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Monday 31 August 2009

On Not Getting It.

I drift in and out of sleep when the show is on, that way I find that it makes sense. (Quote from the comments on a BBC Radio 2 Blog.)

David Lister, writing in The Independent a few days ago (26.08) and commenting on the current popularity of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, gave an amusing account of its recent rise and rise. Music generally has been more in demand it seems, which more than one commentator has attributed to the financial downturn and the need which the populace has suddenly discovered for tranquility and a spiritual dimension. Certainly music can supply both of those commodities, but The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain... I am not sure.

According to Lister it has been variously described as Hilarious. Glorious. Original. Well, just about every superlative under the sun. His comments were prompted by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain having been given a full billing in the BBC's Promenade Concert Programme. He went along to see. The occasion occasioned great excitement, he wrote. It was a complete sell-out. There were queues all round the block, he told us. Many, including the director, had brought their own ukuleles along. He made it sound like A Last Night at the Proms.

For Lister at any rate the promise was more than the reality, it seems. He reported that atThe Ride of The Valkyries he smiled. At Beethoven's Ode to Joy he half-smiled. After that the novelty began to wear off. Finally, he admitted, he just didn't get it. Now I have to admit that I have not heard The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, so cannot pronounce upon its achievements, its musicality or anything else. Whether or not I would have got it had I been there, I have no idea. What struck me, reading Lister's column, was the universality of the experience. It is universal in the sense that it happens, has happened, to us all (hands up any brave individual who wishes to claim that he has never been in the position of not getting it) and it is universal in the sense that it is common to all the arts. Maybe there have been times when it wouldn't have been so all-embracing, but today it is.

Which leads me again (I have raised it before, as no doubt the chorus of groans, could you but hear them, would indicate) to the question of what do you do when confronted by an alleged or intended work of art that you truly do not get. I am not referring to an encounter with a piece of art that just doesn't happen to be to your taste - I can be an even bigger bore on "taste", but that's not for this post, you will be pleased to hear. No, we are not talking don't like, but truly don't get.

I have in the past waxed prosaically about the poverty of the instruction I was given at school concerning all things aesthetic. Okay it was war time and there was a dearth of good teachers, but nowhere and at no time were we given any clue as to how to approach art, poetry, drama, music or any other art form that life might one day have placed before us for our approval. So far as literature was concerned the approach was that of good old comprehension. Well do I recall moments such as the following from a reading round the class session:

Me: Lady, you are the cruellest she alive if you will lead these graces to the grave and leave the world no copy. (Quoted from memory.)

Dicky Bird: What did he mean by that, King?

Me: He wanted her to have her portrait painted, sir.

Roars of hysterical laughter from the class. (An unusual success for me.) Roars of something quite different from Dicky Bird - and the rest of the session spent sitting in the corridor.

Not the sort of teaching - nor the sort of behaviour on the part of the pupil, I admit it - likely to send you out into the world equipped to cope with the difficulties of Eliot's Waste Land or post-modern literature - and remember, as I sometimes forget, That Eliot had written The Waste Land some 25 years before this, also that we were then well into the period of Post Modernism, we who were still reading The Jackdaw of Rheims, Lochinvar and other such versifications. I never did hear any mention of Eliot within those hallowed walls, much less Ezra Pound. What chance then, that Marcel Duchamp's famous "Fountain" - for which think: urinal? might get an airing in the art room?

There is an oft reiterated question which to my mind brings this whole question sharply into focus: "Ah, but is it art?" We have all asked it at some point, I guess, if only to evade a more difficult or soul-searching response, but it is a question which says more about the questioner than the questioned, for it is saying , in effect: "Yes, I do see that this found object, or this installation, or this whatever it may be, has something about it, but please point out what it has, specifically, that rings my art bell, falls within the parameters that for me define what is and what is not art.

Art must have its boundaries. Only the true anarchist thinks otherwise, but there always will be works and artists pushing at those boundaries. It is as though we have our own internal Venn diagrams. There is a circle for art (or maybe several), one for poetry (or maybe several), another for philosophy (or maybe several), and so on. We are confronted with an installation and the brain clicks in, weighing up the possibilities, where does this one fit? Maybe it goes in one of the overlaps, it's both this and that as well...

Back in my fourth paragraph I asked the question: what do you do when confronted by an alleged or intended work of art that you truly do not get. We must have our boundaries, but surely we must keep them flexible. When something truly original comes along it will not quite fit, for it will be something you had not foreseen when drawing up those boundaries. Indeed, by definition it will be something that no one had foreseen. So what could be the response? You could ask yourself: What preconceptions do I have, what assumptions have I made in the past that are preventing me from getting it? (The answer may be none, of course, the fault may not be in you, it may be another case of the Emperor's New Clothes.) The first occasion on which I can recall the question arising was back in 1952/3. What I recall is a public furore over Reg Butler's sculpture The Unknown Political Prisoner. (Butler is shown with an earlier version of the work, in my first image.)Had it ever been built it would have risen 300 - 400 feet in the air. It was, Butler said, specifically in memory of all who died in the concentration camps. The final maquette was destroyed by a Hungarian refugee whilst it was on display at The Tate Gallery. Everyone had a view about it. Few were complimentary. I cannot recall any work of art before it being given such a high profile. Certainly nothing to do with the arts had ever caused such controversy and consternation in our rather typical (I would think) household. The media then were not what they have become since, of course, but such as they were they went to town on it. It was exhibited at The Venice Biennial and at The Tate Gallery. Everybody that I knew - and I knew no-one who was in the habit of showing any interest in, let alone speaking about art - was talking about it and asking: But it's not art - is it? I, for my part, was thinking: Mmmmmm, it's got something... but it's not sculpture! Sculpture was solid. You chipped it out of a socking great block of granite. This was something, alrighty, but not that!

But then another thought dawned, a really transformative thought (I could have written about this for my contribution two post back): it's not beautiful in the normally accepted sense. I had to come to terms - for I was by then determined to fit The Unknown Political Prisoner into my Venn diagram labelled Sculpture - with the fact that it had nothing to do with beauty per se. Nothing to do with seeing in the visual sense at all - other than the fact that you had to see it for the brain to register it. So then scrub beauty, scrub the idea that art MUST have to do with beauty, scrub the idea that sculpture has to be something solid, like a gravestone - or bigger - and then.... well, and then, what? Does accepting all those modifications to the boundaries of your mental Venn diagram open the door to something else? Is that one of the obstacles that have prevented you from getting it? Does the work now offer you something that had not occurred to you before? Does it give something by way of compensation for the treasured belief(s) you might have surrendered?

I know what Dicky Bird would have advised. He would have said to read around the subject, the artist or the work - if the latter is big enough, important enough to have had books written on it. Much more chance now, of course, with all the reference materials of the Internet at our disposal. There are those - and sometimes I am one of them - who will see a problem here. The work of art should stand by itself, without explanation, without reference to the fact that the artist's wife had just suffocated their two children or what ever. And so it should, but for those who are of another time or culture, and so not immersed in the power and spontaneity of the artist's sources, who don't know the symbolism, the history, can't see the parallels, or for those who are faced by something new in the history of art, it can help to have notes - such as those on The Waste Land, for example, though they are hardly sufficient, given the extraordinary number of references. Indeed, unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of Eliot's references it might be considered essential to do a great deal of reading around the subject - eventually, though not for the first reading(s) I would suggest. Let it sink in first. Let the words and their cadences do their work before looking further afield.

What would Dicky Bird have made of this, I wonder: from The White Threshold by W.S.Graham.

Let me always from the deep heart
Drowned under behind my brow so ever
Stormed with other wandering, speak
Up famous fathoms well over strongly
The pacing white haired kingdoms of the sea..

I walk towards you and you may not walk away.

Always the welcome-roaring threshold
So ever bell worth my exile to
Speaks up to greet me into the hailing
Seabraes seabent with swimming crowds
All cast all mighty water dead away.

I rise up loving and you may not move away.

I know what Dicky Bird would have done. He would have written out a prose translation or equivalent of it. It wouldn't have done him much good, I think. I found it completely incomprehensible first time I encountered it. No strategy unlocked it. Only let it sink in from repeated readings did any good. (You might think that the poetic equivalent of drifting in and out of sleep. I wouldn't feel inclined to argue, but it worked for me - I think!) Whatever. You just have to find your own way in. There's no right way and wrong way. If Graham could have written it more simply, I am sure he would have. Interestingly, when I went to look up the quote, I found these words by Graham:-

The most difficult thing for me to remember is that a poem is made of words and not of the expanding heart, the overflowing soul, or the sensitive observer. A poem is made of words. It is words in a certain order, good or bad by the significance of its addition to life and not to be judged by any other value put upon it by imagining how or why or by what kind of man it was made.

I think Dicky Bird would have felt more comfortable with this from Tom Thumb by RF Langley - though maybe he should not have!

We should accept the obvious facts of physics.
The world is made entirely of particles in
fields of force. Of course. Tell it to Jack. Except it
doesn't seem to be enough tonight. Not because
he’s had his supper and the upper regions are
cerulean, as they have been each evening
since the rain. Nor just because it’s nine PM and
this is when, each evening since we came, the fifty
swifts, as passionately excited as any
particles in a forcefield, are about to end
their vesper flight by escalating with thin shrieks
to such a height that my poor sight won’t see them go.
Though I imagine instantly what it might be
to separate and, sleeping, drift so far beyond
discovery that any flicker which is left
signs with a scribble underneath the galaxy.

If you're still with me, you deserve a medal, but instead I am giving you a challenge: to find something that would not normally be associated with art, poetry or music but which when brought into focus by you begins to work on you in some way that might make it a candidate for one of the art circles in your inner Venn diagram. Which is to say, can you find a piece of found art? It could be a phrase on a corn flake packet, a snatch of conversation overheard in a shop, a mis-shapen potato, a smashed-up car or a workman's tool of some sort. It might be a sequence of sounds recorded on a country walk. (No, why country? Might just as easily be in some town centre.) You get the idea, I'm sure. Something that did not start out as a piece of art, but which, now that you have picked it out and shone your light upon it, begins to act like one. I, for my part, am going to cheat. I already have mine. Two posts ago I posted some pictures from a day spent at Wisley. One of many remarkable interludes from that day was walking among the fruit trees. At one point we sat down for a few moments. A family came by, and one member of it, a girl of - I would guess - about eight years, was pointing to the pears and saying what they suggested to her. (Thinking back to my childhood and climbing ladders to pick the fruit, I could not but be impressed by the fact that all - and I do mean all - of it was within reach, could be picked from the ground, most of it by a child.) This particular child was letting her imagination rip: this pear was an old man's head; another was sand castle. Amnd then this:
Look mum, a honey bubble dripping from a spoon! So we could argue about the word dripping being used of a bubble; maybe she had conflated two images, but not only was the phrase couched as a perfect iambic pentameter, but she spoke it rhythmically and the image was exactly right: the colour, the shape, and the sun imparting to it the appearance of a slight translucence. So it's not a world-beater, but if I come up with a better one, I'll post it for sure.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Stranger than Fiction

Author - Jim Murdoch : Published - fvbooks : pp180

If you enjoyed the author's previous book Living with the Truth - as I did _ you will enjoy this one. I enjoyed this one even more than the previous one. As with that one, Jonathan Payne is the chief protagonist. Living with the Truth was the story of his meeting with the personification of truth. As always with such stories you have to be able to accept the conceit on order to relax and enjoy both the story and the writing.

In many way Stranger than Fiction is a re-run of that first book, for it is again the story of Jonathan Payne's encounters with the figure of Truth. Only this time the story is not confined to humble Earth. Oh dear me, no: this time we have not so much a broader canvas as an endless wall available for the author to expand his grand designs. We have macro-universes - called macro-verses - for example. Our gallant protagonist and Truth may now range far and wide. But the conceit becomes more involved than that: before too long we learn that everywhere he goes and everyone he meets Jonathan Payne has generated himself from his own memory. For example, he remembers an early 70's pub, so that is what they find themselves sitting in when Truth takes him for a drink. It is a conceit that allows Jonathan to interact with people from his past. It allows him, to take another example, to face up to the memory of his mother and his own childish fantasies and to the consequent guilt feelings. You ask a child, he is told, why they did something, I don't know, wet themselves, stole a penny, scribbled on the new wallpaper and they answer if they dare, "Because," because that is all the truth there is. You want to know "Why?" but I don't have the answers you're looking for. Because they never existed. This is your chance to examine the other routes in your life to see if there are any better choices just waiting to be made.

But the conceit does more even than that, for it has yet more to offer both the author and the reader. It allows Murdoch to examine a variety of issues and to put forward various viewpoints. It must be said - and this is perhaps the one down side and my one slight disappointment - that it is not a debate between equals. Truth has all the big guns and the heavy armaments. Jonathan can only muse, something he does quite a lot - and even then his musings are often cut short! I was actually longing for him to win just one argument and so prove for all time that Truth could be false - Oh, all right: "wrong", if you must! - But that, I realise, was expecting too much. Maybe it would have sent the whole macro-verse spinning off course. I don't know; it is likely that only the author could say for sure. That was just one small me carping a bit - the me that instinctively feels it must champion the underdog or Justice will depart from this small universe of ours for ever.

So what are the issues that the author manages to raise? Well, Truth is one, of course. What it is and what it isn't. Xenophobia another. Then there is Reality. As in: Your mother was only as real as you remembered her to be. Belief in God and Relationships both get an airing. Not exactly trivial stuff, this, you will notice.

I am not - as some of you will know - a great film buff, although there was a time when I might have claimed to be one. However, I did very much appreciate the way the author took the presented opportunity to play around with films. This is obviously something that he very much enjoyed doing, and consequently it was enjoyable for this reader, who invariably derives great pleasure from the enthusiasm of a speaker or a writer for his/her subject.

If I was to be asked to pick my favourite scene or passage from this book I think I would choose one from near the end in which Jonathan is taken to a convention of Jonathan Paynes. Here he meets all those other selves from all those other times and universes across the macro-verse. There is a Father Jonathan, a prophet Jonathan, a Jonathan Payne from Earth 334, an android Jonathan Payne, even twin Jonathan Paynes and a Lady Joanna Payne. I found this extremely humerous, but it was humour with a point. And the point? Well, perhaps each reader will come to it differently, but what I did find was that much in this book could be taken in any of a number of ways. It was possible at times to see it as metaphor, parable, maybe allegory. No doubt you could read nothing into it and just enjoy what would then be a rather far-fetched story.

But having finished the book and reflected a bit on the author's two books, I found myself playing with the idea of these being the first in a Jonathan Payne series, a time travel series with a difference. We could have Jonathan visiting his distant ancestors, for example. Okay, I've gone beyond the remit of a reviewer, but I do believe it not impossible to imagine a cult following somewhere down the road one day.

Monday 24 August 2009

Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa

The untold story : don't forget, you read it here first.

                                     Cresting the wave
                         was always his way - noted for it - painting
                the dragons of his day -

                                                              Three sheets
              of three-sheet-see-through usugami* fluttering
       in winds that whispered of a truth
unsayable by humankind. It caught the ear
                                            of tides beyond his ken
But Hokusai,
had laid the tracing papers on the beach
off which in past times dragons had been known to pass
                                                    or fish from rocks.

His brush became a choreographer's, notating dance,
yet still continued as an instrument
of calligraphic grace.

The merest thought
that dragons might be out there,
fired him up
and filled his head with images -
a plein air painter with no thought
for structure
or of form.

The ichiji Shita-e,*
sheet one - the under sheet: sheet music
for a fugue not yet performed -
                     the veins and arteries,
                     firebox, flues and dampers,
                     the bones
                     and muscle, sinews,
                     thirty vital organs, claws
                     and tongues of fire
                     straight from his brush.

On this was laid the oversheet,
to take on board the dragon's scales
from brushes charged with Prussian Blue
(the latest hue) and sensual jade.

                        Above the under- and the over-sheet,
the layout sheet, the final sheet, the Shita-e* -
to which, by tracing through,
the sketches were transferred,
then fastened to a board of cherry wood.

Job done: replenishing
the jar to clean the brushes,
brush tip - hardly
having broken surface tension
                     before a cloud of jade and Prussian blue
                                            extruding from the hairs,
                       swam down,
                     reformed itself - a perfect replica
                                                a perfect dragon,
clone of,
bone from bone of that which he had visualised
                           in veins and arteries,
                           brains, firebox, flues and dampers,
                           muscles, sinews, all
                           those vital organs,
                           claws and tongues of fire

Then Hokusai, with great care, carrying
the jar with living, breathing, spitting thing
                                                  down to the water's edge
                                        released it,
                              watched it swim
                    and grow with every stroke.

Back at the block of cherry wood he found
    the dragon faded to the tint and texture of its ground -
          except the claws, except the tongues of living fire,
                more vivid than he'd thought.

                                    Later it was said
                            that over the horizon
                        the dragon lashed its tail against a wave.
                    Riposte was swift: the sea
              unrolled itself
          tore out the trees
      and avalanched across the land.
                    So much went missing...
                    so many and so much...
          The tracing papers for a start:
     layout and individual parts.
Weeks later, with the shita-e* still be missing,
but the cherrywood block found;
       a something magical had happened:
              the wave had gouged the block
                  with its own signature;
                     cut deep and crisp into its cherry pattern,
the portrait of a wave.
The dragon's claws and tongues of fire
remained as spray and spume flakes
                                        cresting the great wave.

Usugami is a transparent paper that will take paint and inks. Its special characteristic is that it remains completely clear and transparent through several thicknesses. This allows sketches and preparatory drawings etc to be laid on top of each other. These are known as Ichiji Shita-e and by superimposing them the artist can build up the desired layout, before tracing it on to the Shita-e, the final design. Hokusai very definitely used this method - there are sheets still extant - though maybe not for The Great Wave off Kanagawa. He used them for complicated compositions involving many figures.( Sorry I couldn't give the names in the original language.)

Saturday 22 August 2009


Not photographs as such, just snaps of a day out at Wisley, Gardens belonging to The Royal Horticultural Society.

Two of these outside the entrance. I kind of made myself a bit persona non grata by refering to them as poppy trees. (Busy Lizzies, actually.)

View looking down from the top of the rockery

The arid sector in the glasshouse.

August is Victorian Month at Wisley : A chance to be taught croquet by Victorian gentlemen.

The House

Wednesday 19 August 2009

A Transformative Moment

This is by way of being my contribution to Steven's meme A Transformative Moment, at which blog, if you care to pop over (later, of course, after you have read mine) you can catch up with the other responses. I did begin by thinking that I should break away from art and poetry and all that jazz on this occasion, be less boring and come up with something less predictably me. However, having excluded all those moments which are either too personal or too much involving others, those involving mainly close family others - those, in other words, that I am not prepared to air in public - and having considered carefully all those that remained - or as many of those that remained as I could recall - I found myself forced to the conclusion that one moment towered above all the others. A longish moment as moments go, to be sure, but whose measuring? And - would you believe - a moment to do with art. And worse than that, one on which I have blogged before, though not in these terms. All the same, wrapping up any discussion there might have been on the topic: I am boring. Q.E.D.

As a small boy I had a lot of ill health and spent a lot of time in bed. In the main I kept myself occupied by drawing and painting. Mostly this would consist of copying from books or magazines, sometimes getting members of the family to pose for me, and occasionally - though, looking back, surprisingly infrequently - drawings distilled from my various fantasies. There was some contact with art work in reproduction, though this was almost completely Victorian art.

I also made my first unsatisfying attempts to write verse. Jingles mostly. Rhyming, of course. None of it worth a grow's kneecap, except that it helped to keep me sane.

When I was well enough to do so I would wander anywhere there were plants or trees to be seen: the garden, the common, other boys' gardens. Trips to the seaside were occasions of intense delight in all the flora and fauna of beach and rock pools.

Another aspect of life that was important to me at the time was church. Perhaps because it spoke of a reality beyond the one that I was finding frustrating. At a very early age I became an altar boy - possibly, had I not had such a dreadful voice, I would have joined the choir, but that was an impossibility.

And then, at some point, I was taken to The Tate Gallery. I say "taken", though I can't remember who took me. I can't recall, either, how old I was. I am sure, though, that I was too young to have been allowed to take myself. What I do remember is seeing the Samuel Palmers, The William Blakes and the Graham Sutherlands. Obviously there were others. They were a revelation. I was, in modern parlance, gob smacked.

I don't remember all the individual works I saw, but I remember their affect upon me.

I remember the Blakes particularly because there was poetry and painting locked in each other's arms and enhancing each other. Almost neither poetry nor painting, but some new art form I had never before encountered.

I remember the Sutherlands particularly because there I was seeing clearly expressed what I had sensed fleetingly in my mooching about on common and foreshore: that the shape and texture of something like a moss-covered stone can give intimations, not only of everyday reality, but of another reality that is mysterious but is not quite mystical in the churchy sense.

I remember the Palmers particularly because they seemed to speak directly to something inside me. It was to do with a third type of reality, an inner one.

I do believe now that the experience was the first step on a what would be a long road to Wallace Stevens's position: to thinking that in many ways and for many people - including at the moment myself - poetry has replaced formal religion.

The images below, in order, are of paintings by Samuel Palmer, Graham Sutherland and William Blake.

Sunday 16 August 2009

When the Signals Don't Get Through

(Nothing to do with the subject, but I wish I had seen this in a flier for The London Review of Booksbefore posting my piece on Lies, Damned Lies and My Comments on Your Blog, this quote from John Mason Brown: To many people criticism must seem like an attempt to tattoo soap bubbles. And this one from C.G. Lightenburg: A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to peer out.)

Recently, Doreen, who is not only my wife, but also the chief communications officer for the whole extended family, found herself lumbered (I think is the appropriate word) with the responsibility for agreeing the details with other close family members for a long weekend we were planning to spend with them. Our daughter and son-in-law had also been invited along, so it was a three-way task to set it all up. Because we all (they all!) lead very busy lives, the arranging was done by text. At some point our daughter suggested a modification to the arrangements, from which point it all went pear-shaped.

Obviously, I am not going into all the details or lay blame, if only because I think that actually, no one was to blame - unless it be he who invented texting in the first place!Certainly, I have no doubt but that the devil was in the texting. The messages conveyed adequately enough what each was thinking, but not what they felt about the suggestions and counter-suggestions. This, surely, is in the nature of text messaging, which on th evidence of this experience needs to be used with some caution. I understand that it came into being when engineers working to establish networks in the early days hit upon the idea of using the spare capacity in the system to communicate with each other. It woud have been fine for such use, is fine for short, factual communications, but cannot handle the complexities of human emotions.

Recently we had a spot of boiler trouble. At intervals of increasing frequency there would come a noise like an express training coming towards us out of a long tunnel and then hitting the platform, at which point hot water would cascade freely from the overflow over the conservatory below.

We have a maintenance contract with one of the Utility companies. I have to say I was impressed by their efforts on our behalf. They came almost daily over a long period of time, making changes to this or that, replacing something else, eventually reduced to trying things by trial and error. At one point the engineer thought new pipes from the control centre to the tank in the attic might help, as the existing ones meandered from past modifivcations to the system. He laso thought that the vent pipe, which was of a narrower bore than the others should be the same size. I had for some time thought the pipe work a little on the crazy side, so readily agreed. And a MagnaClean, he said to take the sludge out of the system... Okay, I said These changes though, were enhancement not repairs, so had to be paid for. We stumped up, he came and very efficiently did all the work agreed, and before he had collected up his tools, the train came out of the tunnel once more.

He brought in the lead engineer, who thought a self-ventinc valve to replace the manuel one in the airing cupboard and maybe the boiler needed a new P.C.B. It did. It has worked perfectly since. He explained: the boiler wasn't switching off because the signl wasn't coming through from the P.C.B.

It's not all bad, of course. We now have an enhanced system, though in actual fact, this consists in the main of a MagnaClean, looking something like a cross between a bunion and a jar of coffee protruding from the boiler's return pipe just above the microwave - a space once reserved for trays, but now not available to us. It may be enhancing the system but it sure aint enhancing the kitchen.

Back to the business of texting. It occurs to me to wonder whether the degree to which we have come to rely on these very convenient short messages has not imparied to some extent our abilty to read the signals that more extended language forms usually provide. We do not provide the redundancy of language which often acts as the carrier. We do not think about them when we write and so do not look for them when we read. Our politicians, for example, are for ever complaining that their message is not getting through. Well, maybe at times it doesn't deserve to, and at other times the complaint is an excuse, but often it is patently obvious that, for good or ill, they are at least correct in that: the message is not getting through.The hysteria in The States over President Obama's Health plans - and the ludicrous way in which the British NHS has become embroiled in it is a case in point.

Friday 14 August 2009

So, how should it be?

I asked a man with a knife in his hand
what shape should I give to my art?
The answer's not clear, young laddie, I fear.
Now take this sharp knife, it could end a man's life,
but the life it would shape would be mine.

So spake the man with the knife in his hand.

Then I asked a man in a miller's hat,
how fine should I grind down my art?
Should the texture be rough or should it be smooth?
Like dust or large grit, doesn't matter a bit,
but please don't grind it away, dear heart,

said the man in the miller's hat.

Next I asked of a pair in each other's embrace:
are art and love both sent from heaven?
They stopped for a moment... well, would you believe?
Both rule with a rod of iron, said he;
Each is as soft as a flower, said she;
as they each resumed at triple the pace.

So I asked the girl with the JCB
what land art could offer an artist like me.
Should I build mountains or fill in the sea?
Don't move too much, keep the mystery.
The faith to retain the shape of a tree
is what the world needs just now,
said she.

Then I asked a man with balls of brass,
should my art be vague or cut like glass?
Should I worry about how long it will last?
What matters, old cock, is you pick up your fee,
the people will see what they want to see,

said the man with the balls of brass.

I asked a lady with tutti-frutti,
should art be cerebral, very profound?
Or should it retain its taste for beauty?
There's beauty in thought, not to mention in sound.
It's not just the eyes make the world go round,

said the lady eating the tutti-frutti.

Then I asked a man with a bag of tools,
should art be free or bound by rules?
Should it belong to one of the schools?
Total freedom, he said, is one for the fools.
If you do not like them, change the rules!

So said the man with the bag of tools.

Next, I asked a woman painting the fence,
should my language be sparse, or should it be dense?
How many words should define each thought?
As many full stops as will make it taut,
As many smells as make a stench,

she said with a laugh as she painted the fence.

Then I asked a man in a driving glove:
how far should I stray down this crazy way,
this unmade road, with my wobbly load?
To the fifteenth pothole beyond the sun
where a cuckoo sings of a critic's love,

said the man who was missing a glove.

I asked of the couple drinking gin:
What sort of state is my art in?
They looked at each other before they replied:
As good as your smile before it died;
as bereft as any deserted bride.

So said the couple drinking gin!

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Lies, damned lies & my comments on your blog

Friko, commenting on my recent post, The Play's the Thing : true story mentioned that it was a pity that I'd had to stay factual to the end. It was a feeling I'd had in great measure when writing the post, for the story could have taken off in any one of a number of ways. However, there is a lot of me invested in Pip - and in the group as a whole, for that matter. I have posted before, and written poems, about the group (and one other group - but that's another story) or about individual members of it, and have tried, for example, to change the name, and in one case the gender, of the child concerned. Mostly I couldn't do it. Something inside kept screaming at me: This is not right. You cannot live with this! Nevertheless, Friko's comment set me thinking... and then in a Guardian Magazine (which I hardly ever look at) I came upon an article (two actually, but I'm only interested in the one) on lying. It was in fact, an edited extract from the book: The Liar in Your Life: How Lies Work and What they Tell Us About Ourselves by Robert Feldman. This synchronicity seems to be following me around these days.

The extract dismissed with little ado as fairly obvious, the lies people tell to achieve some pay-off, avoid some punishment, etc. The tobacco executive, for example, who lies about the dangers of cigarettes. Then mention is made of the way in which lies may be used to oil the social wheels. A friend is telling you about the great time he had at Stephen's house. You know where Stephen's house is? he asks, almost in passing. Yes, you lie, simply because you do not want to break the flow, interrupt the narrative.

We lie to present ourselves in the light in which we see ourselves and would like others to see us. Various celebrities are asked (in the magazine) what they have lied about just recently. They all seem pretty trivial. The one that struck me was Ann Widdecombe saying: ... if someone asks me, "Do you like my new dress?" then I'm going to say "Yes." Well, fair enough, as she herself says, that's like everybody else. Probably the most common example she or I or you could have picked on.

I've often thought about this question of lies when I've been blogging. It gets to being critical (pun not intended) when I'm commenting on other blogs. How can you comment on, say, a poem - and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I 'm suggesting that you cannot. And I'm suggesting that it's not my fault, or your fault, or any other person's fault. It's all the fault of the confounded words! They are just not extensive enough or subtle enough to do the job. Okay, well some of you wordsmiths out there would make a better job of it than I, but the problem would still be there. Whoever you are and however good you are, you cannot get away from it.

Urgh, I think I am about to drive into a fog, a real pea-souper, so maybe it's time to switch on a headlight or two to keep us out of the ditches that happen to line this particular road. So here are a few guiding principles:-

  • I would never say of a poem that I liked it if I did not.

  • No poem - nor anything else, for that matter - is so perfect that it cannot be improved.

  • No poem (almost no poem?) is without merit.

That said, let me put it this way. Suppose I read a new poem by Seamus Heaney which I think shows Heaney at his magnificent best. I am so enthused about this poem that I produce a post to tell the whole of bloggerland (or that small part of it that visits my blog) about it, and about how I have been moved by it. Maybe I say something like: it's a fine poem! Okay? Clear enough? Well, maybe not. It doesn't say much about the poem to someone who has not read or heard it; pretty pathetic really, or it would be if that was all I said about it. So, hopefully I would have found something more inspiring or informative to say, but let's stick with me being pathetic, if only for the sake of a simple example. Next thing, my comment finished, I continue with my visiting of other blogs. Soon I discover that Jimmy Prettyline has posted a new poem. Fine poem, Jimmy! I comment. But hey, wait a minute, two fine poems? Does that mean I think Jimmy's poem is on a par with Heaney's? Unlikely. Fine, when I apply it to something from the pen of Seamus Heaney, does not mean exactly what it means when I use it of Jimmy Prettyline's effort. And if I chose something more informative, something like Brilliant use of assonance or the line breaks are used to good effect, then the situation is unchanged. I do not mean to put Jimmy Prettyline's technique on a par with Heaney's. In one sense I am saying that I put both of them up there among the best (finest), but... and it's a big "but"... though the words do not change their meaning between being applied to Prettyline and being said of Heaney, nevertheless their field of reference has changed.

So does that simply mean that I am saying to Jimmy no more than that for him it's a fine poem! Not at all. It almost certainly does mean that, but it means far more than just that. Some will maintain (have said as much in conversation) that my words should be such that they will carry the same weight in both cases, position each on the same overall achievement scale, if you like. This would entail the use of caveats, qualifications, reservations etc. In some cases it would be like comparing my (no doubt, absolutely brilliant) local village football team with Manchester United. How could I appraise the one in ways that would leave me with suitable words with which to aptly appraise the other in the same terms? There simply are not enough words with enough shades of meaning between them to make that even theoretically possible. In one way or another I would end up damning with faint praise - or at least appearing to. Maybe it is that Jimmy has only just started to write poetry. However I phrase it or pitch it, to use the same standard, the same field of reference, of both his work and Heaney's would (could) be devastating to Jimmy. It might put him off writing poetry for ever - even though, perhaps, he might turn out to be a future Heaney yet to reveal himself! And dropping the use of words like "fine" would not solve the problem, for all the other words I might use have the same undifferentiated levels of meaning depending upon the context in which they are used.

No, if I tried to be totally honest in this strictly linguistic sense, not only would I fail, but I would end up telling a bigger lie than if I simply said it was a fine poem, or if I commended him for his clever use of line breaks or assonance.

What I meant of course, in the case of Jimmy, was that his poem would be reckoned a fine achievement for anyone (not just him) at this point in his development. So maybe I could say that or add a few caveats to my high-blown praise.The result would be the same: it would sound like damning with faint praise.

So what do I do. Usually I read the poem, maybe a couple of times, and then react to it on an instinctual level. If I write Great poem, it's because, reading it, I thought it was great. Simple as that. Same with my local football team. I don't go and watch them b because they are as good as Manchester United. They are not. But neither do I watch them because they are rubbish. Again, they are not. I watch them because I get pleasure from watching them. Yes, sometimes I will find them frustrating (more so than if I followed Manchester United, I don't doubt), but on the whole I am excited by them and I think they are great. Also, there is a special pleasure in watching the improver come good. I may even bore people by telling them how great my team is. If they ask in what ways they are great, then I will tell them that they play attractive, open football... or whatever.

I read the other day that someone had written The political brain is an emotional brain. Not a thought that would readily have occurred to me, but had they said The poetic brain is an emotional brain I could have said Amen! to that. As indicated above, my first reaction to a poem I have not encountered before, is nearly always a straight- forwardly emotional one. Maybe the second and perhaps another reading or so will also elicit purely emotional responses. At some point there must come the conscious application of one's more cerebral gear and the knowledge stored therein. Awareness and discernment will come into play,. But particularly in the case of difficult poems, to begin with a cerebral approach is a bit like trying to get your car to pull away from standing in third gear. Depending on the age, type and condition of your car, it might be possible, but it will be far smoother in a lower gear.

This is no different really, from the way in which my poems get written. Any poem worth the name begins with a distinctive feeling, what I call a movement towards. Even in the very rare case of a first line being given, it comes with an emotional charge attached. The first draft - or if not that much, the first scratchings - are feelings-led. Only later comes the more cerebral activity of shaping the poem into its final form. There are no fixed rules, but that would be not uncharacteristic. There is a lot of talk on the web about expressing yourself - not only in poetry, but all the arts - and too little, I think, about the disciplined shaping that needs to follow.

The difference between Heaney's greatness and Prettyline's may lie more in the matter of repeated readings and familiarity and may not be so apparent upon first acquaintance. Give me a Prettyline poem and a Heaney, both hot from their final drafts, and don't tell me the authors' names, and my initial responses may not be that different. Ask me again a few weeks later and it is likely that I will still be finding new excitements in the Heaney, even if the Prettyline seems to have run its course. By then I will be able to give a more considered and reasoned opinion of both poems. The differences in quality will be showing - or not, as the case may be!

Well, that's just one of the two aspects of "literary lying" that I had intended to discuss, but it's probably more than enough for now.

Sunday 9 August 2009

Time will tell - and how!

This is probably not my usual style of post, so I trust that no one will think themselves to have been drawn in under false pretences. Either way, I have a confession to make: according to my schedule I should now be visiting your blogs, not tapping away at another post for mine. Ah well, I have become so accustomed to catching up that it's almost second nature to me now. I will do so again, I promise.

Last evening (Saturday) Doreen and I went to a Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration. A couple that we knew back when we first met. I went to the same school as Doug, though we were in different years. (Come to think of it, I went to school with most of the blokes that were there - only the blokes, it having been an all-boys school. I know, I know: that explains a lot...) Then, I was seduced by my brother into the local youth club where I again met most of the blokes at last night's celebration - and, more importantly, where I met Doreen. Oh, and where I met quite a few of the ladies from last evening's little get-together. All this was nearer to sixty years ago than fifty. Many of them I had not seen for more than forty years until last evening.

There were two with whom I had nursed fond hopes of enjoying a chat about old times: "I" and "J". "I" could not be there. He had entered the ministry way back in the days when I first knew him. Almost as soon as he was ordained he joined the navy as a padre. He was for a long time Padre on the aircraft-carrier, The Ark Royal. Later, after leaving the navy, he was for a year or so Chaplain to the Queen. Later still, he and his wife retired to the West Country. Not too long afterwards he fell ill. To begin with, he had problems using his legs, but very rapidly it became obvious that he was suffering some form of dementia. Within weeks it became impossible for his wife to care for him and he had to move out into a nursing home. By then he did not know his wife or his children. On their Golden Wedding Anniversary she took him out for an hour, after which friends from school and youth club days visited him with albums of photographs recalling old times. He went through them all, naming everyone and putting each photograph into its context. In his recollections he was streets ahead of the combined efforts of all his friends.

Then there was "J". "J" was at the party. He used to paint the most fabulous stage sets for the Youth Club Drama Group. They really were quite amazing. I admired them greatly. Was a little envious, too, if the truth be known, for I would have liked to try my hand at the stage sets, but knew there was no chance, and rightly so, whilst "J" was around. Reduced in size and sold as paintings, I am sure they would have done well at some West End galleries at that time. There was a genuine primitive quality to them. The moment I began to chat to "J", though, it became apparent that he was struggling. His wife had already told me that he becomes easily distressed, so I went gently. No, he didn't remember this one or that one - and who was that chap in the brown and white striped shirt over there? I'm not convinced he knew who I was, though he kept a straight bat and didn't make it obvious. I think I was something of a ghost from his past, but no more than that. But when I asked if he remembered painting the stage sets... ah, that was a different matter. Yes, he remembered that. His father and his uncle owned and ran a very large smallholding. (I always thought of it as a small largeholding!) He and his brother eventually took it over. He remembered it very well, but not really the people associated with it. Did he remember supplying all the flowers for us for our wedding reception. Nope. The opposite to "I", he seems to be living tolerably well (relatively speaking) in the present, but he has no past. Or rather, the past that he has is not peopled. No one inhabits it.

There was one other old friend, a lady this time. She talked well enough about what she talked well enough about. Until you hit a blank. Then she would simply move you on with a wave of the hand, saying, rather imperiously: No, that has completely gone. Nothing remains of that.

I know these stories are, as my mum would have said, A dime a dozen. We've heard them before, or ones like them, and that all too often. But somehow, in the context of the celebrations and the slight nostalgia that such occasions always engender, it was a bit like hearing them for the first time.

There is an epilogue.
Home again and with a fruit pie and a cup of tea inside me, I did what I am inclined to do after such a night out: relax over a short read with an even shorter single malt. Not a book, but a magazine took my fancy. A review, in fact. Of Per Kirkeby's exhibition at Tate Modern. Per Kirkeby knew from the first that he wanted to be an artist, but went from school to university to read natural history and geography. He then went to Greenland's high Arctic as part of a scientific expedition. When he began to produce his art work he was able to see it in geological terms. The review concluded with these words: Early on, Kirkeby saw that the hardness of the conditions of existence, seen most uncompromisingly in the Arctic terrain, must lead us to intensify rather than deny our capacity for happiness and exultation. At the age of seventy one, he continues to serve this insight. In its own small, strange way, the evening had left me with exactly that feeling. It was uncanny the way the reviewer echoed it.

Friday 7 August 2009

The Play's the Thing : true story

None of the children had bothered to bring rain gear with them. And why should they have? The morning had been blazing hot again, no sign of the thunderous rain that was to descend without warning during the afternoon. No matter, morale was running high, had been for a week or two in L2, and to that high morale was now added the excitement of an afternoon taking its cue from some Handbook: Monsoons for the Production of.

Had you been there and asked the reason for the high morale and stratospheric excitement levels you might have been reminded that the summer holidays were fast approaching; or you might have been told that lessons were on hold; but more likely you would have been told that L2 was about to attempt something it had never attempted before, they were about to stage their own one act play as part of the school's annual Drama Fest. (I don't recall it having been called that back then, but that is what it was.) Of course they were excited, not only had they never staged their own play before, but not to put too fine a point on it, they had never really done anything before; had never been invited to, it never having occurred to anyone that they might be able to; they were a remedial class and nothing had been expected of them. They may have been a remedial class, but they had been only to willing to rise to that lack of expectation. Now, though, with a new head and a new teacher, they were on the same footing as every other class: they were expected to contribute. And they had risen to that expectation, too. Over the past few weeks they had evolved a play - a comedy - set in a Chinese Laundry.

They were fortunate in having a rather large classroom, which was just as well, for two large inroads had been made into it of recent weeks: in one corner an assortment of the most unlikely clothes imaginable, and in the centre, a monstrous cardboard washing machine. The high point of their play would be when Ho Wun (would that be allowed these days?) began to unload the washing machine and out would come an almost endless string of garments knotted together like sausages - hopefully enough to go all round the hall!

Ah well, for that they needed a few more, and tomorrow being the occasion of the dress rehearsal was also their last chance to prise a few more unwanted items from their ever-generous mums. Of this Mr Smith was just reminding them before they were dismissed. He would not, at that time have been able to miss the sadness on Pip's face. Pip was a likeable and popular lad, who tried hard to please teachers and peers alike, but much though he would have loved to, he had brought no clothes for their big show. Nor was he likely to. No one expected him to. He came from a very poor family, and wore the same clothes pretty much every day - which were though, miraculously (given the state of them when he went home each day!), always beautifully washed and ironed.

Mr Smith was rallying his troops for a final push. Never mind the quality, it's the quantity you have to concentrate on, was the gist of his message. Doesn't matter if they are as old and tatty as your granddad, as long as they are as clean as your grandma! (Would that be allowed these days?)

There was something else of which he had to remind them, though: to go straight home and not to hang about because of the horrendous storm. I left about an hour later. The playground was a lake, the rain still coming down in Biblical quantities. And there was Pip, in the middle of the largest lake of all, doing a handstand, happy as the rain was heavy.

The next morning on his way to school Pip had to pass a large, Georgian-style house with a double drive and double gates. Pip often managed to work it into his news, referring to it as The House with Two Paths. That particular morning he happened to notice on the doorstep of the house with two paths a bag of laundry awaiting collection. He wouldn't have thought much about it. He opened the first gate, walked up the drive, picked up the bag, walked on down the second drive, opened its gate and continued on his way to school. Simple. Problem solved.

Normally when he entered the classroom - late, as always - he would have walked into a tranquil scene of children sitting at their tables as Mr Smith called the register and quipped with each in the process. Not this morning. This morning they were dressing and getting ready their props to be the first into the hall for rehearsals. It was Bedlam. Pip pushed his way to the desk with his bag of washing and said something like Got some clothes for the play sir! It is doubtful if Mr Smith even turned his head, just replied (something like) Great! Stick it over there in the corner, lad - and don't forget to thank your mum.

They were just lining up to trail down to the hall when the police arrived in the shape of one burly constable and a cadet. The constable took Mr Smith outside the door to explain what it was that was being alleged. When he got to Pip the conversation went something like this:

C: Did you take a bag of laundry from the lady's doorstep?
P: Yes, the house with two paths.
C: Did you not know that was wrong?
P: Yes!
C: Then what made you take it and bring it here, to school?
P: My teacher asked me to.

The lady of the house with two paths, when she heard the story, withdrew the complaint and refused to prosecute Pip - or Mr Smith, for that matter! The police, though, were not to be denied: they persuaded the laundry to complain about the theft of the bag. To the best of my memory, Pip went to court and was given a suspended sentence.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Medieval Phenomenon Kills Priest

                    was how one rag reported it.
                    The papers had a feast.
My wedding day - not that you'd have noticed it, and might
                    have struggled with the concept anyway.
                    My union, my life's most blissful day...

First stripping myself naked, ripping off my cassock,
                    shoes, socks, cincture... but leaving all...
                    how blissful friend, would that have been?
Had you been there you would have wanted answers, I am sure.
                    Understanding of my nakedness.
                    No mystery. The clothes I wear express
the being I put on. Removing them exposes he who sins,
                    who must abase himself before his great
                    obsession, his High Queen of Heaven.

A lizard slithering on rock made hot by noon-day sun, was I.
                    Each flint and cinder tearing at my flesh,
                    I hauled my prostrate form uphill
to kneel before my mistress, slime and mud baked hard
                    on me like excrement and blood
                    on the new born. (Re-born, let's say.)

From deep beside the plinth, an imprint of a young nun's face
                    stared up at me, its every attribute distinct
                    ... also her wimpole and a jagged mole -
all made before the concrete set. I left mine in a mix of mud
                    and guano next to hers. And no, my friend,
                    I didn't hear the buzzing, for by then
great love was imminent, more so than ever I’d imagined.
                    My head was bowed, my busy lips
                    bestowing kisses on my lady's feet.
I was transported far from sight and sound, and therefore did
                    not see the swarm of bees, much less
                    its angel shape or details worked there-in:
the angel's wings, the halo, long-tailed whip... and yes,
                    I felt the bee stings, sure I did - assumed
                    They were my lady's scourge, that some
degree of foreplay was coming into play - had I but known,
                    and knowing of my allergy to bees...

                    But going into shock... that did for me.
Then when they came to wash me after death.....
                    not one sting to be seen, my back a mass
                    of weals and lacerations from a whip.

The story soon got out, of course. The flagellants behind me
                    saw it all, the stings not least. Then came
                    the tourists behind them - squadrons
of Japanese with telephoto lenses, selling stories on.
                    The whole damned world saw all of it -
                    the whole damned world save me!
And yes, some papers seemed to spread it over every page,
                    but that was not the half of it:
                    you could not browse the web without
some guy had caught my agony with camera or phone -
                    and don't forget the stuff stacked high
                    and deep on U-tube, Face Book
and the rest, and all the thousands buzzing like those bees
                     - all clamouring and hammering for facts.
                    The whole world turns on facts these days,
but clunkily... Want me to tell you why? A clue: have you
                    not noticed, friend, the way the saints
                    were driven on by feelings not by facts?

You want to know what finally confounded me? Discovering
                    the treasured one did not exist. Had not
                    for centuries, was vandalised, a wreck
cut off above the knees. Yet I had seen her thighs, her belly,
                    breasts and head ascending - soaring - to
                    the clouds. I could not cope with that.

Sunday 2 August 2009

Copy that, copycat! Lascaux and all that.

This is another post for which I have to thank something seen in the media. Tom Lubbock has a regular column in The Independent titled Great Works. Last Friday he used it to discuss The Lascaux Cave Paintings, or rather, the Lascaux Paintings and some interesting points relating to the copying of art works. Or rather Lascaux ll and some interesting points relating to the copying of art works.

Let me explain. It is well enough known that these amazing cave paintings were created around 17.000 BC, that they were discovered by three teenagers in 1940 and found to contain over 1,500 separate images. It is also generally known that in the 50's they were found to be suffering rot damage as a result of the continual passage of visitors. In 1963 they were closed to the public. In the eighties two nearby caverns were opened in which had been created actual-size, three-dimensional replicas of the two most important caverns. These were as near perfect as human skill could make them - for they were not copied technologically, not photographically, but painted on to the bare rock surface as the originals had been and using the same materials and techniques. Since then, these are what the visiting public have seen - Lascaux ll, as they are known.

At first, the plan appeared to have worked; the paintings began to recover. But it did not last. They are now deteriorating so rapidly that it is no longer a question of who can be allowed in to see them, Before long there will be nothing to see, they will have ceased to exist. I had not realised that the situation had become that bad.

It is this circumstance that has led Lubbock to a discussion of the issues which I have found so fascinating. He refers to Walter Benjamin's contention that there are two forms of copying: one in which the copies exist only to be viewed - photography and the cinema, for example. That is their raison d'ĂȘtre: to be looked at, for whatever purpose - pleasure, information etc. Not so with the Lascaux paintings. They come into his second category of ritualistic images in which their very existence is all that matters. Of course, what exactly the Lascaux paintings were for has been the subject of speculation since the forties and cannot be finally resolved But the suggestion that seems to have become the current favourite (and seems to me most likely) is that this most fantastic of all installations was not primarily intended to be seen at all. That was not its raison d'ĂȘtre. It probably was visited, might even have been used in rites, including those of passage (as some suggest), but was intended first and foremost for the spirits. Its chief purpose was simply and solely to exist.

But now we are reaching the point where it may no longer exist in any meaningful way, and the interesting question which Lubbock has raised is whether, in the non-existence of Lascaux I (if I can so term it) we would be better or worse off having Lascaux II. Would it be preferable to have only Lascaux II or to have nothing? There is a sizeable body of purists (my term) who think it would be preferable to have neither. I have never been a purist and my instinct was mentally to vote accordingly, but then I thought again... and thought I saw what they were driving at. Lascaux II is not an exact copy. It couldn't be. As I have pointed out, it is not a reproduction from a flat surface to a flat surface.. One of the special wonders of the original (Lascaux I)paintings is the way in which those early artists utilised individual rock formations, turning them into features of the creature to be represented or using them to emphasise such features. Magical touches like that cannot be copied, if only because each rock form is unique.

So the question remains: when (sadly, not "if") we are left with no Lascaux I, will we then be better off having or not having Lascaux II? Here is a parallel (or parable, should you prefer) that occurs to me. A manuscript is unearthed of a previously unknown long poem. It is obviously a work of major importance and (quite obviously) the only copy extant. But intense research shows it to be a translation. The only copy of the original in the original tongue, scholars learn, was lost. It is the translation or nothing that the world has been bequeathed. You are ahead of me, I know: Is the world worse or better off for having this translation? Or maybe neither better nor worse off, for what it has is not the original poem but something else?

Lubbock takes this absorbing conundrum one step further by pointing out that ever since the day that it was finished - and possibly before that - Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper has been deteriorating and threatening to finally disintegrate in a shower of scurf-like fragments. Nothing more can be done to stabilise or in any way save it. Should they create a Last Supper II?