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.

The Plough and the Stars

Were I to write a review of the Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which I saw at the National Theatre last night, ‘bloody marvellous,’ might do it.

Intense, overwhelming, the agonies of Nora, which destroy her, and death of Bessie Burgess, shot by a British soldier who thinks she might be a sniper – they are sustained, stretched out, they leave the audience on a knife edge of emotion, they’re heart-rending and overwhelming. I felt when the lights went up at the end that I’d been an intruder, an uninvited guest, wanting but unable to intervene. This was not a time or place to applaud. (But of course we did.)

Curiously, one reviewer thought the play ‘so heavy going and full of crude stereotypes’ that it’s hard to care about the characters. Michael Billington, in the Guardian, on the other hand, got its measure: … once the play starts to exert its grip, it never lets go, and leaves you shaken and stirred’.

How an audience could fail to be stirred by this production – that disturbs me. Are we so inured to passion and poetry? So stultified by the easy emotions of endless evening soaps that we can’t distinguish real emotion – the real emotion of great theatre – from its cheap substitutes?

Let O’Casey have his say in the subject.

“The beauty, fire and poetry of drama [he’s writing about the early 1930s] have perished in a storm of fake realisms. Let real birds fly through the air; real animals roam through the jungle, real fish swim in the sea, but let us have art in the theatre. There is a deeper life than the life we see and hear with the open ear and the open eye and this is the life important and the life everlasting. So to hell with so-called realism, for it leads nowhere.”

He doesn’t mind going for the jugular, he’s not afraid of big characters and big emotion – and in The Plough and the Stars he gives the roles that rend the hearts to women. This isn’t a play about the front line – that’s around the corner, down the road, at the General Post Office. The confrontations, the aggression, are at home and in the local bar. Long after the event O’Casey reflected on his own life, and explained his aggression:

“I have lived a troublesome life in Ireland, in my youth hard times in the body, and in my manhood years, a hard time in the spirit. Hardship in my young days taught me how to fight hard, for if that characteristic wasn’t developed then, it meant that one became either a slave or a lick-spittle…. “So I learned how to resist all aggressive attempts to make me a docile one, and could hit back as hard as he who could hit hardest. This gift (for an earned gift it is) kept within me when I reached the world of thought as it had been in the world of hard labor – at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.”

‘…at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.’

Almost a throwaway line. I’ll always (this is ‘zenpolitics’ after all) argue against anger and aggression, and argue for facing up to it as soon as it arises. O’Casey faced up to it after the event. But given there are no perfections in life, and that theatre – as well as quiet places (walking maybe by the Liffey) – should always play its part in human existence, then I’m almost on O’Casey’s side. Sometimes anger simply does overwhelm. Better to realise that later (as O’Casey does!) than never.

And if one result is great drama, great theatre – well, should I be complaining?

[Quotations above taken from the New York Times O’Casey obituary.]

 

 

 

 

 

A little help from my friends

The referendum has left most of us convinced Remainers worried, angry, feeling cheated – and feeling the country has been cheated. Waking in the night my first thoughts have been referendum, and my first emotions negative.

I’ve been helped by a determination to ensure that an open and an open-hearted politics win out in the end – while at the same time taking on board a good few lessons. If I’d been aware in the past of resentment and anger among those who felt left behind, or that this was no longer their England, their UK – then that’s as nothing to my awareness now.

Getting away from it all also helps. Three books I’d mention –

Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a magical encounter with the Cairngorms – a landscape I remember well. No writer lives landscape quite as she does – the corries and snow and skies, the eagle and the snow bunting, the storm and the silence.

(Of the peregrine falcon and eagle) ‘The speed, the whirls, the torrents of movement are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. Or if it is … the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by a strict adherence to the needs of function – so much more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential.’

‘No-one know the mountain completely who has not slept upon it… Up on the plateau [on midsummer nights] light lingers incredibly far into the night…Watching it the mind grows incandescent and its glow burns down into a deep and tranquil sleep.’

‘Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shaped, should so tranquillise the mind I do not know…’ No one before, not even Wordsworth, has told it quite as she does.

She’s now destined, humble walker and explorer of the mountains as she was, to appear on a Scottish postal stamp.

At the other extreme, I delved into the poems of Sean O’Brien. But whereas with Nan Shepherd you feel you are living her memories as she is living them as she writes – we feel in O’Brien’s case that they are memories, and where Shepherd elevates he brings and keeps us down to earth – to the the sluices and dirty harbour waters in which fish yet swim, to drains, and empty parks, to deprivation sluiced through with politics. The landscapes draw you in, the language inspired because there’s magic in it, though the content may bring you down – and that’s the problem in my post-Brexit world. I want words to lift me up.

Someone with whom  I’ve shared my life for a few years now is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He sought God in the silence and moved toward Buddhism and political engagement as the years past. Whereas I in the turmoil seek silence sometimes, he in the silence could not hold back from the turmoil. Like thousands maybe millions of others I connect with the manner of his life and his engagement with it – if not the detail. And his diaries are matter of fact, and detached, but there’s always a wisdom interwoven, and I turned to his diaries on the Friday night after the Thursday referendum vote, and it was 1968, and Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and Merton wondered what else might happen that year. The Chicago convention, the death of Robery Kennedy of course – and his own accidental death.

This is 2016, and I wonder what else might befall the UK, and the world, this year.

If Merton on this occasion added a new dimension to anxiety, getting out beyond books in the post referendum week proved more successful.

All day in Kew Gardens with my partner’s grandchildren: you escape into their lives, and into Kew’s open and closed spaces – to the newly opened and magical Hive, where we literally tune in to the world of bees, and the Palm House, where the mist drips big drops of water on plants and people.

The Sunken Treasures exhibition at the British Museum – reclaiming remarkable artefacts from cities long sunk under the waters of the Nile Delta, a reminder of the transitoriness of life, civilisation and belief systems. And of course political life.

And finally, a day on a narrow boat of the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal, when after weeks of storm and rain and cloud the sun broke through and shone all day, and we could chug slowly to Gloucester and back through countryside hardly changed in a hundred years – the canal wide and the waters empty, and below us – yes below- the widening estuary of the river Severn.

No talk of politics, eight of us, a picnic of the river bank, and nothing to do. Just occasionally I took the tiller and took charge – though really it was the boat taking charge of me.

Another day 

I read the Economist’s latest thoughts and prognostications before I went to bed, and I didn’t sleep for the next two hours. That was a mistake. See Anarchy in the UK for the link.

On the BBC website this morning there’s little suggestion of crisis: the BBC’s perceived need to be even-handed eviscerates their commentary, takes out the drama, compromises truth, as it did during the campaign. George Osborne, still hanging on as Chancellor, is putting on a brave face about the economy this morning, as he has to do – and all power to him. I have yet to see the Telegraph, but I’m expecting more of the triumphalism that characterised Saturday’s paper. (Well, almost – front-page article by Boris, ‘We must be proud and positive.’ Though ‘anxious and scared’ might come closer.)

Where lies the truth? You can guess. The only one of the above not in some way beholden to someone else, by way of caution (Osborne) or position in society (BBC) or ownership (Telegraph) is the Economist. Theirs is probably the most cogent analysis I’ve seen. (Do Leave have a plan? ‘There is no plan.’) Articles by the likes of Nick Cohen take in important aspects of the crisis, but the Economist provides a wider focus.

Also this morning – a Labour leadership crisis to match the Tories’divisions, and all at a time of national crisis.

Attention now has to be on the Commons. My question – how best can the pro-Remain majority make clear its refusal to countenance any Leave legislation, and its opposition to invoking Article 50? Parliament is sovereign – not referenda.

That of course begs a multitude of questions. Not least, how would the public respond?

Short term there’ll be an almighty bust-up. Longer term, government must be more inclusive if it’s to win over the protest voters (as opposed to hardliners).

Taking my local area, Spelthorne, just outside London’s boundaries, but very much in its orbit, as an example. It came out strongly pro-Leave. 65%. How much of that vote might be considered protest? While there are areas of deprivation they’ve not been left behind as other areas have. But that dividing line just 400 yards from where I live, between inner and outer London, marks a real boundary in outlook and expectations and perceptions of the world.

I could put it down to fear of immigration, stirred up by the media: that’s one reason, but too simple. We’ll be getting closer to a full picture if we link it to proximity to the instruments of government, parliament, civil service, especially the City. Closer still if we take into account the greater numbers of young people, of voting age, within London’s border, and its corollary, the greater number of retired people, suspicious of the modern global world, beyond that border. Why do older generations and the retired feel so alienated? Does it have to be that way? I’m still looking for answers.