal died of a final massive stroke on the same day as and just an hour after the death of my father…
Strange word, ‘stroke’ – a gentle sleep and then you wake up, changed. Caressed by infirmity on the brown hill, kissed by disability as you climb the long drive. The farmhouse tips and, heart in crescendo, you embrace the grass. Indifferent sheep manoeuvre, crowding out your sky. You lie in a lump, adrift at the field’s edge, floating on the dead raft of your limbs. And the sun nails light into your one good eye.
Near dusk her scarecrow voice scatters your crowding dreams: she calls you from the house, the sound of your name curling out of the past, a gull-cry, fierce, impatient, tearing at the membrane that dims your world. Root-still, potato-eyed, you are another species now. Your medium is clay and saturation. Mummified, like the bog-man trapped by time, you lie dumbfounded, mud-bound and uncomprehending as the sun slips down behind the hill.
Urgent fingers scavenging for a heartbeat, fluttering like bird-wings at your throat, are busy in the dark. You feel nothing of their loving panic, their distress. All love, all optimism, pain, all memory, desire coarsen, thicken into vegetable silence. A dim siren wobbles in the dark. And then rough hands manhandle your clod-heavy bulk. Night swallows the spinning light and closes in like smoke.
Shortly after leaving Goldsmiths’ College back in the late ‘60s and whilst awaiting creative and commercial success with what our agency touted as ‘South-East London’s First Flower-Power Band’, I took a job in the laundry at Claybury Psychiatric Hospital. Phil the drummer (he was a porter at Claybury) and I would rise at 4.00 AM and cross London in his tiny Thames van to check in at the huge custodial gates with the sun rising two hours later. While Phil patrolled the long Victorian corridors and vast high-windowed wards, my co-workers and I, wearing wellington boots and butcher’s oilskin aprons, filled the great cylindrical belt-driven drums with reeking sheets and soiled garments.
Phil and I followed this surreal routine until a couple of months into the process gigs with the band had increased enough to sustain us from day to day. And the Withnail-and-I squalor of our subsequent rock-and-roll existence notwithstanding, I didn’t regret for a moment leaving behind that cavernous, steam-filled space, clamorous with the sound of revolving cylinders and the call-and-response shouting of the laundry workers and the singing and wailing of the roaming patients.
My memories of that brief time are vivid still. They fed the writing of the poem below, which, once started became something of a therapeutic exercise, displacing and rendering into focus a set of linked experiences more typical of Dickensian times than the bright, brash 1960s. The now long-demolished Claybury Hospital was no institution of enlightened treatment and permanent cure. It was, quite simply, a lunatic asylum peopled by lost souls washed up by the tides of primitive ignorance and prejudice across the first half of the 20th century. And we who maintained the services that provided the most basic day-to-day conveniences for those sad, wronged casualties survived the quotidian grand guignol horrors of the place either through elective blindness and deafness or wilful callousness and outright cruelty…
I work in the asylum laundry, dawn ‘til two, forking bedsheets, wet and grey like tripes, into the drums to cook.
Booted and wrapped, shiny white in oilskin aprons, angel butchers, we move through steam, feeding the ironing room.
We, the furtive and the cruel, duck behind nicknames, aiming to pass unnoticed or unchecked within this strange nation:
Fish, the foreman, with the glaucous eyes; me, the Friar, for my pelmet fringe; and crew-cut Stig of the lipless
v-shaped smile, like a deft two-stroke razor slice. Ours is a realm of clouds, high windows sweating kitchen dew and doorways
like dream portals, indistinct amongst white streaming tiles. And passing between these shape- shifting apertures, the strange
quotidian traffic. We float inside their world like unshelled crabs, sidling our tasks between heap and drum, heads down
and purposeful, breathing only our own air. And they move between us in their own fashion: the dancers, shapeless,
ageless in their smocks, spinning and turning to secret tunes in undiscovered keys; the counting man
who circuits the vast estate, enumerating fetishes – certain lintels, keystones, door handles, a smoked glass windowpane,
a beech tree root, tapping each one with crooked forefinger and then moving on to align
some other crucial fuse while the sun is high. (I watch him secretly, like a bird at work);
and last, within the dust of the parade, precarious as a shard of glass, jagged Mary. Fizzing on
the threshold, she tests the air. Her top lip puckers, lifts over a black bucket of
horse teeth. She snickers and pushes at her brush- fire hair, a corolla of torn flames, the colour
of rust. Pale, pale blue eyes switching and slipping, making of the world a place of fumes
and snapped filaments, only an inkblot atlas to guide her through black land and fathomless sea.
And it’s here and now, within the splay and straddle of her limbs inside the doorway, between one clumsy
heartbeat and the next, that there might be deliverance – a rough facsimile of love as nurse or porter
turns her round, the pressure, gentle, solicitous, the voice a fuzzy burr, back along white corridors, white corridors.
But no one’s there and Stig is sprung-wound and ticking close beside me. I can smell his musk
through boiled linen and suds. Dipping armpit deep into the drum, he tugs out cotton knickers, red as a haemorrhage,
and dangling the deep, sad weight of them like a toreador, he edges forward. His thin rudiment of mouth beaks into a pouting kiss
as he sashays onto the walkway where she stands. In that sweat- heat, she is, in the moment, rabbit to his serpent.
Fish draws hard on a cigarette and turns away, but I am complicit, witness from the start, hiding amongst the rank
garment foliage like a naturalist, sensing that what must now transpire will strip us to the quick. Clocks stop
inside that doldrum pause. And she begins to keen, a sound thin and high, like wire hard drawn
through the membrane of the air. And Stig two-steps sideways, flicking the bloomers, chanting on a breath:
“Crazy Mary, crazy bitch, come on and love me, crazy bitch, come on”, and laughing high and wild like a child
on a rope over water, innocent and dangerous in the free air, he dances, now scampering forward
and back, forward and back under a blood-red flag. The air shimmers and stiffens and Mary shatters it
like a pane of glass. There is a quality of sound – a mud-born eructation from the throat
of a marsh bird, or some searing midnight heartbreak called from ridge or hillside – that curls
around the edge of time to bear witness to what we have never known, should never have to know.
And Mary shrieks from that elemental place, her mouth split earth and her voice magma, sudden and naked
in the wrong world. Stig stops dead, poised like a mural dancer because raw noise has clogged
the air into something like fog or darkness and our ears sing with it and we can’t see for tears.
Stationary, rooted, like a screaming tree, she flails, ululating from within the perfect storm, an ecstasy
of rage, crystal-pure and targetless, uncorrupted by concern or issue, inchoate and of itself, primordial.
From its spotless light, its impeccable heat, stars and their matter draw their source. This is
the ultimate release, a hideous, intoxicating freedom. Like some twisted Breughel sower, she scatters
the molecules of reason into this coruscating wind and for its duration both of us are blasted white,
Stig and I, reamed as clear and vacant as blown eggs. And now inside the cone of silence that crowns
the thunderclap, we stand, Stig and I, each in his moment, the one a still life in white and red,
caught at the edge of the breath before panic animates; the other a dumbstruck initiate,
hearing in the soaring engine of the scream a wild music, seeing within the beating Shiva arms
a terrible beauty, the purity of free-falling water, the rootless, boundless liberty of the infant and the lunatic.
Is this how we sunder gravity, leave the earth and fly? Is this shame I feel or yearning?
They come for her and, with dreadful skill, they truss her as she stands and bundle her away.
The sounds diminish, dwarfed and dopplered through the labyrinth beyond and, in the laundry, drums
grind and roll and steam embraces. But I am marked now, an initiate. I know of their mission this much:
that it is not to care and cure but to contain and then conceal. I wear the secret like a scar.
We are informed that digitisation will, ultimately, replace every function currently managed by human agency. We will be counselled by robots; automated doctors will diagnose and prescribe; classroom learning will be directed by a disembodied electronic presence; all vehicular transport will be driven by software linked to monitoring centres… Our enslavement will no longer be to those whose brute ambition has carried them to seat of power. Now we shall be in thrall to voltage, circuitry, polarity, current.
But what of the interrogator? How could any robotic medium replace the infinite subtlety of an O’Brien? Surely the wayward passages of the human mind can only be apprehended by another human mind, one which, however detached now, however depraved, has experienced the shock of love, the submersive power of gilded memory, the cataract of fear…
THE WAY THINGS ARE
“There are things we kept secret after the locking of the doors, the drawing of the curtains. Please read this by candlelight and then burn it to a flake. Be safe and reach through shadows silently towards the light…”
Sit down here, by this closed window and consider it this way: that not even dust remains of how things were before the sleep of reason; that not a carbon trace is left of what once might have been.
Relax. Sit back in your chair and listen to my voice. You know the properties of hope, of dreams, of rumours.
You know how rich the imagined landscape, and how true that stranger’s voice, its cadences so clear.
And then a sighting here and there of those enchanters in their motley, dancing by firelight and singing in the old tongue?
But now consider this: here, the light that shivers in my paperweight, these, the blue fumes from my cigarette, they are of the real world. Watch them with me now, just the two of us, and know from these my words and this the sound of my voice, the way things are.
Way back in 2003 one of the first posts that I uploaded to my hip new blog, the Patteran Pages (this via the steampunk software adopted by the American news and culture site Salon, who were at that time swiftly clambering onto the digital bandwagon) was an account of my terminally unhip identity as a radio ham. Whether I intended some sort of self-outing as an unrepentant proponent of decidedly analogue communications technology here in the zeitgeist zone of the nascent blog, or I was just stumped for material on the edge of this new and uncharted frontier, I no longer recall. But I was at the time a very active operator, fortunate enough to be running a well-constituted school amateur radio club station and, by the standards of such ventures, we were doing very well. Here’s what I wrote.
I am a radio ham. 40 feet above a shed in the school grounds there revolves an industrial strength aerial made of tubular steel and capable of sending and receiving hundreds of watts-worth of one-to-one conversation. Crouched at a desk beneath it, I have spent long hours conversing earnestly with fellow operators around the world.
As tools of the trade I have an old pre-digital age transceiver built when the abacus was high tech, a pre-Soviet collapse Times World Atlas so large scale it’s got your house on it, & my very own callsign – G0 EUV. With the aid of these accoutrements I can select a radio frequency and, when I have located another similarly inclined (& licensed) hobbyist, I can engage him or her in lively intercourse about the strength of their radio signal, the make and model of our radio equipment and the weather outside. (Sadly, not for us the political affairs of the day, or the blessings and iniquities of religious faith. These subjects are forbidden pretty much worldwide to licensed ham radio). So then, the limits of the contact’s English vocabulary having been reached and with all permitted conversational gambits exhausted, we will bid each other farewell and the two of us will repeat the procedure all over again with someone else. Which process is, even for the enthusiast, about as dull as it sounds.
But constantly, in the gaps between each of these workaday link-ups, the operator is vigilant for the rare fish, the almost imperceptible flicker within the mighty shoal. Because buried within the constant European babble that shoots up and down the invisible conduitss between transceiver and ionosphere there may be heard on occasion, if conditions are just right, the still, small voice of the lone operator in some mightily distant and/or normally inaccessible part of the world. A tiny island in the Indian Ocean; a polar research station; a remote medical or military outpost in the middle of the tundra or the desert; a yacht crossing the equator… Rare DX – the stay-at-home suburban radio ham’s dream..!
I don’t do radio nowadays. The old passion that would have me winding the aerial up its 40’ mast in a force 9 gale so that I could catch the Australians between 05.00 and 07.00 has been necessarily stilled. No more chasing the fluctuating ionospheric conditions to bag a 5-second contact with that lone operator on some lump of rock in the Indian Ocean. No more regular ‘skeds’ with the guy in San Antonio who sounded just like Jack Nicholson; or the Russian doctor in a desolate oil pipeline outpost in Northern Siberia who wanted to learn English; or the Australian fence-mender 50 k. from the nearest shop and bar; or, as once, the panicky weekend sailor whose yacht was shipping water fast off Mauritius on whose behalf I had to phone the Grand Bay coastguard. It was always the romance of contact with the beleaguered or self-exiled individuals in exotic locations, the two of us fighting against fading signals or interference from the hundreds of other stations out there on the same wavelength wanting to touch base with the rare DX station with whom you alone are in contact. Those few minutes of shared alternative culture across thousands of miles of earth and sky are worth all the solitary hours of static crackle and atmospheric hiss.
There aren’t very many poems about people talking into two-way radios. In fact, I’ve never come across any! So for the time being this is it. So whether this poem is a work of quality is hardly the issue. That anyone should want to produce a piece about people talking into a radio microphone should be enough to turn our heads…
iMac 3.2 GHz Intel Core i5
I paddle the keys and pixels break surface like bubbles. The blue window shivers into a spray of letters, uniform, a lingua franca. The world and his wife are talking hard, a promiscuity of speech that melts into the pool, unvoiced. This is language out of light, words squeezed and shredded out of shape and form, electronic runes and glyphs squirted into bits and bytes down filaments. These digits, these encryptions, they’re mouthless, lost in space. No tongues or lips articulate the cries and whispers of the slave electrons working the binary roads. Behind the brilliant lexicon, just the insect voices and the hum of spinning disks.
Yaesu FT-847 Multiband Transceiver
Still dark outside. 0500 zulu and a cold wind rocks the antenna tower. I’m beaming west on 20 meters, listening through the chuckle of morse, the whooping spherics. I’m looking for Australia on the long path, vaulting scraps of landscape and the great bare, muscled back of ocean; skidding in across the eastern shores, magnet-voiced and listening hard. A VK3, a loner by two hundred miles of fence-line; a little wooden house, a splinter in the prairie skin. Just him, his wife and daughters, fixing the broken wire that separates the cowboys and the kangaroos from dreamtime. Now the aerial image shimmers, breaks. I lose his voice as the skywave shifts; lose his tale of full moons, crowding stars and voices in the wind. I drift with the tidal ebb and flow of distant storms, spikes of wireless sound and silence. But I’ve spoken; he has spoken. Breath has shaped and joined our words. We have thrown a line across the earth and tugged it once or twice.
20 meters – The most commonly used HF radio waveband. Spherics – Naturally generated electromagnetic atmospheric sound. Long path – Turning the antenna (see photograph above) so that the received & transmitted signals travel not by ‘line of sight’ but right around the globe & in via ‘the back door’, this done to avoid radio interference from the landmasses in between. VK3 – An amateiur radio callsign registered in Victoria. Skywave – The propogated radio wave that refracts through the ionosphere & returns to earth.