Connections…

How we each connect to events and stories … how our personal connections make them more real for us. My context here is the story Philippe Sands tells in East West Street. (See my last post.)

Poetry is a powerful connector. Sands quotes the Polish poet, Jozef Wittlin, ‘the poet of hopeful idylls’.

‘Where are you now, park benches of Lwow, blackened with age and rain, coarse and  cracked like the bark of medieval olive trees,’ he wrote in 1946.  (Lwow has many names – Lvov, Lemberg, Lviv.)

‘I can hear the bells of Lwow ringing, each one rings differently. I can hear the splash of the fountains in market square, and the soughing of fragrant trees, which the spring rain has washed clean of dust.’

I was reminded of a powerful poem I discovered two or three years ago, To Go To Lvov, by Adam Zagajewski.

To leave/in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September/or in March. But only if Lvov exists,/if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just/in my new passport, if lances of trees/—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud …

Why do I connect to this – to the many identities of Lvov, its history, the frontiers that change around the city, but the city remains?

In part because in the foolishness of our own times, and the mega-weight of warfare we can bring to bear, and the arrogance of our notions of superiority, we have destroyed cities and communities which date back to biblical times. ‘Our notions’ – innocent, protesting our innocence, we have disturbed the age-old patterns, the habits and simple tolerance that allowed people’s and ways of life to rub along – sometime only just, but they did –  they rubbed along together.

But more, even more, because of the destruction of the Jewish community in Poland and Ukraine.

Martin Buber lectured in Lemberg. He was a passionate advocate of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Palestine, and author of ‘I and Thou’, and he’s long-time hero of mine. Coexistence. Two peoples, side by side. 

Sands’ grandfather moved from Lemberg to Vienna, his mother Ruth escaped Vienna on a train in 1939. Also in that decade, though earlier, my professor at the Warburg Institute, Ernst Gombrich, had left Vienna for London, along with many others from the Jewish community of that remarkable city.

Gombrich suggested to me I might make the Jewish ghetto in 18th century Venice my subject for a PhD thesis. That sadly never happened.

One final link. I see that Sands serves on the board of the Hay Festival, from which we’ve just returned. His advocacy of human rights in the context of international law matches the mood and commitment of many of the speakers at Hay … matches the mood of so many people around the world, their belief that their own small contributions, taking in the aggregate, will ultimately turn the tides of history around, and we as individuals whatever our groups, communities, countries, will come to see ourselves as citizens of the world.

Gloucester, Easter Sunday morning

Easter Sunday, and a forecast of dullness belied by brilliant sun, and a blue sky which set off the white stone of Gloucester Cathedral. 8pm, early morning communion in the choir, before the high altar. Above us the great 14th century window reputedly commemorating the battle of Crecy. About thirty people at communion, come 11pm the cathedral will be packed, chairs await them in every corner of nave and aisle. After communion I waited awhile, and stood at the back of the nave, looking toward organ and altar, and all was (for a few minutes) empty, not a soul, just the great Norman columns in stately procession toward the transept, and the simple vaulted ceiling, in sharp contrast to the wonderful fan vaulting of the choir.

(Should anyone wonder why a blog with zen in its title should be comfortable with early communion… There’s a silence, a time for contemplation, in the early morning. I’ll say no more than that.)

In the cathedral precinct there’s major landscaping, and fences everywhere, but lift your eyes to the cathedral walls, the tower and the sky, and there is all the space, and all the serenity you could wish for in the world.

Ivor Gurney has a close association with the cathedral.  The son of a Gloucester tailor, he was composer, writer of songs, poet, and a celebrant of the Gloucestershire landscape, in his poems from the front, and in his letters. Windows in the Lady Chapel commemorate him, and I always pay a visit when I come to the cathedral – but not today. The Lady Chapel is fenced off, major renovations until the autumn. They will make for easier access, and maybe more people will find sanctuary there, and take in the wonderful stained glass (by Tom Denny) of the Gurney memorial. He survived the first war, but his mind didn’t, incarcerated in a mental home in Kent he longed for his home county, and the Severn vale, where he’d walked countless times…

One place he walked was Cranham, whose woods he celebrated, and where I am now. Reached via the Portway, down and up which I drove an hour or two ago. Gurney would have walked, and he’d have seen that amphitheatre of woodland and meadow opening up ahead, farms either side, and a vast sky above. He was obsessed with the idea of beauty, above all the beauty of his home county. It gave him comfort in France. He recalls in a letter home how the tower of the church of Merville reminds him of Gloucester’s tower. Both churches rise above the landscape, are landmarks, and inspirations.

Walking back to my car, I passed along pedestrianised streets, stained, a little ragged, forlorn, and empty on an Easter Sunday morning. Only Macdonalds and Burger King open, and they only just. How would Gurney have responded to the decay of his old city? To the contrast between shops, and cathedral and precinct, an absolute contrast. How I wondered as I walked back could the city be revived, made vibrant and colourful as a city centre should be – and keep all the while the quiet and sanctity and celebration of the cathedral and its surrounds.

One of many questions this Easter, an Easter where questions seem to crowd in on all sides – so many questions where there are no obvious answers.

The sleep of reason (2) – Goya

I mentioned ‘the sleep of reason’ in my last post. I had in mind Goya’s Los Caprichos print series, and specifically plate 43, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’. Owls gather above the sleeping artist’s head, no owlish wisdom here, just confusion, compounded by bats swarming behind – the owls lit, the bats unlit, and below two cat-like creatures look out, lynxes maybe, one directly at us, black and ominous, drawing us in.

By 1799 when Goya published Los Caprichos the high hopes of the Enlightenment had faded – his time maybe not too similar to our own.

Sleep of reason

Goya is clear that we cannot live by reason alone. ‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’

We have in recent times been short-changed on both. Imagination looking back not forward, reason pilloried as ‘expertise’. And for many us, for the first time in our lives, we feel the tide of human improvement, I won’t say progress, is running against us.

Can music help? Leonard Cohen’s words from his song, Anthem, have helped me. (I love singing it!) Simply the idea that there’s a crack, however formidable the surface textures might seem just now, there is a crack. A crack in everything.

Rings the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

Applies to the whole Brexit edifice. And the Trumpian. We haven’t come so far that we could now go back. Surely not.

I see that the artist Sarah Gillespie has made ‘the crack in everything’ the title of a painting. Maybe I’ll make it the title of a poem.

And another artist, Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in the RA Magazine: ‘ …this amorphous, right-wing, nationalist sentiment … has become the central issue of world politics …how, as a sort of avant-garde artist, do you engage with the number one political subject?’

How does an artist respond? Or a writer? A musician?

Propaganda has its place, but propaganda and art are not easy bedfellows. Caricature if it points up absurdity, gross behaviour and the like has a powerful role to play. But not if it only appeals to the already converted. In the hands of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray caricature becomes an artform in itself. But we must tread carefully.

What we can’t do, in our anger or frustration, is allow ourselves to abandon reason, to let reason sleep awhile.

‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’

A puzzling innocence

Back in January I wrote a poem which touched on a nightmare which I trusted with the bright and clear skies, and warmth, of June would evaporate. It didn’t, of course.

There is a foolish innocence abroad in the land. I thought back in January that we could all handle it with gentle irony. Now it’s for real – and the irony, still gentle, has a sharper focus. Irony better than anger? I’m not sure!

*

A puzzling innocence
at home on English shores

Is it a puzzling innocence, that we should wish
to shake ourselves free of all the sand and salt,
a dog out of the waves,

more than sand and salt –
we would be somewhere else, another beach –

the same waves, the same wrack and kelp,
but the sea would be somehow different,

the tide driven by another moon and
under that new moon we’d trade our goods

beyond our shores unfettered, be more English –
the moon an English moon –

ours would be
a calculated innocence, a glorious future,
an imagination of a past when we rode oceans –

grew rich on other lands – unshackled, the sea
we’d command would stretch no more than

a few miles off our shores, yet we would
still be lords –  you say,

                         it’s bright-eyed innocence
to see only the benign, the old navy afloat,
a few new tugboats on calm and peaceful waters –

but who needs containers in this grand design –

where once we traded pounds we’d trade in pence
and who are you to say, that’s not a better way

(c) Chris Collier, January 2016

Troubadours for our time

Leonard Cohen and Victor Jara 

Troubadour, two definitions : 1) medieval lyric poet/musician; 2) a singer, especially of folk songs. (Merriam Webster) It’s the first definition I like.

The death of Leonard Cohen set me to thinking. Who might be the troubadours of our own time? Troubadours for our time?

I tried in an early version of this post to characterise Leonard Cohen as somehow in that medieval tradition. As a poet of love, even courtly love. He was inspired and tormented by his muse, and his audience connected and were inspired in turn. But I’m foolish to try and say more than that. The more I listen to his songs the more in awe I am. There’s a fine piece by Edward Doxx connecting Cohen to John Donne. It gets closer than I ever could. He quotes Cohen:  ‘So come, my friends, be not afraid/We are so lightly here/It is in love that we are made/in love we disappear.’

Cohen didn’t take up the cudgels against violence and injustice, as Dylan once did.  Nor did he understand ‘the other side’ quite as Woody Guthrie did: ‘As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,/That side was made for you and me.’

But he did write and sing ‘Democracy’, which lays bare a dysfunctional USA, but in the midst of it all just about finds reason for optimism. ‘It’s coming to America first,/the cradle of the best and of the worst./It’s here they got the range/and the machinery for change/and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.’ 

Asked two years ago if songs can offer solutions to political problems, he replied, ‘I think the song itself is a kind of solution.’

Dylan back in the 60s confronted the ‘masters of war’ and racists: ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,/with a gun that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.’ There was a rawness about Dylan back then, just voice and guitar and a language we’d never heard. There’s something about a troubadour who carries his guitar and gathers an audience around him wherever he might be. (Once or twice I did just that!) No band in sight.

Dylan put overt protest behind him, took on another persona,  many personas – but he’s still the troubadour.

As for others …..Buffy Sainte-Marie has long been a favourite of mine. ‘Welcome welcome emigrante,’ words for our own time as much as hers. Pete Seeger and Euan MacColl were at the political coal-face: amazingly MacColl also wrote ‘The first time ever I saw your face’. Joan Baez has never lost her touch or her commitment, or her ability to inspire. She was the first for me, back over fifty years ago.

Bruce Springsteen, a man with a guitar, and a rock band. A different kind of troubadour. As for Steve Earle, ‘hardcore troubadour’, Springsteen may have been the ‘consummate chronicler of welfare-line blues, but Steve had lived the life’. (Lauren St John).

There’s another , who I’ve just re-discovered, playing my old vinyls. Someone who maybe I should have put first, ahead even of Cohen, Guthrie, Dylan. I’m thinking of Victor Jara, a Chilean troubadour who died for his songs, his poetry, his guitar, his beliefs, his hands first broken, and then murdered in the stadium in Santiago on 1973, when Pinochet with CIA backing overthrew the Allende regime. His songs have a purity and a magic, and a simple beauty, and they stop me in my tracks.

Yes, my guitar is a worker/shining and smelling of spring/my guitar is not for killers/greedy for money and power/but for the people who labour/so that the future may flower. (His last poem, which could never be a song, written in the stadium.)

The Beatles could have been troubadours, if they’d followed the direction taken by Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby. Ralph McTell (Streets of London) was memorable, though sentimental. Billy Bragg never sentimental, stridently political, a street singer. But in truth he never inspired me. One song that did was Peter Gabriel’s lament for Steve Biko, which is searing, searching, and angry.

Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand… chanteurs/chanteuses, troubadours. There’s a Gallic intensity we Brits and Americans find hard to match. They’ve inspired me, but they’re not my focus here.

For I’ve a question. For anyone who reads this, for my children, for generations born in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, even the noughties.

Who are your troubadours?

Singers and poets for whom words matter, for whom stories matter, for whom love matters, and above all – injustice. Who sing to be heard, and to be understood. Who sing with passion and with anger.

Back in the 60s the civil rights movement galvanised us, in the UK as well as the USA. Apartheid likewise. We’d a sense that history was on our side, justice and social justice would prevail. Now, in 2016, post Brexit and the Trump election we’re on the defensive. Nativist, racist and sexist attitudes find favour. Trump somehow finds the rule of law and torture compatible.

(Trump and torture reminded me of Victor Jara. Pinochet’s soldiers thought torture and death legitimate. Once hatred in engendered anything is possible.)

Who is singing for us, writing songs, wanting to be heard? Who will be singing?

Maybe we’ve been listening to the music too much in recent decades, and we’ve forgotten the song.

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.

Beneath a tamarisk tree on the Cornish coast

Reading Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets, sitting beneath a tamarisk tree on the north Cornish coast.

…hankering after stone
That connived with the chisel, as if the grain
Remembered what the mallet tapped to know.

That ties in well with the landscape all about me, which has memories of many millennia stored within its rocks, ancient tracks, stone-hedged fields and sand dunes.

I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple 

Might that change the way you look upon the elderflower forever, or might it just be, depending on your mood, overwritten and overblown?

The tamarisk was planted long ago, when houses were cottages, and the land was ploughed, and the season was the farmer’s all year round, and not just the holiday-maker’s summer months. The wind scurries the fronds, a Cornish blue beyond and above, but they’re so fine that their susurrations lose out to the ash tree, which with the freshness of youth is a sounding-board for the breeze.

The tamarisk branches move uneasily, they creak, and the ash sways. The ash is all deep shade, the tamarisk a light touch of sun. A gull squawks, and when the wind falls low, there’s the distant sound of a combine harvester, for fields still do run away inland, when you climb beyond the pitched roofs and white facades of the holiday homes.