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Friday 30 April 2010

The Whistling Man in the Pork Pie Hat

With a passing apology to Wallace Stevens

The man in the pork pie hat was green,
the hat was the greenest ever seen,
but greener yet was the haunting tune
he played on his whistle, night and noon -
a theme for a man in a hat that was green.

A whistle to him, a flute to me -
and chords with a touch of anarchy.
Green for earth and blue for gloom,
red for passion and brown for doom -
all in the whistling flute for me.

The birds of the air, when they heard the sound,
gathered to listen from miles around,
and joyous beings from wood and field,
barked their applause or shrieked or squealed,
so moved were they by the flute's pure sound.

But the whistling man and the world he knew
saw nothing of what the tune could do -
the way it could calm, excite or cheer,
inspire a hope, dispel a fear
in the world beyond the world that they knew..

There were those who said of his tunes: "They're brown,
morose and stodgy, all down-town.
With chords too wooden, hackneyed, trite,
he's nothing to say on the human plight,
that man whose tunes are excessively brown."

"Your chords," they said, "are squashy man -
been around since time began.
There's nothing new to catch the ear,
nothing for man to love or fear.
Too squashy and soft for beast or man."

"My music's naff," said the whistling man,
"though I've given it all the truth I can..."
So leaving his whistles and leaving his spouse,
at dead of night he walked out of the house
and went for a walk, did the whistling man.

On a railway bridge where buses pass
he caught his reflection in the glass
and hurling the hat far down the line,
"Damn it! "he cried, "the music's mine...!"
And his world turned round as a bus went past.

"The notes I compose have failed to please?
They do not like my melodies?
Say it's a mish-mash of a theme,
don't try to change my colour scheme,
the way to go if I want to please!"

But they told him then: "You should take a stance,
the symbols change as the themes advance,
you build each tune to a resolution,
aim instead for dissolution -
make dissonance your default stance."

A vast mistake! Their discord way
could never green a brownish day:
green for envy, red for sin,
brown for the earth to bury you in -
there's no mistaking the discord way.

Yet none of them painted a clear-cut scene,
not red nor blue, nor brown nor green,
but more disturbing even than that:
he couldn't compose without the hat.
He couldn't relate to a single scene.

The following day, at the railway line,
the hat had vanished with never a sign.
So he fashioned three whistles, one of stone,
another of wood and a third of bone
to summon his muse from the railway line.

He blew them all in a triple blast,
all three at once, 'til his shady past
splintered before him, note by note,
his melodies growing more remote -
for the whistling man had died in the blast.

His shade arose and bought a guitar,
bought the guitar in a two-bit bazaar,
strung it himself with strings of gold,
strings for the things he had puffed of old -
kinder on chords, his two-bit guitar.

Chords from strings or puffs of air?
The twanging gave them a certain flair.
"I can plunk my way to my heart's content
with chords that heaven might have sent,"
said the man who was strumming the strangest airs.

Notwithstanding my apology to Wallace Stevens, this poem did not begin with him, but with a rather insignificant autobiographical detail from my art student days. However, nothing in the poem is as was, except the hat. The hat is unvarnished truth. Everything else stands for something else - beyond which, me lips is sealed - for now, anyway.

Haiku  #130

Banning DDT
caused a boom in sparrowhawks -
that's where the sparrows went

Thursday 29 April 2010

Haiku #129

They're left- or right-clawed,
footed, finned or eyed - most animals -
unless neutered

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Distorted? Moi?

Amazed at the level of interest shown in my recent images of hands and feet, though less so in  the question of whether they or the face best show the personality, the above is offered to complete the portfolio as it were. I thought visitors might better be able to decide for themselves in which image or images the character seems most authentic.

My thanks to all for your interest and contributions.

Tanka #4

Betting sensation
(roars The Sun): decimal odds.
(Despair on courses.)
Bookies offer 3.50
instead of seven to two...

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Haiku #127

Lib Dems on Tory heels,
the cuckoo calls, the cherry blooms...
where's the bigger picture?

Monday 26 April 2010

Haiku #126

Snaps from satellites
reveal the truth - the ash cloud
really never was.

Sunday 25 April 2010

My Hungry Hand and Sleepy Foot

The other day I overheard a young man holding forth on what was obviously a pet theory of his. It was that portraitists concentrate too exclusively on faces, when in fact hands and feet are better indicators of a person's personality.

On the off chance that he had hold of a grain of truth I offer the following as updates for my personal profile
(you may need to click on the images):-

Tanka  #3

Apologies to those who cannot stand the original beautiful game!

Dying on its feet
(twenty20's all the rage):
what was long-cricket.
Quick results, dramatic ends
loads of cash - they matter now.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Haiku #125

Tempting the Taliban...
for the beauties of the poppy fields
some leave the fighting.

Friday 23 April 2010

Haiku #124

Purchased by mail order:
bird feeder tray (hanging type) -
came complete with bird.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Haiku #123

Well said, David Hare:
the challenge wont be winning,
but in knowing who's won

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Early man tells of a rite of passage

Early man tells of a rite of passage

The shock of it went with us to the grave,
a long crawl down through Mother Earth, limbs raw,
some torn to shreds; thoughts brief, confused; in awe
of phantoms in that dark arena, cave
of altered states (induced, adrenal, brave
or oedipal), its contours stained for boar
and aurochs; childhoods blown away like straw
in ghostly lampsmoke, light and flambeaux, wave
and strobe. Horse notions whinnied through our skulls;
wolf, fox and bear sang anthems in our souls.

Long gone from dyes dabbed on with lichen wads,
they thrive beneath your hemispheres, those gods.
Entrenched in dark, illiterate, mute cells,
they dream old dreams and cast archaic spells.

Haiku #122

We floating voters
are waiting for a promise
to improve the weather

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Haiku #121

Noisy neighbours.
They took our fish, cash... air space now -
What's next on Iceland's list?

Monday 19 April 2010

Haiku #120

Health and beauty gurus
recommending them - the bed's
6,000 plastic nails.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Haiku #119

Three party leaders
in one hung parliament
equal four parties.

Saturday 17 April 2010

I know it's a cliché, but...

... I know where you're coming from! Strictly speaking, I suppose I should avoid them like the plague. Still, at the end of the day, after all's said and done, the name of the game, even the bottom line, is that they are everywhere, you can't turn round without falling over one.

It's true. During the latter part of WWII I was evacuated to cousins who lived in a hamlet near Newmarket. Very primitive, very rural. Across the lane (track) from us was a field of poppies. I and my younger cousins would play a game of our own invention to see who could go the furthest across this field without stepping on a poppy. No one got very far because we were too concentrated on seeing if any of the others were stepping on a poppy. I will not underline the analogy. Cliché is usually regarded as a pejorative term. We (writers) are usually admonished to avoid them like the plague. They suggest a sloppy, thoughtless approach to the craft of writing. Indeed, they suggest a touch or more of insincerity. We are saying something that has not come from us. Maybe we occasionally trip up trying too hard to avoid the poppies in the field. For a speaker they can be a useful device to gain thinking time and fluency, a moment to marshall his own thoughts or wrestle with a difficult idea before continuing. Still, there's no smoke without fire, and at best they give our writing - or speaking - something of a tired exterior.

The term cliché found common currency in the nineteenth century and was not much known until quite late on. It was in use before that as a term referring to a stereotype plate used in printing. In the days when type had to be set letter by letter by hand, it made sense to set commonly repeated phrases on a single lead slug. The analogy is easy enough to see. The word, in the sense in which we use it today, is exactly that - a stereotypical word or phrase that is simply trotted out without too much thought wherever and whenever the speaker or writer thinks it might fit - or thinks that its lack of fit will not be noticed. There were reasons for the word's non-appearance until so late on, one being that originality was not so much admired and sought after as it is today. Traditional schooling coached the pupils in remembering the sayings of the Classical poets and philosophers and encouraged them (the pupils) to store in their minds quotations from the Bible and from Shakespeare. The actual words of their classical models were what were prized. No one expected - or wanted - pupils, or writers for that matter - to come out with clever lines of their own. They copied the sayings of the greats, they kept them in mind and they used them whenever the opportunity arose. If their writing was to become admired, it would achieve that precisely because it was unoriginal.

Another reason for the encouragement of what we call cliché was that in the longer poetic works and plays stock phrases were used to achieve rhythm and were used mnemonically to assist performers to remember their lines. So on the basis of our current thinking on the subject one would have to say that Homer and others were sloppy thinkers who hadn't the wit or the inclination to do their own work for themselves. In actual fact Homer was following the conventions of his craft.

So what should we do? Throw the baby out with the bath water and avoid all clichés like the plague? Cherry pick the best and leave the rest to rot? Am I suggesting that there are two - or more - kinds of cliché? Well, maybe not different kinds, but what about different categories? There surely are clichés that are so over-used, are so much the worse for wear, that they bring a groan when they are heard, even if the groan is but a polite and silent one.

I would think that we all will have a collection of such clichés that we have encountered with such frequency that they long ago started to grate. Putting something on the back-burner, keeping a low profile, under the radar (though I must own up to using that one occasionally) are some of my pet hates. They are the trite clichés, the ones that lack a precise meaning in the contexts in which they are used. Some - can I suggest: the calm before the storm, food for thought and as a crow flies - might still be capable of meaningful use. It is precise meaning or the lack of it that seems to me to be the key to use.

There is another possible consideration: truthfulness. I have heard writers and would-be writers argue that true clichés are acceptable, but many are not true in themselves and they are the ones to be avoided. I am not persuaded by that argument. It does seem to me that some clichés ring true. Examples might be: Love is blind, If it aint broke don't mend it, Actions speak louder than words. Others seem meaningless; put it on the back burner, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, etc. Stephen Fry said: It is a cliché that most clichés are true, but then, like most clichés, that cliché is untrue.

Haiku   #118

 Volcanic ash
fills the sky above our heads
yet the day brightens.

Friday 16 April 2010

Haiku #117

Elephants in the room
trumpeting, not heard or seen -
political debate.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Haiku #116

How many will watch
the great debate that none can win
hoping for a loser?

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Haiku #115

Cutting out the rough stuff.
No more slapping on the soaps -
Health and Safety ruling.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

My Words

These words have been my children now
these many days. They're well behaved,
I've nourished them and guided them
the way a parent should,
found niches for them where I hope they'll thrive.
I've packed their bags with all their likely needs.

They're off, of course, as soon as I release them,
to lands beyond the orbits of my thought,
so far outside the faintest whispers that have reached me -
how can I anticipate
what will befall? or know how they'll conform?
Their bags contain a wide variety of clothes:

allusions and resemblances are there -
the usual dress - along with echoes
from the lives they used to lead,
way back before their present souls
were formed. A range of meanings,
too, is there, along with nuance,

derivation, correspondences - the old,
familiar underclothes. I picture them
alighting on those foreign shores
where skills have other ways with them,
where what they wore when leaving me
is wildly inappropriate. Their difference

erodes their birthright, seals their fate.
There, where the language does things otherwise,
the words assume the roles we could not give.
In local dress they're too conspicuous
to ply their subtle trades. Once firmly lodged
in other climes, they'll not come back to me.

I'm blaming this one on Jim at The Truth About Lies. Commenting on my post of April 5th he wrote: I keep coming back to the idea that a poem has two phases of life that it’s a chrysalis from which a thing of beauty – an imago, such an appropriate word – can emerge once it comes in contact with another’s mind. We, the poets, never get to see our poems like that. Before he got to suggesting there might be a poem in there somewhere, the first few cells of its embryo were already forming.

Haiku #114

Hospitals deemed good
will operate on those that ail -
assisted scrubbing-up?

And one I will not dignify with a number...

Earn ten pounds an hour.
Sleeping bag tester - Halfords.
Sleeping essential.

Monday 12 April 2010

Haiku #113

It takes an hour-plus -
Eden to Eternity,
the complete Bible.

Not so much a Haiku...

more a loyal tribute.

Birthday greetings to
The Ugly Duckling we all love -
the Union Jack

The image is of James 1's first Union Flag - the Union Jack when flown on a Royal Navy ship's bowsprit. 12 April 1606.

Haiku still to come!

Sunday 11 April 2010

Haiku #111 and #112

Pop the question, friend
net yourself three pound per week! -
If the tories win.

Eggshell promises -
grab them with both hands, they'll break.
Yuk all over you.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Haiku #110

Private Equity -
Busy chaps, no time to read,
buy Readers Digest.

Friday 9 April 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

When I first heard of this book, the idea that came to mind was that this could be some sort of split-personality Jesus, a man torn two ways, maybe even a Jekel and Hyde, of whom we have until now only been told the good bits. I was wrong. I could not have been more wrong. This is a book with what for some will be a shocking conceit. It is that Mary gave birth, not just to Jesus, but to the twin boys, Jesus and Christ. Jesus is the Jesus that we know from the Gospels. Christ is a nickname, a tag for his brother who was forever in Jesus's face, thwarting him at every opportunity - or at the very least, representing a world view which is the very antithesis of everything that Jesus preaches.

And if you find the above scenario scandalous, there is more that might be found upsetting: the Annunciation by the Angel to Mary, telling her that she would conceive and bring forth the Saviour of mankind, was a seduction. Worse: in this version of the Gospel story, Jesus does actually die. The business of Him rising again was staged. It was His twin brother Christ who was pressed into service to play the part of the Risen Lord. So you might expect that the Anglican primate of all England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, would not think too highly of this book, on account of its theology. And you'd be correct. Reading between the lines, he doesn't think anything of its theology. It's theology stinks. Yet he commends the book for what its author, Philip Pullman, has achieved in the figure of Jesus. Dr Williams considers him a figure of great spiritual authority. He makes one other point, too, which I confess had escaped me, but is maybe very telling: that the figure of Christ is in fact the figure of Thomas the Doubter. This, as he points out, is never stated in the text, and yet it makes a lot of sense and things do seem to fall into place, emotionally at least - or did for me - once that connection is made.

But leaving that small issue aside, some support is needed, I think, for the contention that the book's Jesus is a figure of great spiritual authority. So back to one who should be able to recognise that attribute when he meets it, Dr Williams again. Among his reasons for so thinking is the account of Jesus's meeting in the synagogue with a man possessed by a devil. In the Gospel account Jesus orders the demon to be silent and come out of him. In the book Jesus addresses, not the demon, but the patient: You can be quiet now. He's gone away. Time to confess, I think: I have used Dr Williams as a witness on the book's behalf, and so he has been, but he is not an unbiased witness in that it was he who prompted Pullman to write it in the first place. Pullman had written about God, but not about Jesus. And Dr Williams asked him why not.

Having hit upon this conceit, that Mary gave birth, not to one child, but to twins, Pullman gives us a chalk and cheese pair. Jesus is the extrovert, always playing up and getting into mischief, Christ is the thinker, the introvert, who time and again gets Jesus out of the trouble he's in. Perhaps not the way round that you might have supposed, but it accords well with everyday experience.

You may know Pullman as the author of The Dark Materials and there is an echo of this in the book's Garden of Gethsemane. This is in large part a long soliloquy by Jesus and is quite unlike any other passage in the book. Jesus is out on his own, there is no answer from Heaven and He is expecting none. Nothing is to be found there. It is a shock that the book does nothing to soften. Jesus having accepted complete responsibility for man's sin and redemption is stuck with it. There is nowhere else to turn. He has Himself made it so.

To that extent the story reminds me very much of Albert Schweitzer's book on The Quest of The Historical Jesus. There are differences. Schweitzer believed, as Pullman seems to, that Jesus was not born The Son of God, not given a divine mandate from birth, but that the role was one he eventually and reluctantly came to accept for himself, the role, in fact, of the Jews' Saving Remnant. First the Jewish race was to achieve man's salvation by its exemplary life and worship, but it proved unworthy and the mantle fell to one tribe. That tribe, too, proved itself unworthy. In time the role fell to the thirteen - Jesus and his disciples. When they proved themselves equally unworthy Jesus took the whole responsibility upon His own shoulders. Schweitzer's book made a profound impression on me as a boy. One difference is that Schweitzer believed Jesus was trying to force God's hand. Pullman, who wears his learning lightly and tells a cracking good tale, seems to think that Jesus did what he did from a state of despair, his belief that God could do nothing.

But if that is the main thrust of the story - the Gospel story retold as it might have been written today - there is at least one other thread: it is a meditation on the nature of truth, myth, falsehood and story-telling. Furthermore it's a cracking good tale. There is a hurdle for some Christians to get over - fundamentalists need not try - but there is much to be gained in the attempt.

Haiku #109

Sack him, he'll write books,
a lot of them - Gordon Brown.
(Promise? Or a threat?)

Thursday 8 April 2010

Haiku #108

Off they'll go to vote -
the twenty five million
whose votes will not count.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Haiku #107

Advice to writers:
Do not think about the themes,
but about the details.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Haiku #106

In the corner shop
Cards "With Deepest Sympathy" -
Buy one get one free.

Monday 5 April 2010

And What if the Words

And what if the words that I write as I write them
should fall on the page in their troublesome ways,
formed or reformed into lifeless life-forms
by the power of their letters, their word-D.N.A.?

And what if some voice that would read them one day
provided the spark
that electrified them
and brought them to life?

There'd be words that would dance there
and words that would sing
and words that would sit there quite quietly, apart,
thinking beautiful, true or impossible thoughts.

There'd be some telling other words what they should do,
and bullies there'd be, dark, immature terms,
"improving" the verse, rearranging the strings
as they squirm in and out round each other like worms.

Or what if they fell like notes on a stave
and developed their meanings like themes
and could marionette and beget a new motif or world
as easy as having a shave?

And what if they took it too far, got carried away
with their dancing and singing, carousing and bringing
the whole enterprise to disgrace,
first slipping then sliding all over then right off the page?

Or, rather more likely, the words remained words though not mine,
and the staves as we thought them displayed a new form,
twisted skywards in spirals and loops to the sun
(if not to the sun, to my words for the same):

an arcade of helices, Palace of Chance,
with fashion the croupier taking the bets.
Then what if my words were to wager their drift
in a lost-word scenario, double or quits?

And what if the voice that will read them aloud
could return to the music, sound birdsong or sax?
Could they somehow be handing me back
the sense of my text? Not a chance,

they've moved on
to a life that has hammered the old into shape,
to a work in translation,
more up to the mark.

Haiku #105

It's out as always -
Tokyo's cherry blossom.
It's that time of year.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Haiku #104

Easter Sunday Morn -
See how its message of hope
divides the religions!

Saturday 3 April 2010

Haiku #103

We've sold more rhubarb
since Waitrose advertised it -
A Tesco buyer.

Friday 2 April 2010

Let's Celebrate!

Last Sunday my son, his wife, a friend and myself enjoyed a day out at Wembley. The occasion for this jolly was the final of the Johnson's Paint (football) Trophy and the reason for our presence was the fact that Southampton were playing Carlisle United and we all are life-long Southampton fans. That is to say I have been one since the age of forty, when life begins; Gavin, my son since he was eight, when life had hardly begun; and the others... well, alright, my daughter-in-law quite recently and of their friend I cannot say. But there we were, the four of us, soaking up the atmosphere. To make the day absolutely perfect, it just so happened that Southampton won 4 - 1, which equalled the largest winning margin ever for that competition - though it should be said that there were times during the match when Carlisle were the better side, so it was difficult not to feel a little sympathy for their supporters. They didn't deserve to lose by three goals.

Now there are those who would call the Johnson's Paint Trophy a Mickey Mouse Cup (and what is wrong with Mickey Mouse, I'd like to know), but the context for this day out was that a year earlier Southampton were in dire financial straits; they were bound for administration, and it looked as though they would cease to exist. So for me at any rate, and I think for a large number of the 44,000 Southampton supporters present (the largest single ticket allocation ever for Wembley, and supposedly the largest exodus ever from the South Coast), the day was not just about winning, but about enjoying the occasion, and most of all about celebrating the fact that the club is still in existence and once again thriving and successful.

Not for the first time, football provides a metaphor for life. Maybe we do not often enough take time out simply to celebrate the fact that we are still here.

Haiku #101 and #102

Bilingual road sign
has Welsh-speakers looking left,
English looking right.

Bilingual road sign
informs Welsh-speakers about
their inflamed bladders

You can see, can't you, why I couldn't have posted this yesterday?

Thursday 1 April 2010

Tanka #3 : Haiku #99 and Haiku #100

So how did they know,
canny toads of l'Aquila,
to get the hell out
five days clear before the quake?
Smelling radon or ions?

Bikes too dangerous
(for postmen), but Londoners
will get them French-style.

Now is the winter
of our discontinued spring
glorious with snow.