A Few Words About Me

Just a few details – I’m a 75-year-old with an English father (Devon) and a German-Jewish mother (Westphalian). I was raised in Hampstead, North London, but moved to Tower Hamlets in East London, before moving up to Stoke-on-Trent some thirty two years ago.
I once worked variously as a street labourer, a cleaner, a factory-hand, a warehouseman, a postman, a riverman, and various other short-term jobs, none of them lasting more than ten months, before finally becoming a teacher, which I was for twenty-five years before I finally retired.
My father was a fine pianist, and gave me a taste for music which led me towards classical music and jazz, but also ultimately to British traditional music, which when I was in London I was thought good enough to perform alongside of some of the great names of the day, the most prominent of whom was Ewan McColl, who taught me many lessons about music, art and life, both positive and negative.
I have over a hundred beautiful British songs in my repertoire, and I wish that such songs were better respected in our quasi-American culture. I can also get music out of about ten instruments, but the one I can say I have some mastery of is the fiddle. I have also composed two- to three-hundred tunes, which have I am gratified to say attracted other musicians.
Of course, my life was much more complicated than these few words can convey. I have lived at about fourteen different addresses altogether, having also had a taste of unemployment and homelessness. It has also been scarred by various debilitating physical illnesses and a chronic depression begun in my early childhood and persisting to this day.
I have been in many relationships, some of which are painful to recall, but most of which I remember with great fondness.
Now I live alone in a one-bedroom flat on the fifth floor of a Stoke-on-Trent tower block, facing all the struggles that ‘senior citizens’ (otherwise known as old-age pensioners) must face living in a run-down and deprived area which has struggled not only with a dying economy but also in recent times with the Covid pandemic.
I have very strong political views, which veer to the left more than somewhat, but I have never been and never will be a member of any political party since I have yet to find a party that truly represents my particular views: and in any case I have been known to change my opinions when the occasion warrants such change. I wish to retain my independence of thought and action.
But my interests have always been far wider than just the politics and the music . I have always interested myself in many different things at one time or another in my life. I own a library of about two thousand books covering just about every kind of literature there is – novels, poetry, philosophy, politics, drama, religion, history, science, art, and chess. I have, despite all obstacles, somehow managed to find much in my life that has made it worth living.
Also, for what it’s worth, I am a long-time supporter of my home-town club, Arsenal FC – a true Gooner. Come on you reds.
Which brings me to why I’m writing this blog.
Putting it simply, I intend to speak my mind on any and every topic that suggests itself to me as being in any way interesting.
That could be anything. It all depends on how I feel on the day.
Sometimes, knowing me, I will be quiet and contemplative, musing on the various wonders the world has to offer; at other times I will no doubt find reason to complain about my lot in life; while at other times I will be loud and opinionated when it concerns the great issues which affect us all.
I can do this because we live in an age where technologies such as WordPress allow us to communicate our thoughts and ideas round the world almost at the speed of light, and for those of us who are not fit to make the complicated, long-winded, and often fruitless effort of getting our works published in print, that is a boon and a blessing. And also, like most people who find themselves living alone, I need some kind of contact with the world outside my four walls. This, when I feel alone, is a good way of talking to people instead of always to myself.
So here I am, for you who are reading this to make of whatever you will.
Enjoy.

PMQs 08.06.22

Just listening to PMQs.

Oh my saints, what a ridiculous figure Johnson is now cutting!

Bombastic, blustering, self-justifying: still pretending to himself as well as to us that his failures are successes, and still telling blatant lies! Over and over, the same bloody lies!

Nothing seems to get through to him: he’s like a charging bull who can’t be stopped however many tranquiliser darts are fired at him!

And yet – there is something about his tone which tells me he is very nervous now.

He is thrashing around to say something which will change people’s minds about him, but he can’t stop himself saying what he’s said a million tedious times before.

He has got so used to repeating his well-practised speeches so many times on so many occasions that it has become a habit with him, an addiction, like smoking.

Even so, he has found enough of his MPs to back him and so keep him in power. What exactly are they thinking?

Have they been bribed? Are they scared of the alternatives? Or do they really believe that Johnson is the Tory Party’s winning hand in a general election?

Or maybe a combination of all three?

Whatever the case, Johnson has done more to foul the atmosphere in Parliament than any-one or anything since The Great Stink of 1858. It’s tragic that this man is being kept in place by people who can’t smell the sewage.

A Lesson In Criticism….

‘You do not like this poem of mine,
And you say so, loud and clear;
You want to prove your brilliance
With a harsh, dismissive sneer.
But all your knocking tells me is
That you have nothing to say
Which I could usefully listen to:
So please, just go away.’

No artist expects their work to be liked by every-one. But they do hope that there will be those who do appreciate them. They create their work because they want to say something about themselves which can’t be said in any other way.
For some, that is enough. They’ve said what they want to say and have no desire to take matters further. What the audience for that work makes of that is simple: either they like it or they don’t. However, they have to respect that the artist has not asked for anything other than to be understood. The audience can say what it is they understand from the work, or they can keep their thoughts to themselves, which really shouldn’t be that hard. These artists do not create their work just so that they can be targets for the self-righteous, self-important, and pompous who think they know better than the artists what the artists should have done. These artists are trying to share something of themselves with the world, no more, no less.
For others, they are very conscious of their craft, and want to work on it so that they can develop their techniques to the point where they feel they can do what they do not feel they are yet doing, which is to say exactly what they want to say in the way they want to say it. These artists invite comment and criticism.
Again, how potential critics react to them is simple: they can respect the artist’s request and tell them what they think there is in the work which is is worth preserving and what is worth changing; they might even make suggestions in a spirit of helpfulness. However, if they cannot like the work and have nothing positive to say about it, that really does not mean they should say as much. These artists who seek the kind of guidance which will give them the confidence to continue their efforts are looking for and deserve some degree of positivity in the responses their work elicits. They should not be made into a target by the self-righteous, self-important, and all too often malicious people who think that every-one who fails to meet their personal criteria for what is go must be failures who deserve to be treated with a scolding.
The lesson is, if you disrespect the art, you are disrespecting the artist. And by ‘disrespect’ I don’t mean ‘dislike’. There are many works of art I dislike intensely, but I can respect them as works of art, because I can at least appreciate some quality they have, and I can certainly respect the artist’s intentions. I can learn from them just as much, if not sometimes more, than all those works that please me.
People who attack any given work of art just because they’ve taken against it do not realise they are attacking the human being who created it; because that art represents that human being to the world. The two can’t be seperated.
The problem here is, I know that there are some who will read this who, knowing I am talking about them, will come back it me with a very simple-minded answer. They will say in their righteous fashion that I am attacking them because they are simply exercising their freedom to have an opinion and to express it, and those who can’t accept what they are saying should simply put up with it.
This misses the point. First, having a freedom does not mean that there is any duty to exercise it, especially if its use causes unnecessary hurt. And secondly, we all have those freedoms, which many millions of people round the world use to create art. Accusing them of creating work that should not have been created because it doesn’t suit a particular taste is itself an attack, and a supremely hypocritical one, on their freedom to have an opinion and to express it.
And as you surely now realise, I have used my own freedom to have an opinion and express it to make the little verse with which I started this piece, which I hope makes my point more simply than I have made it in what has come after it.
But then again, I have said what I want to say in the way I wanted to say it. Nobody has to read it if they don’t want to.

Name A Great Poet…

(‘Reading By The Brook’ Winslow Homer 1879)

Name a great poet.
You have a very wide choice,
But one name will do.

Was there a time when
That poet couldn’t walk or talk,
But then, wow! he could?

And was there a time
When that poet couldn’t write?
But then, yes! he could?

He learnt how to make
Words appear in front of him
Which others could read!

But was he a great
Poet yet? No, of course not.
No-one is born great.

He had to learn, and
There were only three ways that
He could do that, yes?

He had to look at
The world around him, work out
What he thought of it;

Read other poets,
Enjoy their work, let them share
Their visions with him;

Then he had to try
And write what he thought, find the
Words that worked the best.

That is when he learnt
That he would be a poet:
His writing mattered.

He loved to watch the
Words appear, to see his thoughts
Shine out of the page.

And so he kept on
Writing, not caring what the
Rest of the world thought.

Until one day, he
Knew he had something which he
Knew was worth sharing.

It might be his mother
Or his brother, or some-one else
Who first read his work,

And they saw in it
Something that they could value,
Told him to keep on.

And so he kept on
Until his words sang out his
Life throughout the world.

But he always knew,
However the world judged him,
He would never stop.

That is how poets
Discover their own voices,
Create their own lives.

So, name such a poet.
You have an infinite choice,
But one name will do.

The Fighting Temeraire

Living in North London, raised by parents who gave me a great deal of liberty, I discovered the Tate and the National Galleries when I was very young, and in my early teens they became among my favourite places to visit. I could not have wished for a better grounding in the subject of art, especially as I could form my own tastes and opinions without some adult telling me what I should or shouldn’t like.
During the school holidays I used to visit these galleries early in the week when there would be few people there. I developed an especially great love for certain of the pictures on display, and by going early in the week I got to stand in front of these pictures, quite alone, and look at them, think about them, enjoy them, to my heart’s content. Just for those few minutes, I was the only person in the world who was looking at the real paintings and not one of the millions of reproductions scattered around the world; just for those few minutes, I owned them. Constable, Van Gogh, Monet, Turner, DaVinci, they had painted these works for me.
I remember the picture where I first recall having this particular thought, at about the age ten. It’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ by JMW Turner, and it’s to be found in the Tate Gallery: there is no picture I have ever found quite as fascinating as this one, for the skill of the brushwork, the nigh-perfect combination of colour and composition, and for the story it tells.

Sunflowers

This is one of the many versions of ‘Sunflowers’ that Vincent Van Gogh painted. It’s the one found in London’s National Gallery which I visited frequently from my childhood on. It was one of those pictures I used to gravitate towards every time I visited; it was magnetic, irresistible.
I loved it partly because I had feelings about it connected with my own state of mind which I did not and still do not fully understand, but which feel important somehow: though what meaning Van Gogh intended it to convey I have no real idea. But that’s the thing about so much great art: it makes you tell your own stories, use your own imagination, beyond what the artist has imagined for you.
I also love it for its craftsmanship. The problem with reproductions in the case of artists like Van Gogh and the Impressionists of the same era is that you do not see what the original picture shows you of the way the artists’ work. With this picture, you can see every brush-stroke stand out from the canvas, giving the flowers themselves and the vase they stand in a sense of solidity, almost three-dimensional. You can imagine standing by Van Gogh as he painted and watching his brush action as he laid the paint down.
And the colours of the original are so fresh and bright, you can almost feel the warmth rising from them. It’s not a particulary realistic representation of sunflowers in a vase, but it has a reality that seems to me to be undeniable. One day I might work out exactly what that reality is.

The Cornfield

‘The Cornfield’, John Constable, 1826: another of the pictures from the National Gallery that have come to mean so much to me.
It’s an odd thing about Constable, that while we think of him as a painter of decorative English landscapes, a little old-fashioned and traditional maybe, many of his contemporaries criticised him for his modernity, his choice of subject matter and his (to them) overloose technique.
In fact, he, along with JMW Turner, were the two English artists who provided the inspiration for the French Impressionist movement, which began by outraging the French art establishment but then went on to revolutionise the whole western world’s perception of what art could do.
How could he or Turner ever know exactly what their impact on the history of art would be?
Not that I knew any of that when I stood before this painting all those years ago: I just thought it depicted a world I might like to live in. I quite envied the boy drinking out of the stream.




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A Gooner Speaks….

(Written 12.05.2022. Final result: Spurs 3 Arsenal 0)


When I last dared to look, I saw that the Arsenal were being hammered by Spurs at White Hart Lane tonight. Really annoying, and always a bit saddening when that happens.
Now I know it shouldn’t matter, but it does.
I appreciate that there are many for whom football holds no interest. But then again, they should appreciate that football is central to our popular culture and has been for well over a hundred years.
The upper-classes have their ballet, their theatre, their huntin’ and fishin’ : the working-class has football. It is a sport that people grow up with. It is part of their identity.
This is partly because of their local teams that they grow to support through watching them every other week at their home ground, the biggest theatres in town with the most dramatic shows, shows they can participate in with their noise, shows where they can shout out exactly what they think and how they feel in ways which are forbidden to them everywhere else (something they would have learned from the grown-up who took them to their first games).
It is also partly due to the ease with which it can be played, needing just a ball (or something which can be kicked around if no ball is available), and any spare patch of ground where coats can be laid down as goalposts or a goal can be chalked on a wall. Money, unlike most other areas of life, is not a defining factor, which is another reason for its attraction.
And there is also the ambition football can breed, as street kickarounds are chronically the stage for spectacular fantasy as the younger players imagine themselves in the role of their footballing heroes doing great deeds in front of cheering crowds (while the mid-day factory-yard kickarounds of workers once allowed them an expressive physical freedom their work didn’t give them).
My association with Arsenal didn’t go back so early in my life, since I was in my twenties when I went to my first game at Highbury in 1972 (Arsenal 3 Nottingham Forest 0); but I was hooked from the start, and didn’t miss a game there for the next ten years.
For various reasons, I stopped attending; but I have followed the Arsenal’s fortunes ever since, and my life would be the lesser without all the excitement, all the joys and the disappointments that go with that. Anybody who supports a team,especially their home team, will know what I mean.
So, even though tonight is turning out to be a very bad night for all us Gooners, I will still follow my team in the same spirit as all those kids do who adopt the names of their favourite players while they strive to do something worthy before their parents called them in for tea (back in the day I wanted to be Stanley Matthews: everybody did). Again, any-one who has a team they love will feel the same.

The Hill

These handsome. many-windowed houses
and their pampered tree-sheltered gardens
were built to partner this steeply-rising road;

for looking down on cool nights such as this
those who live in them can observe at their leisure
a sparkling city, a glittering mosaic of brilliant jewels.

But do they ever look the other way, to where the road
reaches up towards a vast and distant sky,
far above the highest of these towering rooves;

and do they know what is beyond the clouded ridge:
spacious moorlands perhaps,close-patterned fields,
echoing forests, maybe even another shimmering city?

I do not know; I am new to this place,
and all I see when I look to where the road seems to end
is a fading into insignificant darkness.

I have had much cause lately to think about my final end. I am reminded of this poem that I had written some years ago, which described a real place I visited in Surrey, but which also described in metaphorical form my feelings as they concern religious faith. For better or worse, I do not have one. I have a spiritual life,and a highly philosophical view of human existence, but I do not see the world and its place in the universe as the religionists see it. There are mysteries that cannot be explained, not by religion, not by science, not by conspiratorial guess-work. One of those mysteries is the experience of death. This poem is an allegorical expression of that sense of mystery as might be experienced by a non-religionist. It is not as despairing as it might first seem. I value life for what it is. As painful as it has been I have fought to use it, to achieve something with it. But I also value the thought that one day, one way or the other, I will be done at last with all the pain that my life has thrust upon me.

THE BORIS JOHNSON DEFENCE

I listened to Boris Johnson defending himself this afternoon in the House of Commons. Having heard the many and various questions which the opposition parties asked him, and having witnessed the silencing of his party as those questions piled on, I thought I’d summarise, not the words, but the substance and the spirit, of Johnson’s answers to all those questions, as well as his behaviour since the news of the Downing Street parties first broke :

‘I’m sorry.
I’m really sorry.
All I can say is, I’m sorry.
I mean it, I really do, I’m sorry. That’s all I can say.
I made a mistake. I accept that I made a mistake. I certainly can’t deny that I made a mistake. It was an error of judgment. I whole-heartedly acknowledge that error of judgment.
Can we talk about something else now?
I understand why people don’t believe it was an error of judgment. It didn’t look like an error of judgment. It looked like the deliberate act that it was. But it wasn’t. It was an error of judgment. And for that I give this apology. This heart-felt apology. I’m very very sorry.
Please can we talk about something else?
I didn’t lie to any-one. I didn’t mislead any-one. I didn’t tell a single untruth, even though they were untruths. I know that what I said wasn’t true. But I didn’t know it wasn’t true even though I did.
I wish we could talk about something else now.
It happened. I’m in no position to say it didn’t happen. It did. But I absolutely didn’t know at the time it was happening. It clearly was, which I knew at the time, but I didn’t know it was.
For that I’m sorry.
Really, really sorry. I ask you all to accept my apologies. My profound, meaningful and sincere apologies. I’ve been punished for whatever it is I might have done, if indeed I did it, which I did. That’s why I’m sorry. I’m really, really, really sorry.
That’s all I have to say.
So now, can we all, please, talk about something else?’

Heritage: A Story

His mother lilts for the dancers
when there’s no musicians to play;
she stands by the field side
on summer evenings
and faces them
as they show off their ancient art
to the darkening sky,
while the old folk sit on chairs
watching with critical eyes
and the children,
with fewer years than fingers,
sit on walls
laughing, shoving. clapping;
and he one of them,
though prouder than they
because that’s his mother there,
respected by all,
her voice as bright
as the rising moon,
driving the dancers on
till there’s no strength left in them
for dancing. There’s one tune she lilts,
a reel, fast, sinewy, hard;
it has all the force
of unyielding waves breaking on
the rocky headland
or a beater
striking a mighty bodhran;
all the drive
of rushing winds
racing through the winter forest,
or nimble-fingered pipers
tempting the trees to dance.
He loves it
and remembers it,
and when he’s alone
he plays it
over and over in his head
on his imaginary fiddle,
for it’s a fiddle he longs to have. So when at last
it’s his tenth birthday
and his father gives him
a real fiddle, saying
‘I think you’re just about man enough
to hold oneof these,’
the reel is one of the first tunes
he tries to play
where his father has sent him
so no-one can hear his racket.

But he doesn’t know
what it’s called;
so he goes to his mam
as she stands over the washing tub,
and says, ‘Mam, that tune you lilt
for the dancers.’
‘Which one?’ she says,
and he lilts a few bars of it to her.
‘What about it?’ she says.
‘What’s it called?’ he says.
‘I don’t know, she says,
I made it myself
when I was younger,
about your age I’d say,
but I never gave it a name.’
‘So what should I call it?’ he says.
‘Whatever you like,’ she says:
‘Now I have this to do, so leave me.’

A fiddler,
nostrils full of smoke,
had done with playing for the night.
He was packing up his instrument,
looking forward to a long, cold beer,
when a young woman
came onto the stage
and stood beside him.
She said,
‘That was really beautiful; thank you.
For a time there
I almost forgot where I actually was.’
‘I’ve played better,’ he said:
But I appreciate the thought.’
‘That last tune you played,’ she said,
‘I think it was a reel.’
‘Yes it was,’ he said,’what about it?’
‘Is that an old tune,
or do you know who wrote it?’
‘All my tunes are old,’ he said,
‘and I don’t suppose I know
who composed one in a hundred of them:
does it matter?’
‘I don’t suppose it does,’ she said,
‘but sometimes it would be nice to know
why a tune was made,
where it got its title from.’
‘Well,’ he said,
‘no-one will ever know for most of them:
when the people who made these tunes went
their life-stories went with them.’

She said, ‘that’s sad.’
‘Is it?’ he said:
‘Why?’

The years have passed.
He is head of his family now;
not only that but
he plays for the dancers too;
and the tune he learnt from his mother
is the tune they ask for most:
and every time he plays it,
or hears his children
give it a go – one like him loves the fiddle
while the other favours the pipes –
he hears her silver voice
as clear as if she is standing beside him,
and each and every time he says to himself,
‘By God could she lilt!’

But how can he not think of her then?
The tune bears her name.

I am a life-long lover of the traditional i.e. pre-Americanised folk-music of my homeland, the British Isles. Its great value, apart from its unique character, is that it was a truly popular music, insofar as it was free, a genuinely individual and communal art, which meant that everybody owned it and could bring their own creativity to bear on it with whatever skill they had, large or small, just for the pleasure of it; and above all, they could tell the stories of their own lives and tell them in their own language without having to accord to the accents an idioms of a global industry which manufactures and markets music as product. I have tried to tell here a story which at the very least hints at the kind of individual and communal bond we of these islands,whether Irish,English, Scots orWelsh, once had with our common culture.