Monthly Archives: September 2012

The singer, the song and the writer, the book

I was thinking yesterday about the difference between a writer and a singer songwriter.
Music is obviously the big difference, but there is another that I had not really considered before. If you write a song, that people like, then, over the years, you will be called upon to perform it across a large timespan. Writers, who give readings, are hardly likely to be asked to read from something they wrote over twenty years ago. Even Charles Dickens, that great performer of his own work, moved onto the next thing and the next thing.

I was thinking about it because a writer’s maturity might show in the work, as the body of it grows. In a singer, the maturity is in the performance of what might be quite an old song; a song they wrote at a very different point in their lives. And the difference in their delivery, their looks, their interpretation… well I find the idea of such performances heartbreakingly poignant, far more than rereading a book.

It’s something like this: a live performance some 39 years after the original record was released. There’s some quibbling about pitch correction on Garfunkel’s voice, but that only goes to reinforce the point.

There are other artists I could use to illustrate the point, but they would only make me cry.

‘Treat those two imposters just the same’

Success and failure, or Kipling’s two imposters ‘Triumph and Disaster’, what constructs those evil twins are! How do you measure them, how do you merit them, how do you know which the hell is which? One thing’s for certain amongst the maelstrom of my mind, you cannot have one without the other and, rather than treat them as twin sides of the same coin as I try to, as per Kipling’s advice, it would be easier if we could have one word for both. The Germans are quite good at coming up with such terms for existential states, I’ll have a hunt around and see if I can find one.

In the meantime, I’ve not been sleeping well and so it was I was awake at 6.00 a.m. this morning, listening to the excellent Radio 4 programme Something Understood. It was, serendipitously, all about a Sense of Failure. It didn’t help me get back to sleep but it was a thoughtful and interesting treatment of what can be a rather depressing sort of consideration. You can listen again here if you want.

I’ve more or less forgotten the whole thing now; I say that, I am sure it is lodged somewhere in my unconscious, but one thing that really has stayed with me is the snippet of a song they played by Charlie Rich. Now, Charlie Rich also sang the 1973 hit song that went ‘…if you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world…’ and I have realised that that is the first radio song I can remember (the second is probably Save Your Kisses for Me by the Brotherhood of Man). If I hear the Charlie Rich song, I am back in my bedroom in the first house I remember, when my parents lived together. The bedroom was at the front of the house, on the road, but set back with a giant sycamore tree in the front garden, that came between me and any traffic noise. I don’t know why I had the radio on, I used to listen to Stewpot’s Choice, I think it was on a Saturday morning. It’s a vivid sort of memory, because of the music. I think I had a candlewick bed spread (duvets were not yet en vogue) and I had a curious sort of wooden bedhead that consisted of an overhead light, with a little white push button on/off switch and a long narrow bookshelf running from the left to the right above me, so my head was sort of in a bookshelf when I slept. Perhaps that’s where it all started…

Back to Charlie Rich. I listened to the song they played on Something Understood again this morning. It seems to me more like a song of success than failure, but that leads me, circular fashion, back to my opening point. It’s all the same thing, probably, the only thing that changes is your perspective.

What has one ever learned from something marked ‘success’? Over to Charlie.

(And don’t be put off by the hee haw reference, there are no donkeys involved.)

Girls sleepover aka Lord of the Flies

I don’t know when in his life he would have got to experience the trauma that is a girls’ sleepover, but it seems obvious that William Golding’s classic ‘Lord of the Flies’ was originally based on a sleepover for five girls between the ages of eight and eleven. I know he tweaked the facts a bit in the novel, from memory it’s all boys and there’s some kind of plane crash or shipwreck, but other than that it all boils down to the same thing. Once children are in the majority, chaos and decadence rule until it all ends in violence of one sort or another.

I have spent the past 18 hours picking up sweet wrappers, hiding in the kitchen, conducting a conveyor-belt operation of pizzas and pancakes, begging the protagonists to drink fluids so as not to become dehydrated, unblocking the sink (prime suspect avocado face mask), bleaching the bathroom bin, making pots of tea two at a time, clearing up mugs of undrunk tea, washing up, hiding in the bedroom, picking up jelly snail sweets off the floor, confiscating wooden snails, telling children not to scream, administering ointment on scratches, telling children not to slide down bannisters, or fall stunt-like down stairs, hiding in the bathroom, pulling sticky sweets off the sole of my flip-flops, hiding in the garden and officially reading the riot act at 23.10, 24:00 and 00:50 when I went outside for a minute to hide in the car on the street.

I won’t tell you what has gone through my mind during this period of mental and aural torture but… Lord of the Flies has nothing on my house.

Apologies for any typos or grammatical errors. I have tried to edit but I am in a similar state to the unfortunate pig.

Plates in the air

I have never believed it is possible for anyone to keep all the plates spinning in the air for very long.

Today, the sad news is that we accidentally smashed the commemorative Withindale Easter Egg Hunt plate right in two. Last Friday I smashed a champagne flute and tomorrow… who knows.

Whilst we wait to find out what’s next I’d like the Egg Meister, or a suitable representative to kindly advise if they would like their original plate returned next year, plus some superglue, or shall I get on the case for another suitably Easterish plate and transfer the plaque (also with superglue).

As I said, plates in the air, having it all, doesn’t work: always ends in some kind of smithereens or the other. As it’s Friday night (was dance night), here’s a tune. I couldn’t dance to this in a month of Sundays, but I used to like playing it in Stamford Hill when I was pootling about in my white Peugeot 205 (diesel: as my Grandpa would have said). It’s a shockingly dated video, and Lionel prancing around with a bare chest under an unbuttoned shirt is a big No from me, but still, sometimes it’s good to go back to a time in your mind when you only had the one plate to balance on a stick and keep spinning, into infinity and beyond.

‘It’s alright, do it again…’

Consuming the self

More and more these days the regular acts of a consumer seem to be: find it yourself, read your own meter, enter your details online *YOU LEFT OUT SOME DETAILS!*, key the number into your telephone keyboard, say the digits after the beep, do it yourself, press the hash key, pack the goods yourself, pay via an automated service and withdraw via one too.

What I am trying to say is that, increasingly, our modes of consumption, are unmediated by a human being. We commune only with the product or service and some kind of computerised device. I could nearly, if I wanted, run my whole consumer life without speaking to another human being, ever.

In fact, I might try it, for a week and see what becomes of me. It would mean self-service at the supermarket, pay-at-the-pump petrol. It would mean online shopping and online bill payments. No act of consumption would be sullied by an interaction with a third party… Now, I know that this is sold to us as a more convenient way of managing our own affairs, but the truth is, it is far cheaper for the merchant. Get the mug punter to most of the work themselves and voilà – it improves our profit margins. Don’t think it will be left at that either; apparently some ticket agencies are now charging customers, who have bought tickets online, an additional cost to print off their own tickets at home… By that brass-necked reckoning, it’s not going to be long before we are charged an entrance fee to the supermarket. Has anyone noticed how their vaunted free delivery became more and more expensive over the years, with ‘premium ‘ time slots?

Anyway, that’s not really what gets on my nerves, not really. I don’t hark back fondly to the day’s of ‘Are You Being Served’. What annoys me is that when a business model is predicated on a consumer being left to their own devices for the bulk of the transaction because something seems to go badly wrong in the psyche: both in mine (the consumer) and in theirs (the staff). I can only liken it to when I worked in a shop and we had a quiet day – if a customer came in late in the day we had become totally inured to doing nothing at all and the instant feeling was one of irritation or outrage. Sort of, ‘here is a customer actually expecting my help… the nerve!’

I had to buy shoes for the children today. I went to a shop where the stock room is the shop. You find your own size. This makes a whole heap of mess because customers tend to rip out the paper stuffing from the boxes and not put the lids back on properly and make the stacks of boxes all look very raggedy indeed. The staff’s main job then seems to be going along behind the customer (probably on about an hour or two’s time lag) and restacking the boxes in the stock room/shop floor. Usually they are to be found up 10 feet high ladders shuffling the boxes. You would need a loudhaler to attract their attention, or a distress flare. Anyway, my daughter found a pair of boots that suited in a size 1 box. Unfortunately, there were two right feet in the box and one was a size 2 as well. There were no more size 1s in size 1 boxes and no more size 1s that had escaped into other boxes. So we tried a different style – right size – but only one in the box. The staff did not care and stacked the useless boxes neatly back with their contents of one boot, odd boots, unmatching sizes and two left feet for the next unsuspecting size 1 customer to have a complete headfuck over. I know the staff don’t care about the shoes or the customer because their job is stacking boxes and climbing ladders, not serving customers. I don’t blame them, it’s the culture of the model. it’s just that the whole self-service thing taken to extremes dehumanises us all. It reminds me of that band called ‘Pop will Eat Itself’ – so will consumers, in the end.

Some of us will nibble off our toes behind a mountain of size one boots (left feet only). Some of us will poke out our eyeballs when the machine shouts ‘UNEXPECTED ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA’. At least one person is going to saw off their hand when the machine says ‘Sorry, we didn’t understand that’ after they have been on hold for half an hour and I was nearly forced to cut out my tongue earlier when I had broken the automated system and got through to some kind of Stepford Call Centre worker who could only Speak From The Script.

It’s creeping up on us (if you are a modern global consumer) and you’d better watch out. Excessive consumption should come with a health warning, along the lines of, ‘Depersonalised consumption carries the risk of cannibalising one’s soul’. Here’s a more academic article on a related theme. Personally, I feel better for getting all that off my chest. But I am still trapped.


That title says ‘Michelangelo’ in Armenian. Ain’t the internet a wonderful place? I don’t recall the blog having any Armenian visitors before. Today we had two.

I don’t whether Michelangelo is big in Armenia, but why not. After all, he wasn’t just a painter and sculptor either. He used to doodle and scribble words and lists on his drawings: mundane notes like shopping lists and bills and profundities such as “Desire engenders desire and then leaves pain”.

Here’s a poem by him, translated by John Addington Symonds.

Celestial Love by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)

O mortal thing enthralled these longing eyes
When perfect peace in thy fair face I found;
But far within, where all is holy ground,
My soul felt Love, her comrade of the skies:
For she was born with God in Paradise;
Nor all the shows of beauty shed around
This fair false world her wings to earth have bound:
Unto the Love of Loves aloft she flies.
Nay, things that suffer death, quench not the fire
Of deathless spirits; nor eternity
Serves sordid Time, that withers all things rare.
Not love but lawless impulse is desire:
That slays the soul; our love makes still more fair
Our friends on earth, fairer in death on high.

More flowers saved from the dustbin

Prologue: The washing has been on the line since Sunday, the day it started to rain.
It has hardly stopped since…

I found two pots of orchids being thrown out last week, before the rains came, and my daughter and I felt, like the Kate Bush song This Woman’s Work, that the plants had ‘a little life in them left’.

This morning, unbelievably, I managed to find a patch of brief blue sky and took a photo of the flowers, thus proving Kate’s point. I know that song so well; I think I prefer Maxwell’s version, but it tears me apart to heart it sometimes. Instead I’ve got Miles Davis playing So What, from the album, Kind of Blue. Can’t beat that on a rainy day like today. A jazz trumpet talks to you, without playing on your emotions, telling you what to think like lyrics do.

For truly accomplished flower photography, I am just playing after all, please drop by my colleague Bronwyn Oldham’s marvellous website here.

Chief Biscuit Torturer

The dog can be a bit snotty when it comes to food. His breakfast can lie in the bowl ignored until lunch, or even teatime. My old dog was partial to anything. Kitchen doors had to be kept shut otherwise he was odds on to go *right through the bin and his work surface surfing habits meant food was not safe for even a second out on the side.

This new version of dog I have can even turn his nose up at a morning biscuit. It’s not a dog biscuit either, but a human one. Plain I grant you, but most dogs would be grateful to start their day this way. Wouldn’t they? Not he. Mostly it goes begging and I eat it with my morning cup of tea. Sometimes, just to be extra annoying he goes to take it from my hand, but in the end just licks the edge without enthusiasm and then turns it down, leaving me, mug in one hand, with a useless biscuit in the other.

Then there are the rare occasions that he will lower himself to take it from me, but this is what he does. He gets on the bed, yes mine I am afraid, and tortures the biscuit. He flings it in the air and stares at the Rich Tea where it has landed; the poor biscuit probably wonders what an earth is going on. Then he might jab it with his nose, swiftly followed with prod with his paw. And so it goes on for a minute or so, the prodding and stabbing and jabbing and poking and shoving with his paws and his nose. Sometimes the biscuit has enough and breaks, but mostly it remains intact. After a while he gets bored and eats it.

The dog is very odd – he manages to make it seem when he is given, what is ostensibly a treat, as if he is not only doing me, but the biscuit a favour when he finally deigns to eat it. He certainly makes me feel sorry for the Rich Tea in this house.

Helpfully the manufacturer points out that the biscuit is ’round’
In case you missed that fact.

*This entailed not merely a desultory poke around inside the black rubbish bag, but a comprehensive strewing of every single thing in the bin into rivers of rubbish across the floor with extra special smearing action on the floor with things like tea bags, greasy containers and egg shells and anything else notably rancid and fetid.

‘Zaftig Figs’

It’s poor form to quote oneself, but a ‘zaftig fig’ is a line out of a poem I wrote that still needs a bit more work.

I am sharing it anyway because I liked the way you could roll it around your mouth. Zaftig is a Yiddish word from the Old German, saft meaning juicy. To describe something as zaftig is to call it round, full; voluptuous in the case of a woman. I used to work for a Jewish family and Yiddish has some words that have a rich resonance. One of my favourites is meshugganah: it means crazy. And then there are the shleps, the schlocks, the schlemiels with the schmooze and the schmaltz and the schmucks with their spiel; not forgetting the chutzpah (which is not a compliment). All gorgeous on the tongue, like these figs.

I was given a bag of purple ones this week and had them last night, seared on a rocket and mozzarella salad with prosciutto, but before all that, I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of them. Words sometimes constrain, an image frees the mind more, I think.

This morning, after the nosh the night before, I only wish I had been given two bags of figs…

Telegraph Pole Appreciation Day

Yes, it’s today. I had no idea. Seriously.

I saw a telegraph pole on the street last week that interested me and took photo of it a few days ago, something I could use on the blog over the coming weeks. Then, in one of those moments of the most amazing serendipity, when I was googling up telegraph poles this morning I came up with this post from the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society.

On this special day they urge us to

get outside and….

hug a telegraph pole
take a photgraph of one
climb one
write a poem about one
admire one

Job done.