Letting Go & Learning To Ride

To be honest, I was thinking of writing to you about my shoes. I have quite a lot to say about my shoes, the shoes that I have and the shoes I have had. I think there is a post in that subject, but I am going to set that aside and save it for another day.

When I said to my partner this morning, ‘I am going to write my blog’, and mentioned the fact that, as is often the case, I don’t know what I am going to write about, my partner said: “write about the little boy we saw in the park”. I knew just what my partner meant by this, and, because I like the idea of writing based on someone else’s intervention or directive, I am going to try and satisfy this request.

What, or rather who, or whom my partner meant by “the little boy in the park” was really two little boys. I am not that good at judging the ages of children, but I would say that one was about 3 years old and the other was about 5 (though they could have been 4 and 6, or even 2 and 4). I assume that they were brothers and they were playing, on their bicycles, exploring the potential of a man-made hill in the park.

Now, I am not that good at describing hills either, but I will have a go. The hill in question is maybe 15 meters high and the side on which the children were playing inclines at an angle of, hmmmmm, I  would say about 40 degrees. Numerous joggers and walkers have worn paths into the hill, but you’d have to be brave or reckless to go down one of them on a bicycle. But that’s exactly what these two little boys were doing.

The older boy had two bikes, which he used interchangeably. One was a full bike with pedals and brakes, but the other was one of those trainer bikes, that has no pedals and no brakes and is designed to gather quiet confidence using the feet to remain upright and to move forwards, without having to fully balance . Meanwhile, the smaller boy had only his tiny trainer bike, again, with no pedals or brakes.

My partner and I had been relaxing in the park, not walking for a change but instead watching a quite skilful and lively game of soccer. Gradually however, these two little boys arrested our attention, not least because we feared for their safety every time they courageously hauled their bikes to the top of the hill and let themselves zoom down it, using various improvised techniques to keep themselves upright and on-board while travelling as fast as possible down the slope.

Anxious for their well-being, especially  for the little one, we looked around for their guardian but could only see a figure standing hundreds of yards away, who seemed to be exchanging glances with them, and who might have just been their guardian. If so, this ‘responsible adult’ seemed to have purposefully abandoned the children to their own sense of risk and adventure, perhaps with the aim of instilling in them some sense of confidence and ability to take risks, to go out on a limb and to learn instinctively and by making mistakes (as some parents bravely baptise their babies in a swimming pool to accelerate their swimming ability) .

Interestingly, neither of the children did make any mistakes. Instead, they seemed highly skilled, to an amazing degree given their age, at maximising thrills while avoiding disasters. By the time they reached the bottom of the steep hill path, where it levelled out into the flat grass and met a busy pathway, they were travelling very fast (it’s hard to say how many mph). They could also have been in danger of colliding with adult cyclists who occasionally passed that way, or of losing control and veering into one of several nearby picnicking groups.

As I watched, I recalled, still with some embarrassment, that I hadn’t learned to ride a bicycle until I was 11 years old. Why? Had I really been so timid? I knew that, part of the reason was that I simply didn’t have a bicycle as a kid. There had been a tricycle that I had loved, as a toddler, and lost (my first tragic relationship break-up) when it was stolen, but then there was a huge gap of maybe 8 or 9 years when bikes and bike culture seem never to have crossed my mind or my path, until a two-wheeled bicycle appeared, (with some sense of fanfare, as my dad had really splashed-out, as ever, using some kind of credit-scheme to buy it).

At that time, bikes were suddenly trendy. The revolutionary, best-selling Raleigh ‘Chopper’ (now a design classic) had made a bike a ‘must-have’, though dad bought me (and my closest brother) ‘more sensible’ racing-style bikes on which he probably hoped we might go touring. In actual fact, we never learned how to really explore and exploit those bikes, nor to maintain them, but bumped their poor thin wheels up and down far too many of the council estate’s kerbstones (competing with the Choppers) and quite soon wrecked them – the fate of so many affordable or downright cheap things in the household of my childhood and adolescence.

I do recall one adventurous ride out into the nearby countryside, and one (just one) fearful and exciting ride down a notoriously long and vertiginous local hill. I also recall a strangely ill-informed, bleak and dusty ride along a major A-Road, filled with massive dirty trucks and jammed with commuting cars as my brother and I and another friend sought to prove that we could cycle all the way in to London from our satellite estate, sited about 20 – 30 miles to the East of the metropolis.

I also recall that it was a visiting uncle, and not my mum or dad or friend or elder brother who had belatedly taught me to ride a two-wheeled bicycle aged 11. Visiting uncles of course always have a little more time and patience than your dad to do such things. Whose bike it was, I don’t know? Perhaps one borrowed from an elder brother. My dad, my uncle and I – and probably a few other siblings – were walking down a long, straight, poplar-lined lane where we often used to go on ‘nature walks’. My uncle found a way of supporting me and running along with me until such time as I was riding alone and hadn’t realised that he had let go of the bike. It was a wonderful moment, that I’m sure many others have experienced in a similar way.

Now, when I think of it, there must have been something special about acquiring that special new skill and that magical moment of freedom at such a late age, and of being able to experience and appreciate it with that level of maturity, whereas, the little children in the park I saw yesterday will probably never recall this moment in their own lives because it happened when they were so young.

Before I finish here, I just want to also mention a memorable description, written by my hero Walter Benjamin, of a highly dressed menagerie of upper-middle-class (or haute bourgeois) Berliners, around the turn of the (19th into the 20th) century, training, with as much grace and gentility as they could muster and with some corresponding level of farce, to ride bicycles within the safety, luxury and privacy of what must have been one of the first ever purpose-built velodromes – with a shining wooden floor. The passage appears in one of his two or three main writings of his childhood memories of Berlin, and I recommend reading it, not least for its great sense of absurdity.

 

Two Books & Two Ways To Hope

Yesterday two books arrived in my letter box. One is titled ‘On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’, the other is a lovely Green Moleskine academic year diary.

Yes, academics (which I am, in part) have different years and different diaries to everyone else, and we might be the only profession to do so  – I haven’t checked all the others? So, our year ends and begins in what most people call summer holiday time.

For much of my life I didn’t own a diary because I didn’t have a profession or even a job, nor any or many social engagements. When I finally found a job I could hold-down, that I liked, that felt like ‘me’ and not like some unbearable, unsustainable and thankless burden, I was forty years old. I started to realise, with some degree of panic that most people my age had started their lives and careers 20 years earlier while I had been drifting, falling, flailing around and failing all that time, and not earning a cent either.

Still, I didn’t own anything and was relatively free compared to those contemporaries who had left school with qualifications, done a degree in their 20s, found a job, a partner, a home etc. etc.

I can recall a strong feeling, a kind of thrill, the first time, in my job as an arts lecturer, that myself and my colleague finished off a long and tiring assessment process and went to the college bar for a drink and a wind-down chat. It might not sound much to others, but it was a hugely symbolic moment to me where and when I suddenly felt part of something and that my contributions were valuable and valued. I felt for the first time like a professional person.

My teaching was immediately popular, and I was full of energy and enthusiasm for this role that I now realised I’d been looking for all my life. I was oozing with ideas to share with students, soo many of which I’d worked through and thought about in my long wilderness years, but had never had anyone to share them with before.

I started being asked to do more teaching, bits here and there and at various colleges. I realised I needed a diary. This was again a symbolic moment and a symbolic object, and ever since then I have made the moment of starting a new diary for a new academic year a special moment of pride and a reminder of all the years when I wasn’t ‘in demand’ and had no structure to my year or to my life – no profession.

At times, I’ve even come to fetishise my diary and for a while owned a fancy, bulky Filofax into which I could just insert and refresh the diary section each year. Then I started just using the cheap basic one that my college admin office handed-out at the end of the summer term. This year, of course, everything is online, virtual and distanced and so I had to buy my own.

So, I went online shopping and got seduced by the Green Moleskine academic diary that arrived yesterday. I’m strangely excited about it and really want to show it off.

Another thing I should say about the diary is that it is full of hope, in that it contains dates going all the way up to December 2021. This implies then that I will be employed and working all that time, when, of course, with the perilous and fragile state of the world, a lot of people, including academics, don’t know for sure if their/our employment will remain intact, remain the same, remain capable of sustaining them/us.

I also know that one day I might not need a diary again. That I will retire and/or be no-longer wanted or required by the colleges and the students. But this year I have a diary and have a role and a job and am as proud and excited about that as the first time it happened.

Of course, before finishing, I should mention the other book that arrived, ‘On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century‘, which you might say is less hopeful than my diary. It’s by Timothy Snyder and I can recommend it.

It’s nicely designed and edited to be read in a few hours. It’s also quite terrifying and makes clear just what a dangerous time this is in the world politically. But it does its best to motivate the reader to behave in the best and most constructive way possible, faced with all the many examples of tyranny and near-tyranny and potential tyranny in our world at this moment.

There’s little in the way of hopes and horizons when I listen to the news. Perhaps it’s always like this, but things do seem particularly bleak at the moment. We can’t understand why, when ‘ordinary people’ can be so beautiful, simple, warm and friendly, and when human beings can achieve such amazing things, why is it that, it seems, the most brutal and stupid aspects of humanity seem to rise to positions of power and rule over us and spoil our world?

Perhaps we all just need to carve out our own hope, to look forwards in our own ways, and to create the future we want, even if it is only in tiny personal ways that each make some tiny personal difference to the whole. It’s worth reading Snyder’s book at the moment. It brings the reality into sharp, frightening focus, and reminds us that we all have to act to change the world and create more hope.

 

‘The Corner-Shop & Niagara Falls’

I was just doing the washing-up. Thinking, meanwhile, a little about what I might write about today in my Blog. Then of course, the answer came: ‘the washing-up!’. I was also thinking about writing about  a creative project that I just completed, that has taken about three years to complete, a project I am very satisfied with and proud of etc. but of course, the washing-up is just as important, and probably more-so, when you think about it.

I must say, I have had a long and special relationship with washing-up, as well as a long and special relationship with striving to equalise phenomena, to avoid hierarch-ising things and events and experiences.

Once, when I was unemployed and lonely and pretty much financially destitute, I received a postcard from a friend who was on a very successful tour of the United States. The postcard showed Niagara Falls and I looked at it on my way to the corner-shop to buy a 0.5 litre container of milk for my tea and cereals. I remember writing in my sketchbook ‘The Corner-Shop & Niagara Falls’, just placing them side-by-side like that, and, in doing-so, somehow equalising them.

You might find this hard to believe but I have actually exhibited photographs of my completed washing-up in a major, publicly-funded art gallery, as part of a publicly-funded touring exhibition. I’ve also posted pictures of it on Facebook and received between 50 and 100 Likes.

A long, long time ago, someone (I can’t remember who), somewhere (I can’t recall where?) told me that they had once, long, long ago (they couldn’t remember when or where) met an old, old “gypsy lady” who told them that the right way to do the washing-up was to start with the things that go inside your mouth (cutlery) and next wash the things that touch the mouth (cups and glasses), and then things that are progressively further and further from the mouth, and from the body as they are used – ending with the pots and pans.

Ever since then I have adhered to this system, while also noting that, prior to this I didn’t have a system at all. Ever since acquiring this system and method – something that can be repeated on every occasion – I’ve found doing the washing-up to be far more enjoyable and satisfying, whereas prior to acquiring this system it was irksome and something to be avoided if possible. Previously it was something chaotic and that invoked chaos (dirt, abjection) and was carried out with a sense of either reluctance or a kind of pious pride in my own sense of self-sacrifice.

This might be interesting, in that it points to the value of system per se and of repetition and method (e.g. like a weekly Blog post, of about the same length, posted at about the same time, and on the same day, every week) in anything we do. So, it may be worth seeking out a rationale (like that of the “old gypsy lady”) and a corresponding method, for anything that we do that is important (and this might just be EVERYTHING THAT WE DO).

Interestingly, once I had a reasoned and repeatable system and method for doing the washing-up I started to notice other formal elements involved in it, like, for example, the fact that I am almost always washing-up roughly the same group of objects (resulting from the same two peoples’ meal, with obviously slight variations for each meal, and each day, and each season) and these objects are mostly symmetrical and monochrome (white bowls, white mugs, glasses, metal forks, stainless steel pans etc.), and that same group of objects always has to be balanced or stacked on the drainer in some way that they face downward and somehow all hold together without tumbling – so a certain structure results that has both a certain look and a certain logic.

The most successfully symmetrical arrangement (a carefully considered neo-Gothic composition) was the one that gleaned most Likes on Facebook when I shared it with Friends. Meanwhile, the photos I displayed in the public gallery, looked more Modernist as they called-upon the audience’s taste for an asymmetrical arrangement of symmetrical monochrome elements (more Malevich or Bauhaus era Kandinsky).

Anyway, (I’m never quite sure what role these ‘Anyways’ play in a text, but here it seems to point towards a slightly shoulder-shrugging sense of evaluating what has gone before while not promising very much more of interest to come here before I conclude), as I said, I was going to write today about a supposedly ‘big’ creative event in my career, but instead I have written about something apparently banal and everyday but which is in fact perhaps more far-reaching and important to all of humankind.

I hope it helps in some way, and it’s surely true that, whenever we wash-up dishes we are connecting to the whole of mankind in doing something we all have to do, and which, if we didn’t do it, would cause problems of hygiene and ill-health that could quickly become a concern for us all.

Perhaps next week I will write about my supposedly ‘important’ creative project, but if you want a sneak preview please follow this link (N.B. you don’t have to pay to simply listen to the music you will find there):

https://paulokane-songwriter.bandcamp.com/album/when-the-stars-were-kind

 

 

 

Finding Your ‘voice’ before breakfast

It’s best to write first thing, soon after you’ve awoken, and even on an empty stomach if you can. That’s when and that’s how you get connected up to what matters, to what you want and need to write. That’s how you link to writing itself, become one with writing and your writing prior to the distractions of digestion, the news, the world of others.

Yes, to write for others you need to find and maintain a world of your own. That can be a desk, a chair, a ‘room’ (as Virginia Woolf famously proclaimed) but also a time, a technique, and a way – all of these your very own.

It’s a private, selfish thing then, but, as I say, a means by which to access and form something that might be valuable to others. A note in a notebook might be a note-to-self, but what we call ‘writing’ in its more fully feathered form is surely always a communication, a correspondence, a kind of epistle or appeal. When we really ‘write’ the whole world is potentially in the room with us, in the writing, and ‘in mind’

Publishers have various criteria for what they will take the trouble of putting through the lengthy, complex and expensive process of producing for the market place. It’s always a gamble and, despite all the beauty, inspiration, loftiness, innovation of literature etc. publishing also comes down to hard-nosed economics, such as: ‘how many of these should I make, at what outlay, and if I do, what kind of profit can I make on selling them?’

I just started reading Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and right from the prologue a poet is arguing with a theatre director regarding the degree to which art should be lofty or grounded in the ‘bums-on-seats’ mathematics and fickle finance of crowds and all their complexity.

I know, from one brief but direct experience, that one of the values or qualities, of a text or a writer, that publishers look for, to tilt the balance between printing-up one book and not another, is something they mysteriously refer to as ‘voice’. I can’t say that I know exactly what they mean (they speak of it a little like wine connoisseurs speak of wines), and I can’t say whether I think I myself might have this ‘voice’ or not, but I think I can understand a little of what they mean.

Of course, we can locate this ‘voice’ ‘literally’ in song and speech. There are singers, orators, or just people who talk to us, who we will listen to, hear them out, make time for them, no matter, it seems, what they say. We give import to the particular timbre and resonances their vocal chords produce. The trick with writing is perhaps to convert something like that into words on a page or a virtual page on a screen.

Kafka famously wrote a short story about Josephine the mouse singer who regularly enthralled the occupants of her burrow, even though her audience didn’t really understand what she was singing ‘about’ nor even whether they liked the sound or not. She was just strangely compelling.

I like to think that ‘voice’ in writing might be like that. It could be something you just have or do not have, but I suspect that, like most artistic attributes, it’s something we can also acquire through consistency, persistence, through reading and absorbing other ‘voices’, great and celebrated voices as well as new, emerging voices.

But we also surely acquire ‘voice’ through our own techniques and methods, which could mean writing a Blog, at the same time, on the same day, every week, and / or writing as soon as we’ve awoken, before we’ve eaten, before the hourly news has fooled us into thinking that ITS voice is more important than our own. And even  before the first coffee of the day sweeps us and our writing up into the exultant hubris of feeling, too self-consciously perhaps, that what and how we are writing is just a little more important than it actually is.

 

 

Reading a way to reconciliation

I’ve had more time to read recently. The lockdown means no commuting to work and that has gifted me a few hours and a lot of calories that used to be expended on getting to stations and bus stops and riding on crowded train and buses etc.

There are of course aspects of commuting that I miss, which involve my almost life-long relationship (we might even call it a love affair) with the city, its architecture, its people, its river, its intensity and vibrancy, its eclecticism and complexity, its history, fears and celebrations.

But one way or another those hours and that energy save in non-commuting have been put to good use in some good reading. Generally speaking my reading follows a kind of wayward serendipitous path loosely connected to my ‘research’, which is the academic and professional name for what I call my life and my art, which are really one and the same thing.

When I was young I suffered a lot from conflicts between what was my personal and my professional life, between my life and my art and I found a lot of answers in my life and to my life by simply working on those areas of conflict, erasing them as much as possible.

So, now, if I am reading a book, or taking a walk, I can honestly say that I am both resting and working, both doing my job (‘Artist, Writer, Lecturer, Musician’) and taking time out. Even when I am l grinding through a pile of students’ essays to be assessed, I can periodically assure myself that all of this is what I love and live for and is my life.

If I sound proud to have achieved that, it’s OK. I also know that it could fall apart at any time, through a loss of a job, income, ill-health etc. But I sincerely wish upon every human being that they can be allowed the immense pleasure and satisfaction of coming to feel that their work (that answers the question of their economy) is also what they love and doesn’t make them feel conflicted, oppressed or resentful.

As I say, I feel that whatever I am reading now enhances my life/work (or ‘lifework’ perhaps). One of the great pleasures of reading is not any particular book and its contents but that moment when you know exactly which book you want to read next, and know that this decision is also something of a surprise, leading you along, and further along, unexpected, strangely winding paths that you know are you, are yours, and are only yours.

I won’t list what I’ve been reading here, though that could be a good idea for a future post, but just note that a close friend sent me the gift of a book recently. It is one of those classics that we feel me ought to have read but somehow never got around to reading. When it arrived, I set it aside, confident – because of lockdown (see above) – that despite its chunky appearance and 800 pages, I would be able to tackle it soon, though I didn’t want it to immediately divert the reading roads I was on at the time.

But soon, I found that I couldn’t resist it, even though it represented a kind of diversion from whatever it was I had been following. Again, there is no real split or conflict in my life and reading any more, between what is work and what is leisure, and so I decided to foreground this gift and just enjoy.

It’s proved to be an incredibly entertaining experience. Over 600 pages have already slipped by effortlessly over the past few weeks (which is fast for me). None of those pages were skimmed either, and none of them were dull or functional. All were brimming with colour light, life, wit, history, plot, intrigue, personalities, relationships and of course descriptions of another world and another time.

There is no harm at all in guiltlessly reading for pleasure, and that is what I do every time I read more of this book, which I will now compare with the work of some other classic authors.

Whenever I have read the works of Zola I have been amazed by the ways in which he drew me into the world of 19th century Paris, but I sometimes felt that he ‘got lost in the details’ or went a little too far with his sumptuous and scientific but ultimately also self-conscious descriptions, so as to create imbalances in the overall narrative.

When I read the classic work of Proust I was smitten over and over again by his sensual approach to analysing the subtle nuances of experience, often using the words “as if” to begin beautiful tumbling passages of subjective analysis and inspired analogy to unfold, in subtle language, the most intimate of human experiences. Nevertheless, there were times when I struggled to contain and connect all of the special ‘timelessness’ in Proust’s wonderful experiment.

The classic book that I am reading and writing about today, sent as a gift by a close friend, seems, by comparison with the authors mentioned above, relatively faultless (though a very different work of course that perhaps should not be compared at all). It uses a kind of effortless economy so that the reader is able to distinguish and relate to a rich cast of characters despite the fact that they were introduced to us only with a few quick flicks of the nib. Every page and every scene (of which there are multitudes) seems to have equal weight, or rather lack of weight as the narrative gallops along, always buoyed, even in its darker moments, by what can only be the author’s love of, and for their task.

This teaches me again the lesson that in life we should strive if we can to live what we love and live by means of what we love, and then justify our corresponding sense of happiness and fulfilment by sharing the outcome with others if we possibly can.

And the book? Oh yes! I forgot to mention. It is called Anna Karenina and written by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

 

Sensual Experience: Pre- and Post- Science

After a spectacularly warm and sunny and protracted Spring we finally received some rain. At first it was short, welcome showers, but then we had a spectacular storm. The rain and  wind combined to test the glass in our windows. Then lightning flashed, ushering in dramatic thunder that seemed to go-off like dynamite exploding immediately overhead.

Sometimes, when I witness extreme natural phenomena like this I try to imagine what it would be to witness all of this stripped of any modern, scientific understanding. What would it be like to experience it without any explanation of what it is and what it is for?

I sometimes think the same when I see a particularly bright full moon. Surely, the peoples of ancient times, of pre-scientific times, and even peoples deprived of organised religion, experienced just as much fear and beauty as we do ourselves, while nevertheless experiencing it in some way that we can no-longer appreciate. or imagine.

The writings of the pre-Socratic Greek proto-philosophers give hints of some very different (though perhaps still proto-scientific) responses, and perhaps studies of other ancient cultures, translations of ancient texts etc. give more and varied insights. But if there is a time in human history that preceded any such representation and any such attempted analysis, it is that time that I am thinking of here.

What most interests me about this is that the same non-scientific and non-organised-religious interpretation, may still be available to us. Hence we say the sun ‘rises’ despite the fact that we know it does not ‘rise’, and it is clearly hard to maintain the apparently counter-intuitive (but in fact counter-cultural and counter-habitual) scientific idea when enjoying the sight of the sun apparently nudging up over the horizon at dawn and apparently ‘climbing’ into the sky.

When thunder claps and when lightning flashes, when wind shakes my windows and rain batters the panes, when I watch the sun ‘rise’ or a glowing moon float through the night sky, a part of me – and a large part – experiences these neither scientifically nor religiously but in some more purely and simply sensual way. They ‘affect’ me as if by-passing brain, intellect, mind, logic and language and ‘speaking’ only and directly to my nerves, my body. It is as if one body (the earth and its swirling, volatile climate) were resonating and interacting with another (my own) non-linguistically, for there is no ‘understanding’ or ‘interpretation’ here, no ‘signs’, signifiers and signifieds, just a call and response of energies and materials.

Thus, both our experiences of beauty and what we have come to call ‘the sublime’ remain mysterious aspects of human experience that science seems only partly responsible for and only partially able to ‘explain. That is because science is itself couched in the very language and logic that these experiences by-pass as pure enervations (nervous interactivity).

If we give time and thought to this area of experience, we come to appreciate what a large part of our experience it is, despite all our modernity, technology, education etc. Science allows modern humanity to award itself the hubris of coming to know, and to possibly even know all, and yet we sense that these aesthetic experiences, despite scientific attempts to ‘organise’ them as knowledge, are far more ancient than science, and that they may even just exceed and succeed science too, in the longest possible projections of the human journey to come – if, that is, one hell of a storm doesn’t just come along one night and wipe us all away.

Un-Naming the Name-Shamed World

When I was a child … I guess I still am a child … and that is a good thing … but, when I was a younger, smaller, less educated and experienced child than I am now, I knew the names of lots of trees and birds that now I do not know.

My father grew up in Ireland with a strong connection to country life and when he came to England, despite being located on a commuter route, out to the East of London, he took every opportunity he could to take his family out into the fields and woods that surrounded our housing estate, and that was where and when he taught us the names of natural things.

I have three elder brothers and one younger sister. The two eldest brothers also played a part in this ‘natural’ education of the younger siblings, an education which ran parallel to our official education in school and which largely took place at the weekends. One of the two eldest brothers had a set of encyclopaedias of natural history, something my dad had perhaps seen as a special offer in a newspaper and bought as a Xmas or birthday present.

He started ‘nature clubs’ with the younger children, who even chipped-in subs to a specially decorated tobacco tin and were used perhaps to buy snacks for our own outings. This brother also became fascinated by fossils, many of which could be found in the many exhausted quarries that also featured regularly on our long weekend walks.I can recall the special hammer that he carried proudly on his belt for breaking open flints and revealing quartz, or a fossilised sea urchins, or … and here, once again, I have forgotten the name of a natural object that I used to know.

Both elder brothers carried binoculars and one was a member of the RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. So, the younger children, including myself, benefitted from all this expertise and developed a precocious vocabulary for naming and describing natural phenomena that set us apart when we did go to school and when questions were raised about our specialist subject.

Trees can be recognised and named according to their leaves, their overall profile and size, their fruits and their bark. Birds, by their size, colour, flight and song, as well as their nests and eggs. But as I say, today I often feel frustrated, stymied, when trying to name the trees and birds I encounter on walks.

It’s frustrating but at the same time it also feels appropriate – somehow morally – that I should not be able to simply name everything, as if, by naming, I know things. Clearly, the trees and birds do not have the names for themselves that we have given them. After all, the flora and fauna of central and South America were all named and categorised using a system of Eurocentric Latin terms, which seems quite ridiculous. I might also wonder if or what the birds and trees call me as I walk by?

So perhaps my amnesia is simply appropriate to my maturity. I don’t think it is a sign of weakening mental strength, but rather a sign of my unwillingness to impose human language on other creatures.

There is something liberating about this thought, not just for the objects thus un-named, but also for me, for us, for the un-namer. Just imagine the world all un-named, freed of all that identity, knowledge, understanding etc.

The biblical image of a perfect garden in which human life begins is of a garden without knowledge and therefore without shame. We take pride in our knowledge and in being able to name, to give and find the right word for something, at the right time, gives us a sense of satisfaction and power over ourselves, over others, and over our environment.

But of course, that imaginary paradise, in which nothing is named and where we are just as un-named as everything else, and therefore equal, is at least as desirable as any demonstration of our knowledge and power over our environment by means of naming.

 

‘Snow in San Anselmo’

My life has always been suffused with music. I’m sure yours has been too. Perhaps everyone’s is, in one way or another. These days I pay more attention to birdsong that accompanies every walk I take, even though I live in the centre of London.

I listen avidly to an Indie Music radio station, which also has funk and pop shows. It’s not just the music I love, it’s the way the DJ acts as a cultural archivist and historian. In fact, one show even dedicates half an hour to reading through decades-old copies of music newspapers, sharing and reminding, making connections and tracing genealogies of the artists. I love all of that cultural history, and pop music of various kinds has always been a kind of foil to my interest and career in art.

Art, or ‘Fine Art’ as it distinguishes itself, continues to be a slightly more esoteric realm and a place where artists’ decisions might be more rigorously conceptualised and considered, but then, it’s hard to make any comparison between Fine Art and popular music that really does both sides justice and feels accurate.

Popular music (I’ll try again) might seem less controlled by conceptual rigour etc. (though again, none of these generalisations ever fit and cover everything), but it also allows for and encourages a different range of emotional expression.

Personally, I’ve often felt quite torn between the two fields and have done some work in recent years to heal the rift. When I was younger I often felt thrown from one to the other in painful ‘either/or’ periods of indecision. As I got older I realised that conflict per se is the thing to be avoided and that achieving peace in your mind, heart and soul is actually more important than either side of any complex decision.

Now, I’ve written about growing up with music in certain essays, memoirs and chapters of books. That helped to, as I say, bridge the divide. I’ve made my own music all my life, but I’ve never made any income from it really, and, whether you like it or not, what generates income for you ultimately has to become your profession.

Luckily the arts are plastic and elastic enough for me to be a professional arts lecturer and writer, who pursues music as a kind of ‘hobby’ now, and yet I am still always testing to see if I might still be able to integrate ALL of my interests into one identity without feeling anything is in conflict, being left out, or that anything is incongruous. Again, it also comes down to those evaluative descriptions of Fine Art and popular music, and trying to work out just why and how these things are the same and also so different.

I am passionate about the vinyl records and CDs I have collected over the years. Actually, there are not that many but they all feel formative and are definitely ‘classics’ for me, in that I can go back to them again and again and love them anew and find things in them that I hadn’t noticed before. I sometimes wonder if my own music could ever be like that to others, and somehow doubt that it ever can.

This week, I had a certain song on my mind and so I pulled out the vinyl record and put it on the turntable. The song is called ‘Snow in San Anselmo’ and its by one of my favourite artists with a long and rich history, named Van Morrison. I think he is a real artist as he has always taken so many creative risks and made so many miraculous discoveries. At the same time he is a kind of jobbing musician and songwriter who never stops working and doesn’t get caught up the music biz celebrity thing that can ruin both music and musicians.

This song is from one of his early albums. It’s hard to define the genre, as is often the case with Van Morrison’s best songs. As well as his usual excellent band, on this song he surprisingly enlisted the help of a choir. I always think that it is their ethereal high voices that represent the tone and texture of the snow in the title.

The lyrics tell you that the song is about the fact that, presumably while on tour, Van Morrison was in San Anselmo California on a day when it snowed for the first time in over 30 years. That is all that happens, and the song simply describes the town on that day and the fact that it snowed. But it’s a great tribute to the singer and songwriter that he can turn this small incident, and so mysteriously, into the subject of a song and that he can give a series of simple observations such a great sense of charm, magic and import.

It’s another good example of how an artist can make great work out of anything, any moment, any event, any place and any material.

I hope you can find and listen to this song, and read its lyrics. Listen 2-3 times, until it hooks you in.
I guarantee it will enhance your day and maybe your life.

 

 

 

 

Anachronistic Anti-Trending & Bibliophilia

I’ve said several times that I don’t want this Blog to become a political Blog, but politics does inevitably creep into any representation of everyday life I suppose, and there might be some element of ‘the political’ in what follows – but who knows, I haven’t written much yet.

I have to admit I like to cultivate a certain kind of ‘difference’ which involves a certain anachronistic approach to technologies, media and trends. As I said in a recent post, I never watch TV and have never owned a TV. I don’t subscribe to any commercial streaming services for music or for movies, and I tend to avoid anything that is too current, trendy or fashionable. Most of what I ingest, and digest is at least 10 years old and often 100 years old or more.

I really find it impossible to evaluate the new. It feels effervescent as well as crass and ill-considered. It’s rapid and urgent appearance and disappearance makes me feel as though I have a duty and a role to constantly evaluate a kind of mirage. It’s akin to eating a diet of candy floss, and, like candy floss, I suspect that constantly attending to ‘news’ and news media is not nutritious and is ultimately bad for your health.

I am keen on two late 19th and early 20th century inventions – Cinema and Radio and regularly attend to them. But I also think artists should make their own worlds, which means making our own media (M.Y.O.M!).

My favourite media of all of course is books. Right now, I am reading the scripts that Walter Benjamin wrote for children’s radio shows in Germany c. 1930. And when I read Benjamin he historicises everything much further, throwing my interest back in time another 100 or more years, deep into the history of Toys, of the Gypsies, of Berlin, of whatever Benjamin wants to tell me about.

I feel comfortable there, way back in the past, though still of course living, thinking and working in the 21st century. I hope, by these means and using these resources, to be able to contribute something other than, and perhaps more useful than the constant, homogenous clouds and bubbles of fast-moving froth that is ‘news’ and ‘media’.

The past has been allowed to settle down into something we can enter and move around in, question, explore, challenge and represent. But it certainly isn’t fixed or known. In fact, Nicholas Bourriaud called history ‘the last undiscovered continent’, and that’s how I think of it.

So, I listen to the Radio, recently only tuning in to an indie music station and switching off whenever the news comes along to spoil all the youthful invention produced by the bands and DJs.

I also watch movies, and the lockdown has encouraged me to follow-up something I’d never used before and that is (here comes the possibly political bit) my own local library’s free streaming service.

Most of the movies there are not that old. They’re mostly made in the past 10 years. But they’re certainly not trendy or trending. I’ve fallen in love with this resource. Not only is it a free public service, like the library itself, which I also love (libraries, along with free healthcare and parks being, to my mind, the three greatest accomplishments of human civilisation), but the films there are special.

I must have watched a dozen now and they all tend to be the following: very beautifully crafted; simple storytelling (no complex flashbacks, back-stories etc.); relatively cheaply made (no special effects, gratuitous sex and violence, car chases, over the top musical or narrative manipulation etc.); they don’t feature any ‘stars’, and they all subtly deliver ethical messages about ‘otherness’, difference, oppression, prejudice, intolerance etc.

It took me a while to work tall his out, but of course these movies are selected by my local library (and the same service is probably used by libraries all over the world) as an ethical and inclusive educational resource.

Many of the films are documentaries too, concerning social and cultural injustices. Many are aimed at and represent the perspectives of minorities, and many of them are aimed at inspiring young women, presumably schoolgirls who might use the service, to aim and reach higher than fashionable, trending society might encourage them to do.

I hope you can access this service or something similar. Mine is called ‘Kanopy’. At first it doesn’t look that promising, and not everything is great, but try, probe, look around and you start to get some rewards that can return your hope in humanity and hopes of a better world to come.

The political bit of this post is implied in the foregoing, but I also just wanted to add the question: ‘why was it, that when greedy, rich gamblers on the financial exchanges, banks and property markets carelessly crashed the world’s financial systems, did they get ‘bailed out’ while 100s if not 1,000s of public libraries closed as part of the ‘austerity’ programmes designed to re-balance ‘the books’?
Think about that, if you please.

 

Sufficient Light

I am fortunate enough to have a cherry tree outside my window, and so, I can watch it go through its spectacular and intriguing repertoire of costume and function changes as the year and the seasons pass. Right now, it is preparing to fruit, the tiny green seeds of the cherries have appeared, and the leaves have turned a vivid green.

I don’t own a compass, though I suspect there is something like a compass either in my computer or on the vast unmapped internet. Nevertheless, I estimate that the window that faces the cherry tree also faces approximately North. I have often heard painters and studio photographers speak of ‘North light’ as the right or best light to make pictures by, but I have never appreciated the difference between North and South light as much as I have this year.

Today I am working in the room that faces North and overlooks the cherry tree, but on other days, for various reasons, it is better for me to work in the room with the South facing window. It’s true that light from the South is warmer and more intense, but it can also be harsh and glaring as well as markedly yellow or golden. The North light is always softer, subtler, and in essence more of a blue-grey light that gently glows rather than shining avidly as does the South light.

When I was young, a child, an adolescent I used to gulp down the summer sun as if I wanted it to take me up in the air and away with it, to absorb me into its rays. I adored the way it woke me early and then reigned over the day until what should have been evening and nightfall, yet still it gleamed down, stretching and extending time into a sense of eternal freedom.

Now of course I shun the sun’s harshest rays and stay out of its direct heat, and as I grow older I come to appreciate even the sun’s feint glow on relatively dim, grey days. Now it is perhaps light in general that I love and feel blessed to be able to see. I wear reading glasses now and use another pair for what I am doing here, writing or working otherwise on a screen. It’s sad that the 20/20 vision I maintained until relatively recently has gradually given way to more varied qualities and experiences of seeing. But as I say, I feel very fortunate that I can simply look out of my window, on a morning like this, and see all that I can see, thanks to my eyes and thanks to the light.

While our movements and behaviour are restricted, as they have been recently, it makes me think of all those who are relatively restricted year-round, perhaps every day of their life, by some difference, disadvantage or disability. I think of those who are imprisoned, in one way or another, and the image and model of Anne Frank, whose house I visited once in Amsterdam, often comes back to mind.

It’s significant, and important for an artist, I think, to appreciate restrictions and limitations as helpful parameters to a practice, and it strikes me today that even if all I could do for the rest of my life was to sit at this window and watch the parallel life of the tree outside the window, echoing my own progress through the year, that would be sufficient, that should be an appropriate site of practice, of research, of analysis, and of representation.