THEIR VOICES IN THE NIGHT

I have a sleep disorder that – compounded currently by the side effects of medication – ensures that each and every night is fragmented into a sort of archipelago of the  5 stages of slumber varying from just stages 1 and 2 up to the full cycle, including REM. In between these sequences is inserted from time to time long periods of insomnia. Living as we do in relative rural isolation, this means that the sometimes comforting social sounds of nocturnal traffic, arrivals and departures and even the late-night carolling of a friendly drunk are denied us. Randy cats, foraging foxes and the haunted crooning of the barn owl only serve to underpin the sense of utter isolation and exposure that can be the principle characteristics of insomnia. This poem describes a joyful exception to that dilemma.

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THEIR VOICES IN THE NIGHT

Unable to sleep, I sit before
the heartless brilliance of the screen
with the real-world darkness

hovering, fearful but persistent,
at my back. It seems as if time
has packed her bags and left

for the coast and then beyond.
I take off my glasses, knuckle away
the mess of my tears. And then,

like importunate drunks through
a suddenly opened door, the geese
are overhead. Some crass dispute

as to the whereabouts of water
in the impossible night, their voices
skronking inside a collision of

cranking necks and wings. As they
tumble through the unseen clouds,
I laugh out loud and love them all

for their unconsidered vandalism,
neither thought nor theory troubling
the palate of their need.

THEIR VOICES IN THE NIGHT – AUDIO.

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LA LOTTA CONTINUA..!

Socialist Poster During the Spanish Civil War

If I have ever adhered to any kind of faith it’s been to a belief based on hope against rational expectation that the capacity for redemption and salvation is a product of obdurate human desire and will alone. Once upon a time, that faith fuelled a conviction that the only political system within which we might grow towards our hitherto almost entirely unrealised potential was anarchism. Now the black flag is a poor, tattered thing and I oscillate between anger and sadness and sudden bursts of unwarranted optimism brought on when some event, local or beyond, seems to confirm the human spirit as more generous, self-sacrificial and loving than it is venal, selfish and full of hate.

There are very few certainties in my scheme of things. (In fact, to my general perception there is very little scheme of things at all!) But one judgement that time has substantiated for me again and again is the old truism that wherever power is concentrated beyond the moderation of those over whom it is wielded there will be corruption and abuse. But because I live in the ‘real world’ of legitimised greed, of souls mortgaged to consumerism, of institutionalised injustice, I no longer believe in some great political epiphany that, when the scales fall simultaneuously from our eyes, will have us shrugging off our chains in favour of the anarchist dream. But somehow, in the face of the cynical pragmatism and exhausted defeatism that has taken the place of informed ideology, I still on occasion turn around in absurd hope when I hear the old anarchist rallying cry: ‘Be realistic and demand the impossible!’

For a few years in the early ‘70s, during that final flaring of some kind of socialist sunrise, I gathered together in a little green notebook a collection of appropriate quotations. Most were drawn from the anarchist source books that were my serial purchases (from Camden Town’s Compendium Bookshop) at the time, but others popped up from here and there and got scribbled down lest, in those all-analogue days, they should be forgotten and their points of provenance lost. What struck me at the time of compiling them was how little both the nature of repression and aspiration have changed throughout history and, of course, that’s my reflection now. Cultural context isn’t the determinant of dissent and rebellion; it’s the human spirit under unendurable pressure that has the commoner twisting, turning and rising up.

:::

To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue… Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolised, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed; all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then, at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, tined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garrotted, imprisoned, shot…sold, betrayed, and, to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged and dishonoured. That is government, that is its justice and its morality.
PIERRE-JOSEPH PROUDHON

My good people, things cannot go well in England, nor ever shall, till everything be made common, and there are neither villains nor gentlemen, but we shall all be united together, and the lords shall be no greater masters than ourselves.
JOHN BALL (renegade priest & ideologist of the Peasants’ Revolt, 1381)

Commons to close and keep,
Poor folk for bread to cry and weep,
Towns pulled down to pasture sheep;
This is the new guise.

Envy waxeth wondrous strong,
The Rich doeth the poor wrong,
God of his mercy suffereth long
The devil his work to do.

The towns go down, the land decays,
Of corn fields, plain lays,
Great men maketh nowadays
A sheepcote in the church.
ANONYMOUS POEM, early 16th century

LEAR:
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall yourn houseless heads, and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness defend you
From such seasons as these? O I have ta’en
Too little care of this: take physic, Pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the Heavens more just.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.
WILLIAM PITT

Listen, O Daughters, to my voice. Listen to the Words of Wisdom.
So shall you govern over all; let Moral Duty tune your tongue.
But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone…
Compel the poor to live upon a Crust of bread, by soft mild arts.
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With Labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die; there are enough
Born, even too many, and our Earth will be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles if you hear him sigh. If pale, say he is ruddy.
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d and drowns his wit
In strong drink, tho’ you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.
WILLIAM BLAKE, from Vala, or the Four Zoas.

Yes! To this thought I hold with firm persistence; the last result of wisdom stamps it true: he only earns his freedom and existence who daily conquers them anew.
JOHANN WOLGANG VON GOETHE

All things are sold: the very light of heaven
Is venal; earth’s unsparing gifts of love,
The smallest and most despicable things
That lurk in the abysses of the deep,
All objects of our life, even the life itself,
And the poor pittance which the law allows
Of liberty, the fellowship of man,
Those duties which his heart of human love
Should urge him to perform instinctively,
Are bought and sold as in a public mart
Of undisguising selfishness, that sets
On each its price, the stamp-mark of her reign.
Even love is sold…
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.
THOMAS PAINE

THE TOLPUDDLE MARTYRS

God is our guide! from field, from wave,
From plough, from anvil, and from loom;
We come, our country’s rights to save,
And speak a tyrant faction’s doom:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!

God is our guide! no swords we draw,
We kindle not war’s battle fires;
By reason, union, justice, law,
We claim the birth-right of our sires:
We raise the watch-word liberty;
We will, we will, we will be free!!!
GEORGE LOVELESS, one of the group of Dorchester labourers – known subsequently as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, after their village of origin – who were sentenced to seven years transportation for joining a union.

Freedom has a thousand charms to show
That slaves, howe’er contented, cannot know.
WILLIAM COWPER

Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty.
GEORGE WASHINGTON

MOURN NOT THE DEAD

Mourn not the dead that in the cool earth lie –
Dust unto dust –
The calm, sweet earth that mothers all who die
As all men must;

Mourn not your captive comrades who must dwell –
Too strong to strive –
Within each steel-bond coffin of a cell,
Buried alive;

But rather mourn the apathetic throng –
The cowed and the meek –
Who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak!
RALPH CHAPLIN, Industrial Workers of the World activist

The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.
WILLIAM HAZLITT, English essayist

THE IDEA

Is that we are not perfect
Nor perfectable.

Is that the desire to lead
Will destroy ourselves and others.

Is that when we act alone
It is harder to harm.

Is that when we act collectively
We must not surrender our selves.

Is that land cannot be owned
Nor animals nor people.

Is that money is meaningless
When there is no property.

Is that we disavow marriage.
It is the union of Church and State.

Is that no human is sovereign
The one over the other.

Is that our children are
The common wealth.

Is that there is no god
Nor heaven nor hell.

Is that only we can be the creators
Of paradise on earth.
ANONYMOUS. (19th century Spanish anarchists called their beliefs The Idea).

THE INTERNATIONALE (first two verses)

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise ye wretched of the earth,
For justice thunders condemnation,
A better world’s in birth.
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us,
Arise, ye slaves! no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations,
We have been naught, we shall be all.

CHORUS:

‘’Tis the final conflict
Let each stand in his place,
The Internationale
Unites the human race.

We want no condescending saviours,
To rule us from a judgement hall;
We workers ask not for their favours;
Let us consult for all.
To make the thief disgorge his booty
To free the spirit from its cell,
We must ourselves decide our duty,
We must decide and do it well.
EUGENE POTTIER, translated by CHARLES H. KERR

 

 

 

 

 

 

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POEMS BY JACQUES PRÉVERT

 

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JACQUES PRÉVERT – 1900 : 1977

For a poet – for any kind of writer – English is a seductive language.  With a vocabulary that is rich in synonyms way beyond reasonable need, wrapped up in a mind-boggling and jaw-busting complexity of conjugational structure, it seems almost mean-spirited to resist its blandishments. Small wonder that Dylan Thomas’s capacity for intoxication above and beyond the call of duty afflicted his creative output every bit as much as his social life.  Interesting too, at the other end of the linguistic spectrum, that Samuel Beckett exerted so much energy in paring the English language back to the bone in a search for a barer, leaner form.  And small wonder, maybe, that, in the final analysis, his language of preference for writing was French.

Since schooldays I have been intrigued by the stark simplicity of the poetry of Jacques Prévert and attempting to translate pieces into English remains a fascinating exercise. My enormously enlightened French teacher Roger Gerhardt regularly set us translation assignments using the poems and lyrics of the likes of Prévert, Paul Fort, Anne Sylvestre and Georges Brassens. And many years on I posted several Prévert translations, along with other treatments of contemporary French poems, to my first blog, Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages. What strikes me each time I translate is the need to resist the temptation to substitute for some dry, laconic statement the kind of imagistic phrasing that a poet writing in English might feel impelled to use. All too often the direct, the pithy, the economic are anathema to the writer steeped in the cultural traditions of allusion, euphemism, equivocation and circumlocution.

If I have begun to respond to the need for absolute fidelity to the skeletal properties of Prévert’s verse, realisation has come from an unusual source – the blues. Much of his poetry has been set to music, particularly in the boulevardier genre. And there has long been a link between aspects of French chanson and the blues – albeit one more of spirit and atmosphere than of direct style.  There is something in the specificity of focus, the repetition of a repeated theme and the interposition of surreal or dreamlike imagery that creates an association between a poem like Déjeuner du Matin and a ruefully reflective blues like T-Bone Walker’s Mean Old World

Beyond this point all is mere speculation.  If there’s a PhD to be had in the pairing of the French verse of terse personal narrative and the blues, generously I’ll leave the option open to another to chase it up.  In the meantime, here’s my rendition of Jacques Prévert’s Déjeuner du Matin, followed by a set of shorter poems, and culminating in the chilling Despair Sits On A Bench.

MORNING MEAL

He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put sugar
In the café au lait
With the teaspoon
He stirred it
He drank the café au lait
And he replaced the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit a cigarette
He blew smoke rings
He placed the ash
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He placed his hat
On his head
He put on
His mackintosh
Because it was raining
And he went
Into the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I placed
My head in my hands
And I cried.

ALICANTE

An orange on the table
Your dress upon the carpet
And you in my bed
Sweet present of the present
Freshness of the night
Warmth of my life.

THE STREAM

Much water has passed beneath the bridge
and much blood too
But upon feet of love
there flows a great white stream
And in the gardens of the moon
where every day is my festival
this stream sings in its sleep
and this moon is my head
within which there turns a great blue sun
and the sun is your eyes.

THE FIRST DAY

White sheets in a cupboard
Red sheets on a bed
A child within the mother
The mother in her pain
The father in the corridor
The corridor in the house
The house in the town
The town within the night
The death within the cry.

PARIS BY NIGHT

Three matches, struck one by one in the night.
The first to see your face entire.
The second to see your eyes.
The last to see your mouth,
and then the darkness all around to remember
as I hold you in my arms.

SHIFTING SANDS

Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
In the distance the sea has already vanished
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
And you
Like seagrass touched gently by the wind
In your bed of sand you shift in dreams
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
In the distance the sea has already vanished
But in your half-closed eyes
Two little waves remain
Demons and marvels
Winds and tides
Two little waves in which to drown.

Note: This poem was set to music by film composer Joseph Kosma (‘Les Regles Du Jeu’,
‘Les Grands Illusions’, ‘Les Enfants Du Paradis’), for the film ‘Les Visiteurs Du Soir’.
Kosma also knew Brecht, worked with his musical collaborator Hans Eisler and supplied music to Prevert’s ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’.

DESPAIR SITS ON A BENCH

In a square on a bench
sits a man who calls out as you pass
He wears pince-nez an old grey suit
He smokes a little cheroot he is seated
and he calls out as you pass
Or he simply beckons
Best not to look
Best not to listen
Best to pass by
Make as if you haven’t seen him
As if you haven’t heard him
Best to pass by pick up your feet
If you glance at him
If you listen
He beckons and nothing and no one
Can stop you from seating yourself beside him
Then he looks at you and smiles
And your terrible suffering begins
And the man continues to smile
And you smile the same smile
Exactly
And the more you smile the more you suffer
Terribly
The more you suffer the more you smile
Fixedly
And you stay there
Frozen still
Smiling on the bench
Children play right next to you
Passers-by pass by
Unhurried
Birds fly up
Leaving one tree
For another
And you stay there
On the bench
And you know you know
That you will never play
Like the children
You know that you will never pass by
Unhurried
Like the passers-by
That you will never fly up
Leaving one tree for another
Like the birds.

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FIRST TRAIN TO SKAVILLE!

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FIRST TRAIN TO SKAVILLE..!

The enduring presence of old-school ska and the various revivalist outbreaks that occurred on both sides of the Atlantic alongside the ever-developing forms and sub-sets of its descendant genre reggae is a mighty tribute to the passion and ingenuity of its pioneers back in the early ’60s. Whilst attempting to capture something of the dancehall drive of the jump-bands of the ‘40s and the thick gumbo sound of ‘50s Louisiana R&B, those Jamaican musicians managed to synthesize an extraordinarily compelling combination of lyrical wit, melodic inventiveness and irresistible rhythmic pulse.

My first encounter with Jamaica’s urban folk music predates its incendiary Two-Tone revival in the UK by a good 25 years. For me the music will be forever associated with that succession of first and second generation West Indians who settled in the terraced and tower-blocked suburban sprawl of South-East London. In the mid-‘60s I was a student at Goldsmiths’ College, the teacher training wing of London University. The main building was situated on the busy trunk road that had the Elephant and Castle as the gateway to the inner city at one end and the long-absorbed villages of Lewisham, Greenwich, Deptford, Blackheath, Catford and the shrivelling edges of rural Kent at the other.

Behind and beyond the college countless bisecting roads named after forgotten Victorian burgermeisters and Boer War battlegrounds linked the territories, each one lined either with flat-faced terraced housing, narrow front doors opening onto the street, or, more respectably, semi-detached late 19th century two- and three-storey villas, now converted into self-contained apartments. A seedy pall of neglect hung over the region, as if decades of smoke and coal dust from the steam railways lingered still. There was no consistent sense of entrenched ownership, no evidence of a stable core of residents whose long inhabitation declared belonging, a vibrant and centred community. Absentee landlords rented out the flats and a ragged tide of stony-faced sub-letting landladies, embattled families, elderly couples who wanted no trouble and students a long way from home ebbed and flowed through the shabbily furnished rooms. Corner shops, unchanged in appearance (and in some cases apparently in stock) since the early years of the century, supplied baked beans, sliced white bread and rolling tobacco to the neighbourhoods. Grim, chemically-lit self-service laundrettes churned the garments and bedclothes of the populace day and night. In steamy cafes bus drivers, off-duty postmen and truanting schoolkids ordered bacon butties and sucked on Pepsi-Colas and pints of orange tea. Dark, sticky-floored pubs served up warm pints to solitary old men by day and rollicking undergraduates by night.

It was the second year of the Drama course. After 10 years of boarding school I was ready for my own place and, with my pal Dick Hughes, I paid the deposit on a flat in a squalid little terraced house along the steep gradient that linked New Cross Gate with Deptford. Dick and I had the top floor – two minute bedrooms and a tiny kitchen with a veteran and stoneware sink and one cold water tap. There was no bathroom and, bafflingly, no toilet. In our anxiety to embrace the bohemian lifestyle we’d missed the bit where Mr. Buddhu, our landlord, had explained that we would need to arrange access to the single backyard toilet with the multi-generational Indian family downstairs. Since they rarely answered the door on which we pounded after a night’s steady drinking at the New Cross House, this access was rarely available. We managed a couple of weeks of bladder and bowel control and baths in the ancient municipal facility behind the college. But having managed to ignore the scurrying sounds at night, we finally drew the line at sharing cheese sandwiches with rats so bold that, when discovered at breakfast one morning, they remained at the kitchen table until they had finished.

A larger flat was found in Tyrwhitt Road. It occupied the middle of three floors and although the toilet and bathroom were shared, they were on our floor, as was the gas meter. (This cooperative piece of equipment wasn’t fussy about coinage and would accept readily one of those old French francs with the hole in the middle. We dangled the coin on a piece of tough fishing twine into the slot and sharply withdrew it the moment we heard the gas ignite). Again, we each had our own room, but this time the galley was marginally larger and it had a hot water tap. What puzzled us was why the rent was the same as what we had paid for the Clifton Rise rat trap. This was clarified for us by the cheery Irish proprietor of the corner shop. It was because all the other tenants, and the neighbours on both sides too, were from the Carribean and the landlord, a Greek Cypriot called Christodoulu, was generous to his white tenants in their adversity. In order to take up the financial slack, he simply charged his West Indian clients higher rents.

The family upstairs of us was quietly respectable. Every Sunday they would emerge wearing black suits and straw hats with lace veils, and white gloves and they’d head off for the Jubilee Baptist Church in Peckham. The family downstairs were in glorious, shamless contrast. They were a young couple called Byron and Lucinda Godrich with two tiny children, a girl, Millie, & a boy, Manley. Byron had a portable stall selling records and sheet music and he worked three times a week, moving between Deptford, Greenwich and Lewisham markets. The remainder of the time he alternated between sinking deep into a broken-down sofa wreathed in smoke and dancing rubber-limbed on the threadbare carpet before the empty fireplace. Lucinda brewed black tea and stirred a permanently simmering pot of bully beef and rice with one child on her hip and the other clinging to her skirts.

Dick and I were made aware of their presence on the first night of our residence. Exhausted by the move (we’d transported all our possessions to and fro the mile-and-a-half lashed onto a single bicycle), we’d had a couple of beers and retired early. I was jerked out of a deep and dreamless sleep in the small hours by the sound of music. It wasn’t the usual dull, bass-heavy thump of unidentifiable music heard through walls; it was a masonry-shaking, pile driving immanence of sound driven by a lurching, rollocking rhythm with the emphasis on the offbeat. I sat up in bed transfixed. The immediate sensation was of being locked in the engine room of an ocean liner, a foot or two away from the driving pistons. But the secondary sensation on rising into wakelfulness was one of delight: what was this extraordinary noise that sounded so familiar and yet so exotic at the same time? It continued for about an hour, melody and tempo varying, but that loping beat a constant. And then suddenly it ceased, leaving in its wake the echo of rattling drums, bubbling bass, a guitar played on the upstroke, creaky, slightly off-key sax and brass and, riding on top, impassioned but largely incomprehensible lyrics.

The following day Byron, emerging from his flat to buy a paper, found me sitting on the stairs, my arms clasped around my knees, rocking back and forth like a child in pain, the skipping and churning having minutes before fired up again. Mistaking my hunched state for acute discomfort, he apologised profusely and turning back towards his door, he promised immediate silence. When hastily I put him right, he grinned, pushed a hand through his unruly hair and invited me in. I was introduced to the family, a cup of tea was brewed and we spent the rest of the morning (on a day dedicated to last-minute exam coaching at the college) going through stacked boxes of Trojan, Island and Blue Beat singles.

Over the next few months, driven by Byron Godriche’s messianic zeal, I received a crash course in state-of-the-art ska. Via the music from the likes of Jamaica Fats, Derrick Morgan, Cornell Campbell and Ezz Reco, I was able to make the clear connection between early ska and the tight-yet-loose swing beat of Louisiana R&B, the first point of distinct influence. Higgs and Wilson and Clancy Eccles introduced me to the greater emphasis on the vocal line. Early Jimmy Cliff brought in the contemporary influence of American chart pop styling, But most intoxicating of all was the surging pulse of the ska that was being recorded there and then, both in Kingston, Jamaica and in tiny studios all around South London, and an abiding love for The Skatalites, Toots and The Maytals, Prince Buster, Drumbago and The Blenders, Desmond Dekker and countless one-hit wonders was born. Although the incomprehensibility of most of the lyrics added to the mystery and dynamism of the music for me, Byron Insisted on translating everything and soon I was laughing with him (albeitt, as a rather unworldly middle class white boy, secretly shocked) at the open sexuality of his favourites – such tracks as Penny Reel and Papa, Do It Sweet, full of uninhibited bawdy joy. And I was deeply impressed and not a little intrigued by the strange melange of political satire and residual African iconography of other songs. It seemed that every area of human experience was covered by ska and all of it carried along on a storming, skanking beat.

Later, after I moved from Tyrwhitt Road to a flat in Lee Green, I used to delight in evening and night-time wandering up and down the roads leading off Lewisham High Street, moving through the merging pools of sound that spilled from one open window after another. Even more exciting was the brief time that my then girlfriend spent in a Goldsmiths’ hall of residence in Brixton (this locality having the highest density of West Indian population in London). I would drag her through the market, pausing at one record stall after another to part with the remnants of my student grant. In fact, a principal cause of our parting was, as I recollect, her always having to buy the drinks and cinema tickets!

By the time I started teaching, first at a primary school in New Cross and subsequently at a large and terrifying boys’ secondary school just off Albany Road, Deptford, ska had emerged from the ghetto. Records had charted and the first wave of skinheads had adopted the more obscure sounds as their signature music. Ska mutated into something altogether more accommodating to the host nation and my interest in its development waned as jangling folk-rock and feedback-happy psychedelia captured the hearts and souls of white middle class youth. The world changed very rapidly and my brief direct relationship with an emergent musical form that carried within it the evolving cultural identity and deep informing roots of an entire people was eclipsed by my own race’s preoccupation with a largely spurious and self-indulgent inner world. I had shared enormous shaggy spliffs with Byron and listened to early Bob Marley through a haze of half-sleep and laughter. But now serial smoking of ‘red leb’ & ‘pakki black’ (the casual racism entirely lost on us at the time) became the sacrament at the heart of the self-proclaimed ‘alternative culture’ and the instrumental functions of the drug as a filter through which to experience the music were transformed into something, in part at least, self-serving and fashionable.

It wasn’t until the sudden explosion of the post-punk Two Tone craze that I re-discovered ska. Music was still a vital force at the centre of my life – I was playing in a hard-working blues band and spending much too little time doing my bit at home. But I’d lost a sense of popular music as a defining element at the heart of a nascent culture. The parade of bands that swiftly followed in the wake of The Specials and Madness brought something of that back for me and, once again, I found myself shuffling to and fro, a white shade of my rubber-limbed black mentor, to the old classics and the new sounds that drew both reverently but innovatively from them.

It’s nearly 40 years since the founding of the Two-Tone label and, as I type, the sounds of The Maytals’ Funky Kingston give way to The Beat’s Stand Down, Margaret. Even in very advanced middle age, I can still ‘Do the Reggay’ as well as any other white fan of a quintessentially black musical form. However, much as I enjoy some of the more off-the-wall hip-hop, for me, a rather unworldly middle class white boy, the West Indian/British Afro-Caribbean nexus will always be best represented by the elemental loping rhythms of pure, mid-‘60s hard-skanking ska.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHB3tXjdBiE
EZZ RECO / KING OF KINGS

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gAef7I_5PWc
PAPA, DO IT SWEET

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=SKA
JAMAICA SKA / TOOTS & THE MAYTALS

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORIYtJWowOE
TWIST & CRAWL / THE BEAT

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MORGAN, MULLIGAN AND ME.

It was jazz that finally provided a soundtrack to my nascent sense of rebellion. And it was understanding jazz that finally gave me a sense of the world as a place in which I too might step outside the four-square frame and improvise around a theme.

This story is true. In the sense that improvising around a theme remains true throughout…


MORGAN, MULLIGAN AND ME

‘My Funny Valentine’
Art Farmer – trumpet
Gerry Mulligan – baritone sax
Bill Crow – bass
Dave Bailey – drums

There was
it seemed
a chance
after all

a chance
that in spite
of the thick
cat curve of

Morgan’s midnight
hair; the
electric green
surveillance of

those Cleopatra
eyes; the
devastating scorn
of that

elevated lip,
she might
just notice me
for all my looks

laughable un-
photographable.
A neutral party
told me late

one Tuesday
after lunch
and with all of
break before us

(this for the price
of my last
French cigarette)
that she had

a thing
a real thing
a kink for a
saxophone.

Where all
the other girls
had things for
a kiss-curl fall

or a hand
drooped limp
at the wrist
or a hip-switch

twist away from
the microphone
she favoured
the blue smoke

of a saxophone.
So it was tongue
and breath against
bone and sinew

and I knew that
this I could
accommodate
and more.

So when some
other afternoon
(the golden hour gone
grey with rain)

I saw her curled
alone along the
studio window seat
watching the wind

in the trees
along the drive
I slipped
the disc from

its whisky
amber sleeve
laid it like
an offering to

the turntable
lifted on
the stylus and
sat down across

the room
head bowed
hands clasped
in shadow.

Mulligan and
Funny Valentine:
the lemon slice
of Farmer’s

trumpet lead;
the distant bumble
of the baritone
before it lifts

its fuzzy head
and whispers
its sweet and
cruel put-down

praises up until
the two slow
circling voices
wood and wire

ice and water
drop together
wound into
that comic valentine.

And she uncoiled
raising shoulders
lifting hips turning
last her head

until like a
sideways sphinx
she watched cat
still cat steady.

Then she said
Encore and coiled
again but now
away from light

and facing shade
my shade.
She smiled. And
I smiled too.

MORGAN, MULLIGAN AND ME : Sound File

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FACEBOOK FURLOUGH…

Another attempt at disentanglement from Facebook. Tacit collusion with Zuckerberg hypocrisy and the overall cynicism at the heart of the Facebook process is the larger context and a growing disillusionment with my self-created role as the well-patronised  curator of a wide range of re-posted material against that of the largely ignored sharer of my own poetry is the personal dimension.  

The former is an individual reflection of a currently widening sense of anger and disgust. The latter sense is, of course, entirely subjective, but it’s been accumulating for some time. It seems that I can manage the curation function effortlessly whilst failing almost entirely to generate a similar level of reader interest (if, inevitably, from a narrower constituency) as is stimulated by my poetry peers. At a time when I’m trying very hard to revive my ability to write at all, this indifference is discouraging, even disheartening. 

I’ll continue to post material to this blog, even though its tiny reach will have very few people reading any of it. But when I shut down the Patteran Pages and then subsequently, after a break, set up Sisyphus Ascending, I knew that this would be the case. The season of the slow-grow blog is long passed and I lost such momentum that I had left even as I attempted to sustain the Patteran Pages during the rise of the ‘fast-food’ social media. Sisyphus Ascending will operate best as an archive, maintained for my own satisfaction. Not an ideal state of being for one whose original motivation way back in the early noughties was to share communication within a wide and vital community of fellow bloggers. But ‘these are the rigs of the time, me boys, these are the rigs of the time’!

As for the poetry, that will form the core of what appears on these pages. I believe that I’ve managed to re-locate the deep current on which I was able to draw before my nearly two-year period of virtual silence and so that must bring its intrinsic rewards as before and I must satisfy myself with that.

As for Facebook, at this insomniac point at 02.30 on Monday morning I haven’t a clue as to what action or inaction lies ahead. Certainly the overwhelming desire is to shut down completely and return to the old analogue world. But, but…

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MANHATTAN TRANSFER – GOING DOWNTOWN

At age 16 I fell in love with the Beats. It was a passion that, for a while, consumed me entirely. Its heat immolated in a single brief firestorm and its light eclipsed in a single flash all that, for me, had gone before – the First World War poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, even my beloved Henry Miller (smuggled back in Obelisk Press paperback editions from family visits to Paris)… A chance purchase in a Leeds bookshop brought about the conflagration. It was a compilation in two sections of writings by the Beat Generation writers and their contemporaneous literary rebels across the water. Published in 1960, it profiled through excerpts from key works poets, novelists and essayists still in full flow, many with their best material yet to come. Called Protest: the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men, the book was skilfully and sensitively edited by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg. For months it went everywhere with me, increasingly annotated within and dog-eared without. Even after I supplemented it with full-length works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs (many of them in cherished American editions – New Departures, Grove Press, City Lights Pocket Poets – tracked down in the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road and Bloomsbury), it sat like an ikon in the centre of the accumulating line of holy relics along my boarding school dormitory bookshelf.

And, of course, my own verse was transformed. A one-time Great War poet recording my harrowing experiences on the Western Front 40-plus years on, I was now a feverish shadow flitting up and down Bleecker Street and Telegraph Avenue, scribbling frantically. Blocks of quarto and foolscap school file paper went under the black ink from my italic-nibbed fountain pen. Like samizdat documents each piece of judiciously lower case gibberish was shared between my fellow proto-bohemians and together we transformed the fire escapes and flat roof-spaces of the school’s rural Yorkshire Victorian bourgeois manor house into urban stoops and loft balconies… 

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The years passed and my literary constellations expanded. But this is no tale of juvenilia abandoned and recalled over time with rueful affection. Even now when I pick up Protest… its powerful charge is renewed and as I cast an eye over its Carl Solomon and its Colin Wilson, its Norman Mailer and its Thomas Hinde, the excitement is as visceral as ever it was, transcending mere nostalgia and drawing on a recognition of the need for the written word to inflame and excite.

Fourteen years ago, inspired by a brush with Protest… during a re-shelving of books, I began, more or less on impulse, to write a 1950s beat poem. Initially nothing more than a mixture of affectionate hommage and an exercise in style, it took on a motive power and forward momentum of its own. Emma and I had recently spent an intense 7 days in New York. Based in a small Upper West Side hotel and from it roaming the snow-drifted streets of Manhattan, the extraordinarily vivid sense memories of every bit of every excursion were as fresh as paint and they fed directly into my protagonist’s journey down town.

The piece got written in a couple of days and was then revised at a much more leisurely pace. I make no claims for it beyond hommage and extended stylistic riffing. But I have enormous affection for it because for me it acts as a brightly-lit corridor back to those first moments amongst the pages of Protest: the Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men…

A MANHATTAN TRANSFER – GOING DOWNTOWN

Starting from the raggy edge
of a night of demons –
Crazy Helga in a blue room
across the alley, her shadow
wild & ticky on the busted blind
as she wails in German
at her TV screen.
Jesus, what a sound:
something dark & spiny
thrashing in her soul
to cry like that.

You
as the spidernet
remnant of a dream,
a fume that discharges
in clear light.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

And then, as I wash my face
in windowmorning light,
the snow still falling,
thick like feathers, like
the white silence
under a wing.
W. 186th – ghostblanketed cars,
hydrants, phone booths,
all mugged and compliant
like freezeframe phantoms.

You
as a lostsoul princess glimpsed
on a busted boxtop
in a trashcan.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

So I step, a slo-mo dancer,
a Magellan of the heart,
a one-trick missionary
with a world to lose,
into the drifts and dunes
and head towards Amsterdam.
Julio’s got his cab
on blocks by the sidewalk.
He curses, half under snow
with a wrench & a torch
while old man Turpin
turns Danish pastry snowslabs
with a shovel & spits
green pockholes deep.

You
as a face from
a crashed snowcloud,
bloodless, tearless,
turning away.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

I sidestep the corner.
Streetcenter subway breath
in plumes, denying snow.
In the deli the Slimani brothers
rattle & blather round
the kebab spit.
Here is a grillbound, spice &
powders corner of Algeria.
On the wall the entire 1st team
of AC Ajaccio, 1983, flyblown
bouffant bushes dooming them
to formica & disco history.

You,
a rumor
in the vapour bloom
on chrome.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

On Amsterdam cabs in chains;
sunshine ghosts kicking up
the crystals. One bent warrior
with a stick raised like Aaron
wagging the serpent, steps
into white surf & disappears
& reappears as one dressed
in ashes for a wake. He moves
like he’s been cauterized in
a furnace of ice.

You
as a smoke theory
behind a high
brownstone window.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

Check into EJ’s for waffles
& coffee & watch the steam
reorganize the air into thick
silver aboriginal mountains.
I slide across vinyl amongst
the prose & numbers shaken out
of the NY Times – the clatter & flash
of barcode headlines, the snap
& flutter of papers lifting
like sudden wings,
from front page clamor
to sports page sidewalk
whisper: Giambi misses
a 3rd straight game.
“Felt fuzzy”, he says.
Jesus, what a putz!
And Sheffield’s sprain’s no problem.
He’s good for Sunday’s game
against the A’s. The boys
kick it around – who are the king hitters?
who are the dancing queens?
“Who the fuck gives a fuck?”
yells Nance stamping snow
off her old lady boots.
“Gimme a black coffee
so I can stand my spoon up in it.”

You
in the window
waterscape,
drawn south
on a hundred streams.
Which should I follow?
Sorry, I’m sorry.

Through Morningside the snow’s
a gray dreamscape. Bloodholes
switch to emerald – the churn & spin
of cop cars crying out loud across
Cathedral Parkway. I’m highstepping
from bootburrow to icefield,
clogging deep & sliding hard.
I drop dark beneath
the streets – the visceral heat
of the subway neon
and the echo of the
footstep cough & scuff,
the hoot & slam wind.
A rocking conspiracy of
furtive travellers, wall-eyed
or wrapped in paper
winding sheets.

You
as a hiphop chant
in the wheels between
Parkway & Columbus.
Say my name,
say my name
like you’re winding up
a spell.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

At Columbus Circle
the lights go dim,
the brakes bind and
for a moment
we are all of
one breath in
the tarry dark.
Then, singing his pain
like a cantor, a guy
in a Mets sweatshirt
& a baseball cap with
a busted peak jumps up.
“We’re fucked, people!” he yells.
His voice is like stones
in a can. “We’re fucked!
This the last train
to San Fernando
& we’re going down!”

You
on the upline platform
at Delancey & Essex
in a brakeman’s cap
from Dave’s Army & Navy.
Blew me a kiss
& turned into a winter fume.
Sorry, I’m sorry.

Washington Square’s
a cloud chamber, the heart
of cumulus. My footprints
turn secret & die behind me.
The edge of everything touches
my face & whispers in
multiple falling voices.
Bleecker carries me
on a twilight current,
turning, turning, the thick
river, past the cameo flash
of Mr Piombino hip-deep
in front of the trattoria,
dug into his own canyon
down to the sidewalk,
his spade disputing logic
with the falling snow that beds
thick in around his feet.
Two cop cars, chained wheels
flailing, and three kids in mufflers
dancing like full moon maniacs
through their slush & mud parabola.
The ghost of Sid Vicious shivers
on the corner of Bleecker & Grove
in charcoal & tarnish. Nothing
but slogans & a thin soul
against a night of hustling bars
looking for the trick who will whisper
where his mother went one
spectral Christmas Eve.
Hell – once just his father’s name
would have been enough
to light a candle
in the dark.

And now Bleecker crosses Broadway
where the snowplows rule.
Surgeons laying the white
flesh bare. And I catch
up my breath & I check
the beat of my Magellan heart,
cruising now into a
safe harbour. The still pool
of the East Village,
the Stuyvesant rendezvous
whose lights bleed pastel thin
through still falling snow.
Dido’s bar & grill whose door
now unplugs & in a draft of steam
it’s your tune comes stumbling
onto the sidewalk
in a spindrift of crystals
and memory like you knew
each step I took, each high step
sliding down Manhattan’s lattices
on hope & a dream unconsumed
to seek you out, painted
onto the inside of the glass
in your logger’s coat, in
your cossack hat like
you knew & sliced the moment
fine as ice & called me home
with your spilled tune,
its colors running in the current,
and you rising sideways &
your head turning in a mist
saying my name,
saying my name
like you’re winding up a spell.

 

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