NOT MY DOG
You’re not my dog
But I could be. I would be, if you’d have me.
I’d be your very good boy
I would, I would, I would!
NOT MY DOG
You’re not my dog
But I could be. I would be, if you’d have me.
I’d be your very good boy
I would, I would, I would!
Hello and welcome to my new website, kindly and cleverly put together by Simon West of Magic Oxygen.
Soon, so soon, I’ll be updating the posts below and making links to recent Resurgence articles (I write a regular column in Resurgence&Ecologist magazine) and creating what I imagine will be a fascinating and irrelevant archive of unpublished poems, stories and riveting stuff that will enrich the internet no end.
The site now has a fully functioning SHOP, which works so well that you can actually make purchases. Claudia Schmid and my book Sit! is probably the best thing to buy everyone for Christmas. It costs £7.99 plus p&p and I wish I’d told you about it earlier.
We hope you enjoy it.
Several people have asked, where is Empath Man? – he is here.
Poems for driftwood lovers and corporate thieves, my April TEDx Exeter performance, is up on the inter-webs.
Watch and enjoy!
Three poems, Tea Bag, What Are You? and Hands, performed at TEDxTotnes.
Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler, was the main guest on Saturday Live. His advocacy of the idle life came under attack from another guest who, it seemed to me, misunderstood what Tom was talking about. This poem balanced things up a bit.
for some people idle’s
an unwelcome label
amounting to libel
they’ll bridle, get upset
for them idler’s an epithet
lounging scroungers, scheming spongers
loafers lapping up free lunches
what really needles re the idle
is not only do they have more fun
it’s frankly amazing how much they get done
for the idle are quirky and perky and pert
& should not be confused with the merely inert
they’re statistically more likely
to play the ukelele
and to take part in a ceilidh
to make time for sketching , hop-scotching, bird watching,
for stretching, plot-hatching, back-scratching,
and keeping in touch via actual touching
time for more than mere louche lazing
but for intellectual grazing
and, dare I say it, navel gazing
because the unexamined navel is not worth piercing
some say they daren’t be idle
it’s a question of survival
for the hand that rocks the cradle
to be idle’s suicidal
a catastrophe of creditors
will circle us like predators
but it’s always worth checking
one’s deep default setting
for while the icons on the desktop
say ‘liberal’ or ‘libertarian’
maybe something on the motherboard’s
still set to ‘Presbyterian’
so go on, be idle, you deserve it
in fact, Idlers, rise up from your divan, futon, bean bag or sofa and…
…nah, slump down again, it isn’t worth it
Caolila (pr. Kaleela) is the name of the boat built by Justin and Linda Ruthven-Tyers a few years after their (uninsured) timber-frame house burnt down…
Caolila (for Justin and Linda Ruthven-Tyers)
a timber frame, a hungry flame
two lives that wouldn’t be the same
to stand and watch hearth, home and hope
go down in flames and up in smoke
and then to play the optimist
and say that ‘good will come of this’
here is an inventory
the clothes they wore
one car, no key,
and one another
yet they, so cruelly downsized,
did what they wouldn’t, otherwise
for who can say what other lives
we’d live upon the other side
of unforeseen catastrophe
(and DIY and carpentry)
they built a boat and went to sea
Caolila hugs the Celtic coast
they’ve laid to rest their old home’s ghost
and who would say their lives are poorer
in Caolila out on Islay or the sea loch of the Isle of Jura
in sun, salt spray, in wind and rain
would that every loss were such a gain
* * * * *
[The full story is told in Justin’s book Phoenix from the Ashes
Saturday Live poem written in response to feature about Chi Chi and her keeper, itself in response to the recent arrival of pandas at Edinburgh Zoo
Two Lovely Black Eyes
everybody loves a panda
quick to nibble, slow to anger
we feel tender toward the polar
brown bear, grizzly and koala
but we’re fonder of the panda
can’t but want a cosy cuddle
with the one tonne two-tone bundle
deployed over the centuries
in overseas diplomacy
there’s a made-up Chinese proverb:
when good will is all but squandered
after diplomatic blunder
you can always send a panda
ace bridge builder and fence mender
you can depend upon a panda
the mammal that’s based on a toy
to cap it all they can be coy
attempts to mate Chi Chi with An An
were, with hindsight, bound to founder
Chi Chi had her own agenda
wham bam? no thank you An An
bamboo? that’ll do!
as love lives go, theirs was so so
Chi Chi’s remains are still around though
visit, if you want to see ’em
the natural history museum
where the label really should say,
what the label never would say:
Chi Chi. There’s no panda finer.
Stuffed in Britain. Made in China.
Review: Matt Harvey, Wondermentalist, Assembly Rooms
Matt Harvey: Wondermentalist, Assembly Rooms
Fresh from Radio 4’s Saturday Live Matt Harvey’s solo outing Wondermentalist at Assembly is a strong work that embodies the spirit of afternoon theatre. Ambling his way onstage Harvey cuts a trustworthy, soft spoken relaxed – and relaxing – figure. From the show’s initial stages through to its conclusion his presence is amiable as opposed to overwhelming but undermining Harvey’s inestimable ability at maintaining an audience’s attention would be an error.
Reading from his recently published poetry book – also Wondermentalist – his opening recitation ‘My Queue’ cleverly enunciated to rhyme with ‘I like you’ assisted in perpetrating an immediately warm reaction amongst the crowd who had only recently been part of said queue. Harvey’s poetry relies on the innocuous amalgamated incongruously with the familiar. This, in turn, fashions a work that trivializes the mundane whilst simultaneously lifting it out of its torpor due to his humorous interventions. In this he is similar to the Punk Poet John Cooper Clarke whose barbed caustic delivery is the antithesis of Harvey’s but they ignite their muse from similar themes. Such phrases as ‘see you later/mashed potater’ – from Ode to a Potato – may not transfer well onto the printed page but Harvey’s delivery garnishes them with humour and satirical wit. To hear him deliver a salvo, in unprepossessing almost hushed tones, rap style is like the aural equivalent of seeing your grandparents in the mosh-pit at a Slipknot gig.
Further highlights included a piece of an ‘intense’ nature about home furnishings whilst another about petty thievery entitled ‘Works Perks’ rang truer than many of the audience felt wholly comfortable with. Meanwhile ‘Tense Times Table’ re-iterates the frustration anyone who has ever struggled with mathematics can relate to. Harvey’s vignettes constantly held the audience rapt with seemingly little effort.
Whilst I cannot envisage that Harvey’s poetry will ever be elevated to the level of the ‘Classics’ I think that may indeed be the point. This is a show that doesn’t try too hard – sometimes Harvey’s presence borders on the somnambulant – but that also seems intentional. Not one strictly for poetry lovers either as Harvey’s show moves out of those boundaries and into an area that, at this moment, he can call his own.
Reviewed by: David Marren for www.allthefestivals.com
The ultimate Edinburgh Festival guide
Matt Harvey: Wondermentalist
Posted by Rose Wilkinson, Sat 15 Aug 2009
4 stars ****
Matt Harvey’s performance of poetic stand-up comedy really is a wonder to experience. Entertaining and refreshing, Matt Harvey has something that more performers should bring to the stage: pure, unaffected humility, undiminished by a conspicuous talent.
Harvey performs his poems, each written with the attention and skill of a first-class craftsman, with a charming blend of self-deprecating irony and seriousness, and his quiet, unassuming voice holds his audience captivated from the first time he opens his mouth to the moment we must reluctantly allow him to leave the stage.
It’s poetry with a unique style, as Harvey plays with words, rhymes and rhythms with witty humour, while keeping the themes entertainingly mundane – from potatoes and kippers to curtains, and his tiny and fiercely green Devon hometown of Totnes. Almost all of his poems are performed from memory, some with startling velocity, although his ability to tongue-twist leaves each syllable’s clarity impressively intact. Throughout, his use of pauses and facial expressions anticipates the audience’s responses in a way that makes us feel he must know us already.
Like his superhero alter-ego, Empathman, Harvey is the kind of person we would like to get to know better: the length of the queue at reception to meet him and buy a signed copy of his book after the show is testament to that. Amenable, intelligent, funny and incredibly gifted with words, Matt Harvey really does have it all—including an absolute gem of a show.
A humorous poem about Curtains by Matt Harvey from the book “The Hole in the Sum of my Parts” published by The Poetry Trust – www.thepoetrytrust.org
Here is another Matt Harvey with better balance.
Bard’s Eye View
So, it’s that time again. Connect’s illustrious industrious editor e-mailed to give me an absurdly early deadline for this piece, pointing out as he did so it that since this was the December/January issue it might be appropriate to turn my attention to New Year’s Resolutions. Mr. Foster doesn’t know this but the way this suggestion turned my thoughts at once to resolutions made me question my own suggestibility and I at once resolved to be less suggestible. Then I realised I’d broken the resolution in the act of making it. So I decided to put it off ‘til the New Year, to prove I was doing it in my own time and of my own volition. Thereby playing right into his cunning hands. Damn.
A New Year’s resolution I often used to make was to stop procrastinating. I’d resolve it in December, to start in January, but that delay in itself set a powerful precedent and I’d always end up putting off full implementation ‘til next year. After keeping this up for several years I decided to turn my procrastinating skills to work on themselves, and resolved, rather than give up procrastination, to simply put it off indefinitely. And it worked. I now have all the time in the world, I just never get around to taking it. It’s a great method. A bit like the Atkins diet but with lower attendant risk of heart failure.
But this time of year isn’t just for looking forward, albeit with hope, optimism and good intentions. It’s also a time for reflecting in what has been, for looking back with satisfaction, relief, and misty-eyed indignation. When I glance back over my year what stands out are the festivals of the Summer and Autumn, in particular the WestCountry Story-Telling Festival at Hood Manor, Dartington, organised by Toby Fairlove and Chris Salisbury, and the Off the Wall Comedy Festival in Exeter run by Mandy Williamson of Mind. Very different festivals run by very different people on entirely different scales, but with one thing in common – I thought they were terrific. The magic of the former and the chutzpah of the latter will probably not be seen again this year, unless of course you make it to the One Night Stanza at the Kingsbridge Inn, Totnes, on December 19th. This will be hosted by Hilary Menos and Stephen Park. Be there or be cast adrift on an ocean of aridity.
Of course it’s also a time for looking neither forward with anticipation nor back with affection – but around, in bewilderment. Every year Christmas seems to come earlier, costlier and crasslier. Every year we shake our heads over the commercialisation of Christmas and every year satirists bemoan the efforts of the clergy to dilute the traditional consumerism of Christmas with religion. One year a member of my family – who later denied it – told me that ‘Christmas is a time for saying things you don’t mean to people you don’t like’. I thought, I hope you’re not just saying that. But of course what this person was referring to in their playful, cryptic way, was that this is the season of goodwill. Which it is, for me. Families get together – or at least take the trouble to come up with excuses why they don’t – there are fairy lights, carols (proving the devil doesn’t have all the best tunes) and, um, cards.
When I first came to the South Devon area I didn’t get many Christmas cards. However I did receive a range of cards wishing me a Warm Solstice, a Merry Saturnalia and once, slightly inaccurately, a Happy Hanukkah. Because Christmas isn’t just about Christmas. Or rather, there’s always been Christmas at Christmas, it just hasn’t always been called Christmas. There’s always been a festival of light in the darkness, of renewal, an affirmation of warmth and light in the midst of the cold and dark. This ancient thread is unbroken with the secular tradition of Morecambe and Wise Christmas special repeats – the closest thing to communion I experienced as a kid, culminating always with the ritual singing of ‘Bring me sunshine….’
Recently I went online to research the pagan origins of Christmas. Google came up with a list of likely suspects with all the key words in the right order, but rather than scholarly sites digging into the rich anthropological soil of pre-Christian worship, they were all Fundamentalist sites denouncing Christmas as essentially pagan and thus likely to put the souls of the faithful in jeopardy. It reminds me of time not that very long ago when a yoga class was cancelled in a nearby church hall. Cancelled not because too few people signed up but because someone decreed that yoga, being developed over thousands of years by Hindu ascetics, was unChristian. And thus mildly satanic – if you can be mildly satanic. Perhaps it’s true what they say – the devil has all the best postures.
I like to think my own round-shouldered posture has been developed through ours spent hunched over a word-processor, but the truth is I never do as much writing as I do mooching.I’m often asked ‘Been writing much?’ and when I say, guiltily, ‘Not really’ people become sympathetic: ‘Writer’s block, is it?’ And before I can admit I’ve just been lazy and unimaginative they’ve excused me with this mysterious ailment. Writers block. Like tennis elbow or athlete’s foot. Or builder’s bum.
But being blocked isn’t the sole preserve of writers. A waiter with waiter’s block gets short shrift from customers and fellow waiters alike; when plumbers get blocked it’s both difficult and embarrassing; GP’s struggle through their block each time they write a prescription; and Solicitors who get blocked even have a special name – ‘conveyancers’. In fact all occupations suffer from intermittent blocks, but only writers get any sympathy.
How did this inequality come about? We’ll never know for certain, but probably a self-appointed group met up to decide who’s designated ‘malingerer’ and who’s officially ‘blocked’. In just the same way, I imagine, as church elders once met to formally debate whether animals had souls. The militants said they did, the liberals weren’t sure, and the hard-liners argued that not only did animals have no souls but nor did poor people, either. The debate was long and acrimonious but they eventually reached a compromise and decreed that poor people were edible. (This was not that long ago either, and is a matter of public record. People tend to forget quite how bad things were under the Tories.)
Anyway, I’m able to by-pass my block to wish you a cracking Christmas, a smashing Solstice and an unprecedented New Year.
“You’re so brave, Matt, doing what you do,” some people would say, occasionally, when I started doing stand-up. And I would say, “No, true bravery is to be found elsewhere.” But secretly, in my heart, I agreed with them.
It’s no accident that metaphors used with stand-up tend to be gladiatorial, martial. If you do well you knock’em dead. You storm it. If you do badly, you die, in front of everyone, on stage. Mortifying. My own pre-performance fight-or-flight evacuations are eloquent testimony to the visceral, do or die nature of stand-up. Nevertheless I can count the number of times I’ve seriously embarrassed myself on stage on the fingers of one hand – although I do use a unique binary system which ascribes high values to index finger and thumb.
Why should you die if you don’t do well? Because it’s so live. You don’t wait for reviews, for test results, it’s continuous assessment. With no protective fourth wall the stand-up lives or dies, thrives or withers, according to the unpredictable response of this evening’s audience – this capricious, unrepresentative cross-section of society which tends to be crueller than the sum of its parts and younger than the mean age of its constituents. They want instant gratification. And they want it now.
I think a better metaphor for stand-up is sex. It may seem crude, crass, and ultimately inaccurate, but the same visceral, gladiatorial quality is there, it conveys a sense of the intensity of the relationship, the intimacy that can develop, and the messiness. Plus there’s a courting, a wooing, a seduction, and, on a good night, a consummation. I like the idea of it as tantric sex where the stand-up’s role is to induce and orchestrate the pleasurable involuntary spasm that is laughter – whilst generously withholding their own climax.
Freud has said that when any two people make love there are generations looking over their shoulders. I’ve no idea about that but it’s an interesting fantasy. I don’t think stand-up is like group sex. I see the audience as a single entity. And, just as a magnifying glass focuses the rays of the sun, so the spotlight intensifies the compound gaze of the many-headed audience creature.
The stand-up, engorged with attention, becomes a tumescent trickster-trickstress, licensed to probe, playfully, the shadowy areas of the personal and collective psyche; to be at once silly and cerebral, tangential, pan-genital, confessional, obsessive, dysfunctional and deeply flawed; to find and press the audience’s buttons, to touch their pleasure spots, pleasure their trouble spots, tickle their taboos……until, on a good night, natural opiates flood their cardio-vascular system, seratonin re-uptake is inhibited and – the best cure for depression – they find themselves literally swimming with endorphins.
Also, with both sex and stand-up: If you’re not getting a physiological response it’s not working; It’s more exciting when it touches on and explores taboo areas; and it works better when the other one’s a bit drunk. The analogy breaks down when you think of the saying: “Leave them wanting more”, also I’ve never known an audience to (convincingly) fake laughter. And, in hundreds of stand-up gigs, no-one’s ever said to me, “Get off, you’re crap.”
Sometimes you don’t realise you have any authority until you lose it. Then you find you had some all along, really. Up to a point. But of course, thinking you don’t have it, you try to claim it. Then you lose it. And, in the process, realise you had actually had it, had you but known it, which of course you didn’t, or you wouldn’t have tried to claim it in the first place.
I’m not really management material, I don’t think. Although I am, officially, the manager. I’m more Sven Goran Eriksson than Alex Ferguson. I don’t throw teacups or kick equipment around. I don’t even do sarcasm very well. I don’t think they’d stand for it frankly. Not in over-35’s football. Especially if you’re under 35, like me. I turned up wanting to train with them till I was eligible to play. And they made me manager. Saw me coming.
I try to be positive. I try to motivate, say two positives for every negative. Sometimes three. Four maybe, but beyond that sounds like sarcasm.
Because we’re not really a great team. We haven’t got particularly good players. And some of them aren’t very nice. They don’t play as a team. They play in a team. They wear the same blue shirts and shorts – except Alan, who wears his number 9 Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink Chelsea shirt. But it’s like having the same kit isn’t enough proof of identity for them to pass to one another. They need more – maybe a driving licence, a copy of their birth certificate. Or they need team mates to argue the case for passing to them, and maybe then they’ll consider it. But by then it’s too late. Or, more accurately, two nil.
Which was the score at half time. And I would have loved to have talked of issuing identity cards for proof of team membership, but I show restraint. I say, ‘You’re better than this score-line’, I say, ‘I’ve seen some good tackles going in, good passes, we need more than that.’ I say, ‘Keep your heads up’, I say, ‘blah, blah, cliché, blah, blah, blah, cliché’ lads. And stick at it.’
And I don’t honestly believe they pay any attention, although the nicer ones look up and nod, as if they were.
And today, in the second half, it was as if they were. They passed the ball, sometimes to each other. They tackled, sometimes in a non-girly way. They even scored. Twice. Pulled level. Unheard of. The travelling supporters couldn’t believe it. The travelling supporters, by the way, are me and Stan. Stan the Fan. The Old Man of the Park. He adopted the team in the early days and they adopted him too, because there wasn’t much else to do – a fan’s a fan.
He doesn’t say much, Stan – but, when he does, no-one listens. I feel a kinship with him. An unspoken kinship. Because what’s the point?
With five minutes to go Stan and I get passionate. We hit the inside of the post but it bounces out and we shout, ‘Ref! Ref!” as if, when the laws of physics are flouted like that, he can over-rule what’s happened and award a goal. But he lacks the courage and imagination.
Then, two minutes to go, a lucky ricochet falls to the feet of our centre forward, Alan. He knocks a defender over with his formidable upper body strength, gets away with it, looks up, the keeper’s off his line. And Roger arrives in the box screaming for the ball – a simple ball for a simple goal – and Alan pauses, assesses the situation, and coolly, casually, with no backswing like his role model Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and shoots, feebly, into the side-netting.
Stan and I are stunned. And bitter. We’re stunned, bitter and speechless. we can’t believe anyone, even Alan, would do that. There’s a muttering from the touchline. ‘Typical. Just typical.’ That’s Stan. There’s another voice. ‘Irresponsible. It’s downright irresponsible.’ That’s me. And Stan looks at me and says, ‘Someone’s got to say something to that man.’ And I look back and I nod, as if to say, ‘Yes, the time has come. I’m the manager. Something has to be said.’
I was going to say something in the dressing room. But it didn’t feel right. So I waited till we were gathered in the bar of the Unigate Creamery Social Club. Then I realised I should have said something in the dressing room. I sit down opposite Alan. No preamble. Blurt out, ‘You should have put it across, Alan.’
He just looks at me. Expressionless. An absence of menace that’s intimidating. And I think, ‘Colin, you’re an idiot. This is over-35’s football. It’s a laugh and a run-around. You’re over-reacting. You’re bringing it to the Crown Court when it’s a Small Claims case. You’re being ridiculous.’
I’m about to back down, cravenly, when he says, ‘Across to who?’
‘Across to who?’ I say.
‘Yeah’, he says, ‘Across to who?’
I fight the impulse to say, ‘You mean: Across to whom?’
‘Across to Roger’, I say, nodding at Roger who’s sat opposite nursing a fruit juice. We both look across to Roger.
‘Yeah?’ says Alan.
My case could collapse here as I realise my first witness is intimidated. But he admits it. ‘Yes, I was lurking in the box.’
Alan considers this a moment, to Roger’s discomfort. Then turns to me and to my discomfort says, ‘He should have called for it.’
Without a witness protection scheme I can’t expect Roger to volunteer further evidence.
I say, ‘Roger did call for it, Alan’.
‘Well he should have called louder.’
‘If he’d called any louder he’d have broken council bye laws. He’d have breached the peace!
I’m trying to lighten things up. And failing.
Roger tried to smooth things. ‘It’s all right’, he says, ‘I’d have fluffed it anyway.’ I want him to shut up. But I don’t say so. Alan shuts him up when he says, ‘It’s obviously not all right, Roger, not for Colin.’
And I feel the room go quiet, and the stakes go higher. Everyone knows something’s happening. Something is being said.
Alan turns back to me. ‘Why didn’t you say this in the dressing room?’
He’s right. I should have said this in the dressing room. But then I couldn’t, and now I have to. I can’t explain. I shrug. ‘I’m saying it now.’
He nods, as if that’s quite a good point. ‘But why are you saying it, Colin? What’s your point? What do you want?’
God this is hard. I’ve got to back off or plough on. I say, ‘It’s not just about this one time, not crossing it. I want you to play for the team. Not just for Alan.’
He says, ‘You know what I think, Colin?’
Which to me is a rhetorical question. But he pauses for so long I think I’d better answer. ‘No Alan, I don’t. What do you think?’
‘I think you’ve got a problem with Alan Parsons.’
He’s right. But that was the point.
‘And,’ he goes on, ‘I think you’ve got to decide whether you want Alan Parsons in your team.’
Heady stuff. My team. The highest status I’d ever had. And Alan Parsons has moved into the third person.
‘Easy decision,’ I say. ‘I want Alan Parsons in the team – and for it.’
Alan smiles sadly. Shakes his head. ‘You want to have your Alan Parsons and keep him.’
I say, ‘What?’
He says, ‘What you want you can’t have.’
‘Because I am Alan Parsons.’
‘I know that Alan. I’m not disputing it. But can’t Alan Parsons change, slightly? Doesn’t Alan Parsons have a choice?
Alan continues to surprise me. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s not whether I play for Alan or for the team. I play as Alan. I have Alan’s ability. I have Alan’s attitude. Because he is me. I am Alan.’
He’s suddenly earnest and surprisingly gentle. ‘Colin, I can’t not be Alan.’
The men around us, including some of the Unigate players, are listening openly now. They’re gathered round us like a jury of twelve dull men and true. And they’re nodding. I’m losing the argument.
I say, ‘Alan, I agree you are Alan. But as Alan I don’t agree you have no choice. You have free will. You’re a free man.’
He looks at me. ‘Am I, Colin?’
It was good to be back in the first person. But it doesn’t last.
‘Colin, if I was the Alan you wanted, I wouldn’t be the Alan I am.’
Not only are we back in the third person, we’re in a country song by Lyle Lovett. I’m sitting in Unigate Creamery Social Club in a country song scenario with a man old enough to be my financial advisor.
It’s become clear to Alan the only reason I’m giving him a hard time is a simple lack of basic understanding. He says, ‘Colin, Colin. Colin, Colin, Colin. Football is an instinctive thing. It’s a sublimation of battle. It’s heat of the moment. It’s instincts, reflexes. And for people like me, people like Jimmy Floyd, the sight of goal is like the scent of quarry. You know we evolved from hunter-gatherers, right?’
‘Well some people are more hunter than gatherer. Yeah?’
I’m not sure.
‘Some are all hunter and no gatherer, and some are all gatherer and no hunter. Yeah?’
‘I’m not sure, Alan.’
‘It’s basic Darwinism, Colin. The sight of goal equals the smell of blood. In that moment it’s not a football match. It’s a hunt.’
‘Yes, a hunt!’
‘Hunt isn’t the first word that comes to mind, Alan.’
I deeply regret saying that. But it was a heat of the moment thing. The smell of bullshit. He ignores it, but I know he’s heard it.
‘I’m sorry, Colin. The hunter is selfish. He doesn’t explain. He doesn’t apologise. That’s how it is with me.’
‘And Jimmy Floyd,’ I said.
‘And Jimmy Floyd.’
‘So that’s why you don’t track back or mark anyone. It’s against your instincts.’
He shrugs. ‘That’s not an instinct thing. It’s more of a principle.’
I begin to feel sarcasm welling up in me. A visceral, unstoppable, evolutionary sarcasm. ‘Well, if it’s a principle you should have said! I didn’t realise I’d touched on a question of conscience. I see what you mean now. What choice do you have? Morally you have no choice. What you are really is a conscientious objector.’
‘I can respect a conscientious objector,’ I said. And straightaway wished I hadn’t because ‘respect’ is a big word and I’d raised the stakes again. And my voice was getting louder while his was getting softer, and I didn’t know how to finish the sentence without making things worse.
He didn’t let me. ‘That’s the difference between you and me, Colin. I don’t respect conscientious objectors.’
Oh dear. The goalposts have moved. We’ve as good as mentioned the war. Did he know where I stood on the war? Of course he did. I thought, ‘Don’t go down that road. Move in, seize the goalposts, sum up and get out.’
I said, ‘Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan.’ I said, ‘The difference between you and me, Alan, is about choice. It’s about attitude, it’s about choice. All I’m saying is it’s your choice – whether you play for the team, for yourself, or just with yourself. It’s your choice whether you admit you have a choice, or duck behind your daft, distorted Darwinism. It’s your choice whether you’re going to be Alan Parsons or a sub-Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink clone. You’re stuck with being Alan Parsons. The question is whether you’re going to be responsible for him or just typical of him.’
And I should have left it there. Because I felt I’d equalised. Maybe even scored the decider. I felt I was winning the battle for hearts and minds. But I said, unnecessarily, irrevocably, ‘What’s it going to be, Alan?’ And he had one more surprise up his sleeve.
He hit me. Hard. With no back swing. I was quick but he was quicker, catching my chin as I jerked back in my chair – which tilted, reached the point of balance, and slowly fell. Thud. Sending out ripples of silence through the Social Club.
Alan stood up and said, ‘That’s the difference between you and me, Colin.’ Then he picked up his fleece and walked off.
Nobody laughed. Or applauded. Which was nice. I lay on my back in the chair, eyes closed. I felt things had slipped away from me. Perhaps I should resign, there and then, like Kevin Keegan after Germany. I opened my eyes and saw Stan looking down at me. He nodded. ‘Well done, son. Someone had to say something.’
‘But he hit me, Stan.’
Stan smiled a rare smile and, with helpful clarity underwritten with compassion, as if lifting the veil on the mystery of human motivation into which I’d just been ritually initiated, he said, ‘Yes, well. He would, wouldn’t he?’
Bards Eye View
I’ve been having my brain tested recently. Well, part of it. I’ve been taking part in an experiment on synaesthesia set up by a Speech Therapist at Marjons in Plymouth. Synaesthesia, if you’ve not come across it before, is ‘the evocation of one sense impression when another is stimulated’, a sort of cross-wiring of the senses, e.g. seeing music or tasting colour.
If you want to know the sound of one hand clapping you send for a Zen master, but when you need an informed opinion on the smell of the Moonlight Sonata or the colour of Tuesday, call in a synaesthete. Mine is the most common form of synaesthesia – experiencing words as having colour – so I can tell you that, for me, Tuesday is off-white with a hint of green. Not bright white like Saturday, or bluelilac white like Thursday, and quite distinct from the travel-brochure blue and blood orange of Monday and Wednesday on either side….Anyway, you get the picture.
The experiment is an attempt to discern at what point in the processing of language the crossed wires kick in, and I’ve been taking part because a) I’m a ‘synaesthete’, b) I like the attention and c) I’m deeply committed to rolling back the frontiers of scientific knowledge. When it comes to enlarging our collective understanding of the mind’s mysteries my motto is ‘Anything I can do to help as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me’ – which sounds noble in Latin.
So I went to Plymouth and sat and listened to a series of spoken sounds, not all recognisable as words or syllables. My task was to identify the colour corresponding most closely to each sound from a large laminated colour chart with subtle gradations of tone and hue. It was exacting, and fascinating. The process heightened my awareness of my own crossed wires and provided an insight into why I so enjoy writing – I just like the sight of my own voice.
It reminded me too how much I’ve always fancied the job of naming the colours on paint swatches. Better still to name them from a synaesthetic perspective: Instead of peach, aquamarine and magnolia people could paint their rooms in bold shades of ‘scandal’, ‘unguent’ and ‘carnivore’, or even in the more subtle hues of ‘twelfths’, ‘chlamydia’ and ‘banker’.
It’s always nice to feel you’re contributing to science.
A student of Permaculture once told me that it’s important to listen to a new patch of land for at least a year before you start to work it and thereby impose on it your own ideas, structures and plants. I can see the merit in that, but I also feel it’s important to strike a balance between, on the one hand, listening to the land and, on the other, listening to your wife. My wife isn’t one to lay down the law, but nor is she slow to express a preference, and it’s great when I happen to agree. So that’s how I came to be laying down a lawn on a little triangle of unpaved ground in our backyard without having consulted the land at all.
Buying turf from a garden centre seems a strange, unnatural thing but laying it is very satisfying – somewhere between fitting a carpet and putting on a poultice. And the land didn’t seem to mind. In fact I’m sure I picked up a gentle sigh and an ‘Mmmm, that’s better.’ My land-listening antennae tuned in pretty quickly after this experience, and the land wasn’t slow to offer comments on the rest of our outdoor activities, not merely responding to what we’d done but even making suggestions: ‘Maybe a picnic table over here by the clematis’, ‘that one’s definitely a weed, trust me’, and once, ‘isn’t it time for a nice cup of tea?’
It’s important to be honest with yourself with this kind of deep listening and use rigorous self-questioning to determine what’s the true voice of the earth and what’s merely your mind’s own wish-fulfilling chatter, delivered in a slight regional accent. It helps to look back at what the land suggested and see if it still feels right afterwards. In our case the picnic table is great by the clematis, the plant in question was a weed, and we really did need a nice cup of tea. So case proved, I think.
Interestingly there wasn’t enough turf left at the first garden centre to complete the job so we had to buy another four rolls elsewhere. This has led to a subtle two-tone lawn effect which is incongruous but pleasing. If it helps you to form a picture I’d describe them as stroppy green and eco-gloom respectively. Or, speaking synaesthetically, as ‘buoyancy’ and ‘frankmuir’.
Finally I wanted to tell you about the Westcountry Storytelling Festival, to be held this year at Hood Manor, Dartington from Aug 27-29, bank Holiday weekend. If it’s half as good as last year it’ll be twice as good as any other festival you go to this Summer. And that’s hype. But it’s well-meaning hype, it’s with-your-best-interests-at-heart hype. It’s hype motivated by a sincere desire to point Connect readers toward life-enhancing activities that help release endorphins into the mind/body system and bring together left and right hemispheres of the brain. And, okay, yes, it’s also nakedly self-interested hype because a) I’m performing at the festival and b) I’ve been promised a fiver for everyone who comes along on my recommendation. Yes, a fiver.
And it’s for this reason alone – not because the festival brings together an exceptional array of acclaimed storytellers in beautiful yurt venues with music, workshops, kids stuff, campfire sessions and wild’n’free sex (NB I made one of these up) – that I urge you to come. Don’t be shy, ‘phone 01803 863790 or visit www.wildwise.co.uk/wsf to book your ticket and find more information. And tell them I sent you.
If just twenty Connect readers answer my call I stand to make £100. Think of it! How often do you get the opportunity to help a poet in the perennial quest for increased puchasing power? Tragically infrequently, that’s how often. It’s rare that I end a Bards Eye View with any kind of moral message, but I’m moved to observe here that ‘Together we can make a difference’. If only to my disposable income. Thank you.
Bard’s Eye View
You may have noticed my usual cheery sideways looking photo is missing from the top of the page, replaced by a less cheery but somehow more thoughtful picture. This is a grayscale version of a portrait by Graham Kershaw painted as part of his ‘poetraits’ exhibition which arrives in Torbay in October.
Now I know I’m no oil painting, but, in a sense, since Graham painted me,I am. My portrait sits in an exhibition, staying exactly the same, while I go about my daily life looking increasingly haggard and haunted. Like someone who’s been burning the candle at both ends and wearing his trousers too tight. Someone for whom the vicissitudes of time and the torments of a restless conscience are etched in the living tissue of their face. Not a pretty sight. The portrait, though, is excellent. As are those of Roger McGough, U.A Fanthorpe and Owen Sheers, to name but three of Graham’s illustrious line-up.
Graham has also produced a book, ‘poetraits’, to accompany the exhibition, which has copies of the paintings alongside poems by the featured poets. Each poet who sat for Graham agreed to reciprocate with a poem on or around the theme of having their portrait painted. My portrait poem (which also stays the same while the rest of me deteriorates) is printed in the box. I actually wrote two poems in response to the painting, one of which didn’t make it into the exhibition. This other one goes: When I was a younger man my features were more angular/ The added padding of the years makes all our ganglia danglier
Great stuff, though I say it as shouldn’t.
Graham Kershaw’s ‘Poetraits’ exhibition is showing at the Festival Centre in Torbay, from 24th-27th October
Bards Eye View
It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. It’s not one of those I can easily hide. If I was a sculptor, but then again no, or maybe an axilottle …. Sorry. It’s just that I’m feeling extremely relaxed as I write this. Extreeemely relaaaxxxed – that’s how you spell how relaxed I am. You see, I’ve been floating. I don’t mean floating as metaphor, drifting off above my troubles, beyond the toil, grime and strife of mundane life – although there has been a bit of that. I mean floating in a purpose-built float tank, a safe, warm chamber, 8’ high by 8’ long by 4’ wide, in 10” of water kept at body-temperature and so steeped in Epsom salts it’s seven times more buoyant than sea water. I’ve been lying in still waters, running deep. With only some ambient music and my own navel for company.
My friend Jeff (who interestingly shares the same surname as me, although we buy our own clothes) gave my wife and I vouchers for the Float Centre above Arcturus Books and Crystals. I’ve finally got around to using mine, and I wouldn’t mention it here if it wasn’t just so very, very good. My skin is now silky smooth, my breathing quiet and even, and my mind has an alert, pert, relaxed buoyancy which makes me a pleasure to talk to. I imagine.
There are those who say the unexamined life is not worth living. I say the uncontemplated navel is not worth piercing. I don’t know what I mean by that, but it gives me pleasure. I’m that relaxed. I recommend the Oasis Float Tank unreservedly. I think they do trial session for something like £20 (£17concs). I also recommend my friend Jeff, although there are no vouchers for Jeff. You just have to meet by chance and get to know him over time.
Bard’s Eye View
I’m really proud to come from Totnes, although, strictly speaking, I don’t. I wasn’t born here, I wasn’t brought up here, but I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else so, when I’m doing a gig elsewhere in the country, to all intents and purposes I come from Totnes. I say so, and people titter. I explain to the rest of the audience why they’re tittering. And they can join in.
But I’m proud to be associated, however vaguely and spuriously, with that alternative Totnes. Recently I took part in an anti-war demo. I was invited to read a poem. Do you have any war poems? Anti-war poems, obviously, ha ha. But I didn’t. I don’t have any pro-war poems either, I said, sheepishly. Well, hardly any. Ha ha.
In the end I read an Adrian Mitchell poem, from the Body, a simple, moving piece with no hidden meanings. It ended ‘Long live the children.’ You can’t argue with that.
The march was reported in our local paper, the Totnes Times, alongside a piece stating that, in accordance with the owner’s wishes, this would be the last time they’d report such events ‘til after hostilities had ceased.