Back to the world after ten days of silence 

I posted the message below on Facebook last Sunday. I wanted to put my feelings down while they were raw. Time inevitably anaesthetises, and I didn’t want to lose the impact of those morning hours. 

I’ve been out of all communication on a silent retreat in Herefordshire for ten days. (Why – another story and not for now!) I knew I’d be missing the American election but I had confidence. This morning a message from my daughter, Rozi, apologising for all the dreadful things that had happened in the world in my absence from it, concerned I might want to head back to my retreat and never come out again. That’s when I realised, 7.30 Sunday morning, that Trump had won.

Returning to the world after so long and so quiet away is emotional anyway. The Herefordshire countryside, the Black Mountains a high ridge out to the west, and the mist still lying in frosty fields, music on the radio… I was coping, just.

Back in Cranham – I learnt that Leonard Cohen has died. And that finally did bring out the tears.

I first sang Suzanne in a folk club in Oxford maybe fifty years ago, and I sang it again at an open mic evening just two week ago in Cranham. A few weeks before I’d sung That’s no way to say goodbye … And there was that wonderful radio programme recently about Marianne, and how they were in touch again shortly before she died.

‘It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,’ in Cohen’s own words.

I and my generation have lost a hero. And there are new villains to fight. But there’s a new generation taking up the good fight and, thank God, my own children are out there among them.

All Hallows

Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve, which makes today All Saints’ Day. Yesterday was also in warm and brilliant sunshine the last day of autumn (by my calculations anyway!) – the autumn colours burnt in the sun as I’ve rarely seen them, a multitude of shades, with their own luminescence – as if they didn’t need the sun to make them glow. Today is the first day of winter – the cloud is down on the hills, there’s a chill, the fire must be lit soon, and the leaves are thick on the ground. I raked them in the sunshine yesterday, but they’ve returned, and if I rake again, this time in the damp and gloom, they will return again, until the last one has fallen and I can put the rake away.

Yes, there’s an elegiac quality to all this. I listened to the adagio from the Elgar violin concerto driving back along the A419 heading toward the Cotswolds yesterday. That caught the mood. I knew this was the last day, the last of autumn, and there were not two hours till sunset.

The day before I’d listened to David Mellor on Classic FM, playing music from the Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer. A recording of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony when the great conductor was already in his 80s. He took it slowly. About the same time the recording was made I was, I remember, at a party at Professor Gombrich’s house. Ernst Gombrich was my professor at the Warburg Institute. Frau Gombrich mentioned they were going to hear Otto the following day. Otto being Klemperer. All with Viennese Jewish backgrounds, and the connections were still strong.

Klemperer had been recommended sixty  years before by Gustav Mahler (also that Jewish connection) to an orchestral position, and I felt my own connection listening to the final ecstatic bars of the symphony to Klemperer and Mahler. Almost a laying on of hands. Ridiculous in its way, but the music took me to another level. Triumphant – but also elegiac, and intensely moving.

Mahler died young, and two world wars had to work themselves out before Klemperer stood before the Philharmonia in the late 1960s.

I’ve felt betrayed by events this year – my values betrayed, values by which I’ve conducted by life over almost seventy years. The autumn leaves, the music, a sense of loss I wouldn’t ordinarily indulge. But I did this time, this once, just this once.

On the road 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/Healthy, free, the world before me,  /The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.              Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Whitman walked, we’re driving. We’re in the USA. A far cry from the Camino. And yet….

We’ve not planned our journey, we don’t have expectations, there isn’t a goal. There’s no history along the way, the road is open, everyone and no-one has trodden this route before us. Encounters with God are accidental not planned. We don’t walk or shuffle, we drive. Our minds picks up the blisters, wheels the wear and tear, not our feet.

We travel in a straight line, travelling west, heading for the sierras and the ocean. America travels in straight lines. Or back east. Start in New York, or California. Route 1 or Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway. Keep travelling.

The hobo, riding the blinds… rootless … looking for work: ‘I’ve been doing some hard travellin’, as Woody Guthrie sang.

The Beats by contrast had it easy. Kerouac was out of Columbia University. But like the hobos they were footloose, in mind and body. Searching for God, as Kerouac put it, not work.

Heirs of Whitman, and Emerson, and Thoreau. Even John Muir, though the Beats travelled the road not the wilderness.

They’d escaped the impact of war, the road network arrowed across America, an invitation, the cars that travelled it were streamlined. How lucky and how unlucky they were. War and its aftermath were three thousand miles away, too young to fight or worry, they didn’t have to agonise over combat or parade a political conscience. They were beyond their upbringing… drugs and sex came easily. And jazz. California Zen was a convenient religion – Dharma Bums as well as On the Road.

The Midwest and California have their own dreams and myths. The Beats were originally out of New York, but found California. California lifestyle reinterprets America. Putting up a different dream against New York. Not a Hollywood dream. Precursors to hippies, but they didn’t seek to change the world – not just yet. Challenge because they couldn’t help it – witness the obscenity trials – but not change it. America was their head space, not a place beyond.

They could be measured, a little bit lyrical:

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ (Kerouac, On The Road)

And out of their minds:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…./who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,/who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….(Howl, Ginsberg)

And as for me…

It’s 1971 – I’m on the open road, on the Beat trail, starting in New York, ending in California. A road journey, yes, but no automobile of my own. And I’m not hitch-hiking. Taking Greyhound buses city to city. The bus has its own iconography. Bus stations, hostels, camping out with friends in New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, San Diego. Sleeping rough in Chattanooga. I couldn’t listen to music – but I could read. So Whitman and his streams of consciousness my companion. And Albert Marcuse. Mine was a counter-culture. I might teach history on California, but I wasn’t planning to sully myself with any other work along the way. No encounters with God, but charity from a Baptist preacher who paid for my breakfast and invited me to lunch with his family – but first I must attend his Sunday morning service, and hear him preach.

The long road north out of Texas, straight and parched and empty. Colorado I sensed was still Indian country. San Diego: we were all still hippies at heart. Barefoot and beaten by the sun. I could have tried surfing but instead I headed south, took to the road again, to Mexico. But the Mexicans wouldn’t let me in. Hair too long. Strange irony. They weren’t sure they wanted me back in America either. They cut back my visa to one month. I returned to Mexicali my hair shorn and my ears, unaccustomed to the sun, grew burnt and blistered, as I headed south to Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Chichen Itza.

Did the road came first, or the need to travel it? The road without destination, always going somewhere. Road movies aren’t about physical, but personal destinations. About setting out and avoiding arriving. Not seeking self-knowledge …but maybe achieving it. Though not knowing what to do with it.

My trip was my own road movie, before they invented the genre.

The road’s just one agenda for America. America has multiple agendas, it’s own powerful myths and images, but they have a kind of surface quality. Still a dream. Europe has multi-thousand years of history interwoven into its structures, artefacts and traditions. They root us, define us, hold us back and lift us up – America isn’t tied down – it looks for, loses, its way, finds it again.

James Dean on the one hand, Howl on the other. Drugs, sex, Zen … they are unto themselves, not adjuncts of another culture, a music, a street culture.

I’ve avoided the noise and anger and foolery of America for a while. But I’ll go back. Maybe because there’s no place for complacency – and no place for rebellion – quite like it. It has open spaces, and straight roads, and you can still be alone there. And the skies are big. And there are millions there like me. Chugging along, rebels at heart.

Singing your way along the Camino

Many of the songs I’ve sung to myself on the Camino have travel in there somewhere. And, curiously, a sense of losing someone, and looking back. They aren’t songs of triumph – look I’ve made it! But they do tell stories.

What, I wonder, do other peregrinos sing on the Camino? To keep themselves company, for sheer joy and pleasure, or just because they match the rhythm of their step…. A few have headphones and listen to music from downloads, not from memory, and that puzzles me. Singing may be a performance of one, but you’re pro-active, as surely you want to be on the Camino, and not re-active. (Wear headphones and you also miss birdsong, the rush and babble of streams and brooks, the sound of the wind in the grass and trees.)

There’s a sense of re-engaging when you recall an old favourite. And you may be taken by surprise, by something old and long-forgotten. The rhythms of the Camino can take you surprising places.

For me, Kris Kristofferson for starters: ‘Me and Bobby McGee’: From the coalmines of Kentucky to the California sun,/Bobby shared the secrets of my soul….

Leonard Cohen has travelled with Suzanne for fifty years, as I have too (almost!) – I’ve been singing this legendary song since I was 19! On the Camino it was like meeting up with an old friend.  Susanne takes you down to a place by the river/you can see the boats go by,  you can spend the night beside her…

As for the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, ‘she would never say where she came from/… ‘There’s no time to lose I heard her say…’

Not sentiments you’d expect from a peregrino. Though how many of us are getting over, or moving beyond, an event that’s troubling us, that’s turned our life on its head? And we peregrinos – we do tell each other where we’ve come from – and hopefully, we have time to lose. We can go slow.

I’ve sung the blues along the way. But not travelling blues. Or Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hard Travellin’: I’ve been doin’ some hard travellin I thought you knowed…’  And I’ve not been riding the blinds – leaping and hanging on to passing trains!

One moment I remember (somewhere between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes on the Camino Portugues), singing Howlin Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’. (Give me a spoonful of coffee…) After each of three repetitions of ‘that spoonful ‘ a cock crowed. He and I struck up a rhythm together. I tried a fourth time – but he’d lost interest. I carried on of course.

One other song, with no travelling connection at all, but when you sing it you bounce along, and that’s ‘Light my fire’. I love the original Doors version, but try singing it like Jose Feliciano, with a Latin, syncopated rhythm, and, well, not surprisingly, you’re almost dancing. So maybe don’t walk that way with too many other people around.

Singin’ the blues

I’ve long been a fan of Melanie, ever since I first heard her sing Ruby Tuesday back in the early 70s – way better than the original Stones version, which – thought I could never say this about Jagger – seems lacklustre by comparison.

I’ve been singing one of two old blues numbers at a local pub, on Open Mic evenings, and it’s been fun, and I’ve enjoyed it, and I hope – I think – one or two locals have too. Helps if you get everyone singing along with something like Mojo (‘I got my mojo workin’) and an old Son House field holler, John the Revelator. (I saw Son House once, in Hammersmith, with the wonderfully named Sleepy John Estes, and that was a few decades ago!)

However, I see that Melanie on her brand-new album, Ragamuffin, has a song with the following lines:

I can’t take no more, there ain’t no use /Can’t keep on doin’ what it is you think I do /And the words that I’ve been listening to /Are as honest as a white man sounds when he sings the blues /I know we’re through

‘… as honest as a white man sounds when he sings the blues’

Well, I guess I know what she means.

I sure ain’t no Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters) – I’ve not had much success ‘making pretty women jump and shout’ … I’ve never been part of a team building railroads (Linin’ track, not very romantic, as sung by Leadbelly) … I’ve largely kept my mojo to myself (Muddy again)… and I wouldn’t want the hurt and I don’t think I’ve ever reached that place which Howlin Wolf sings about in Smokestack Lightnin…

Whoa-oh, tell me, baby,/Where did you stay last night?/Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?

So, if I ever sing the blues to you, be very wary. I’m white and if Melanie’s right I may just not be quite as honest as you think!

Mind you, there’s a difference between blues and the old R&B – rhythm and blues. R&B -you’re out there in the world, doing your stuff. It’s urban, urgent, driven, assertive. That’s Mojo, that’s Hoochie Coochie Man. You’d know where you stand with that kind of guy.

Smokestack Lightnin is the bridge between the old blues, which carry the hurt of ages, the hurt of slavery and subjugation, the blues of the old South, the cotton fields – and R&B. Howlin Wolf sings a hurt that’s palpable, tears him, and the singer, apart.

The old blues – From four till late/I was wringin’ my hands and cryin (Robert Johnson) – has no resolution. The hurt won’t go away. In Smokestack Lightnin I don’t know about the hurt, that doesn’t go away – but the girl, come the last verse she’s out, and scorned. He’s found himself again.

And the white man – he’s simply not been there – he can’t understand the depth of those emotions. They come from somewhere else, where he simply hasn’t been. He may try as I do to sing the blues. I leave it to you to decide if you trust him…

 

 

Keeping sane amid the chaos

How (if you’re me!) to keep measured and sane amid the chaos.

For starters, two reminders from a Buddhist meditation handbook:

‘…one shouldn’t have a great deal of desire… one must be content, which means whatever one has is fine and right.’ ‘Whatever one has is fine and right.’ (My italics.)

‘The place where we stay should be free from a lot of activity and a large number of people… (we should reduce) our involvement in too many activities.’  Now there’s a challenge.

Then there’s something I’ve loved since childhood – watching cricket. I enjoyed England’s decisive and exuberant victory over Pakistan in the second test match that ended yesterday. Always good to head out to Lords or the Oval, or stand on the boundary at Cranham cricket club … (A friend reminds me of the joke – ‘God gave cricket to the English so that they should have some sort of idea of eternity ‘ – that was certainly true of the first test match. I was there.)

And moving out beyond the cricket field – out further into the wild, and the wilderness, into the countryside, to the coast, to the mountains:

(‘What would the world be, once bereft /Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left…’)

walk (or run) in the meadows and beech woods

head off down to Cornwall and walk around Penwith from St Ives, via Zennor and Land’s End and Porthcurno, to Penzance (carrying a tent and heavy rucksack in the hot sun a small downside, likewise the heat exhaustion!)

puzzle over the wild flowers (betony abundant in Cornwall – a small sense of triumph identifying it!)

listen or watch, or maybe both…

– two buzzards wheeling above me on the coast path near Treryn Dinas just east of Porthcurno, piping much of the time, occasionally they come together and there’s a scurry of wings, and they resume their circling. The following morning, 7.30, I’ve struck camp, and I’m on my way, light rain, grey out to sea, and they’re back there, ahead of me, still slowly circling

– the owl which I disturbed in the woods later that morning – it took off maybe only two or three feet away from me, a vast and silent presence, and a powerful absence, disappearing into the light at the end of the green tunnel behind me

– the sound of a soprano, yes, a soprano, from the Britten opera being performed at the Minack theatre a mile away, it was 9pm, and I was tucked away in my tent, trying to sleep…

– a yellow snail (a ‘white-lipped banded snail’), and a red-winged fly – the small and surprising things, which puzzle, and take the mind down from the high and inflated places to the simple and beautiful

– and back in the Cotswolds, a lesser spotted woodpecker now a regular visitor to the bird feeder and the birdbath in the garden, and the goldfinches

– and the long warm summer evenings, the stillness, and the small party which headed out onto the common at midnight to look for glow-worms

There is hope for the world yet.

 

Good Friday

Good Friday. We all dash to the shops. The year’s extra bank holiday. Its purpose it seems all but forgotten. And yet the world fifty years ago (and for many centuries before of course) shut down on Good Friday. Today and Christmas Day were the quietest days of the year.

I will sit quietly at 3pm this afternoon, in a church somewhere – I don’t know where yet – taking part in a meditation on the crucifixion – traditionally celebrated at the ‘ninth hour’. It will be a time to think quietly about the Christian message at its very heart – release from all that bears us down and all the evil in the world. Whether we take it literally, as an act of supreme sacrifice, or not, the crucifixion is a remarkable symbol, and it connects God and man, the spiritual and the material, in a way that still strikes home for countless millions.

So it’s also a day not be cynical. Even if you’re a humanist or atheist.

Do we need symbols? you might ask. Reminders, connectors, pathways – they take us beyond the everyday. We all have our own private symbols. But the crucifixion is a worldwide symbol. We share it with the world, and at 3pm this afternoon (with a few allowances for timezone changes!) we will be sharing it at – almost- the same moment.

Superstition? – no – that sharing is powerful, and real.