On The Twiddliness of Things

I was just wondering what to write about when my eye lit on a notebook with an Escher drawing on the front. Twiddliness! I thought. So that’s where I’ll begin. OH has a book called ‘Godel, Escher, Bach‘ which is on this very subject. Godel was a mathematician and there are similarities between him, Escher and Bach, all of them being inclined to turn things upside down, inside out and round and round. Bach can take a simple piece of music, play it a few times, turn it upside down and sideways and then chop it up; Escher does the same thing with images, producing optical illusions where fish turn into birds and staircases, like share prices, go up as well as down. I’m not sure what Godel does because I skipped the section on him (shame!) but there you are. Maybe if it wasn’t so hot I’d be able to say something more coherent on the subject…

https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-escher-stairs-image6306396

Yesterday turned out to be not such a bad day in the end; after a depressing morning I went for a walk (always a good plan) and sat in my easy chair for the afternoon. I use my easy chair – in reality a garden chair because an armchair won’t fit in my study – for periods of reflective writing, or perhaps no writing at all, just staring at clouds and daydreaming. I don’t actually do enough of this – I suspect most of us don’t – and it’s very valuable. Just to sit and allow thoughts to emerge as they will – or not – is one of the best ways a writer can spend her/his time, provided that the rest of the time you actually get some work done. And lo! while I was sitting in reflection I decided to check my phone for emails and there sat my weekly update on freelance writing jobs. I subscribe to this just on the offchance even though most of the jobs are not suitable for me, and there I found a novel-writing competition. I sort of have a novel – well, I have one in development, and since they only required the first 5000 words I sent them off. If they’re interested they want another 5000 in September – which I have – and after that I’ll have to work pretty damn fast if they want the whole thing. But that’s how I rock.

So you see, twiddling your thumbs can be highly productive. The joys of twiddliness!

Kirk out

Meanwhile Here is Some Light Music

I’m trying to think of something positive to say. Meanwhile here is some light music… nope, it’s not happening. I’ve been trying to avoid the election results but they are unavoidable, inevitable as a Wimbledon defeat or the fall of a horse you backed. The one bright spark on the horizon is Scotland; if the SNP and other pro-independence parties win convincingly enough it may well lead to a second Indyref and if that passes – it’s a big ‘if’ but still if it does, there may be a chance of Scotland rejoining the EU.

It makes you wonder what would turn people against the Tories. Cuts to public services? Nah. Privatising the NHS? Meh. Threatening to control the BBC? Who cares? Taking education back to the Victorian age? Buying £800 wallpaper? Lying to parliament? Lying again and again and again and again and again? None of it made any difference. Add in a vaccine bounce and a large wodge of Brexit triumphalism, conveniently compounded by gunboat diplomacy off the shores of Jersey and the absence of UKIP and the Brexit Party – and you have yesterday’s terrible showing. Of course Starmer didn’t help; he’s been lacklustre in his leadership, to say the least, and failed to make any impression at all on large swathes of voters. If the SNP lose in Scotland I’ll be so depressed I might think about going to Spain again. Not that Spain’s any better politically, but at least it’s not my country.

How does one maintain hope? How do we keep going in the face of such a government and a people that by and large seems to approve of it? How do we carry on? Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who don’t even think about politics at all and barely know who the Prime Minister is. Such ignorance must be bliss at times.

And there it is. That’s all I can think of today. I’m sure I’ll be back with more next week but meanwhile here is some light music:

Kirk out

Ch-ch-ch-changes

David Bowie knew a thing or two about life. I was never a great fan; never painted my face with a lightning bolt or donned the outlandish gear (I was nowhere slim enough to carry it off anyway) but I do respect him as an artist. He knew that the only constant in life is change. Everywhere you look things are changing – growing, dying, being born, getting lost.

Leonard Cohen knew a thing or two about life as well, and loss is one of his major themes. Losing hope, losing love, losing your voice (when he went into the Zen monastery near Los Angeles he was known as the silent one; nobody knew who he was.) At Mount Baldy the monks meditated for up to eighteen hours a day and walked through the snow at 2 am to get to the meditation hall. I’m lucky if I manage eighteen minutes; I suppose walking through the snow at 2 am must have had its attractions for someone who’d spent the last thirty years in hotels, but it’s not for me.

Turn and face the strange is Bowie’s line. Greet it, welcome it, invite it in. Make it a really hot cup of tea – because there’s nothing certain in life but change. You think you’ve got it all set up, everything’s in place and you know where you’re headed – and in a heartbeat it can all go. ‘Gone, gone, utterly gone,’ as Richard Rohr puts it.

I used to be prone to nostalgia. Ah, those were the days… but nostalgia can be quite dangerous. It can keep you trapped in a past that probably never even was what it was. There are times when I yearn for the politics of the seventies, but then I remind myself that the seventies were also a time when sexism, racism and homophobia were normal, everyday occurrences. We can only live now and remember that now may be a time we look back on with nostalgia. What will I remember fondly about this time in my life? Impossible to say, but I’m sure there’ll be something. Meanwhile I fondly remember Bowie – and Leonard Cohen.

Kirk out

Is That a Zen Sky?

Yesterday was the solstice so I set the alarm for sunset, prepared a glass of wine and a song to listen to, and stopped work to sit and watch the sky darken. This was a slow and undramatic process as the sun was behind layers of dark cloud and nary a glimmer emerged; however it was a very contemplative practice to simply sit and observe and try to get my head round the fact that I’m on a tiny patch of a revolving globe and that it’s this globe that moves, not the sun.

Many truths are counter-intuitive and hard to get hold of. Sometimes the moon seems so close you feel you could reach out and touch it, or leap up and sit on the point of its crescent. Have you ever been in the country, miles from any street lights, on a clear night? The stars seem so close it’s almost threatening; yet we persist in acting as though we are separate from them rather than being in the middle. Anyway, last night at sunset I drank a glass of wine and listened to this track and read this poem which is one of my favourites.

My new CD came yesterday too. It’s a meditative one called Zen Sky and I can almost write as I listen to it, though normally I never listen to music while working because it’s too distracting. I also downloaded a really fun EP called Fake News; all of these recordings including the solstice song are by our friend, the multi-talented local musician Chris Conway. There’s no end to the instruments this man can play or the styles he can perform in, and Zen Sky features the low Irish whistle, an amazingly evocative instrument.

So that was yesterday; today I unaccountably woke up feeling crabby and resentful. Where do these emotions come from? I went to bed feeling fine and had a reasonably good night, but this morning all these unpleasant sensations had blown in like a squall from the coast. Normally I can keep a lid on the feeling that other people are far more successful than me, that they fit in more easily – or at all – that they somehow make money without making themselves miserable in the process, and have a path in life, a direction, a purpose. Well, I suppose I have a path and a direction but without (as yet) the money or success, so from time to time feelings of envy will arise, and the Christmas round robin is an excellent catalyst for them. One which arrived yesterday featured distant relatives we haven’t seen in a while who live on what appears to be a ranch in Surrey with a lake, a small wood and a massive house. What makes it worse is that they are very nice people!!!! (gnashes teeth.) Well, this is my problem and I’ll have to deal with it.

*Sigh*

I wish they weren’t nice people and then I could hate them. I do hate the round robin though

Kirk out

On Mourning

I’m trying to think of something coherent to say about the death of two friends in the same week. Both were expected; both were a shock. Both will be missed; both leave a hole. It doesn’t matter how much I tell myself that death happens all the time, that some people lose their parents, their children, their entire families; that we are lucky to have lived so long and lost so few – none of that matters. Two people we loved have gone and they’re not coming back. I try to imagine how it would be if OH had died instead of them: I can’t. There’s really nothing coherent I can say. We’re not even among those most affected by their loss – and yet we are affected. We feel it.

I’ve been listening to this beautiful version of Barber’s Adagio this week, and reading this by John Donne, one of my all-time favourites:

As virtuous men pass mildly away

and whisper to their souls to go

while some of their sad friends do say

the breath goes now, and some say no..

Kirk out

Stranglers on the Shore

There are a number of bands I didn’t immediately sign up to when I first heard them: for example, Dire Straits and The Pet Shop Boys, both of which I now appreciate far more than when they first came on the scene (the fact that Neil Tennant sounds just like Al Stewart didn’t hurt either). I even disliked The Stranglers at the beginning, if you can believe it: I was at the time very wedded to prog-rock and disliked a lot of punk and ‘new wave’ on sight (iyswim.) But it didn’t take me long to come round, and by the time they released the divine Golden Brown where the intro skips a beat like a lovestruck heart, I was sold.

As a child my musical world consisted of church music and oddbits of classical which I learned on the piano. There were also tedious instrumentals played for church socials including the number I later knew as Stranger on the Shore, the very sound of which transports me back to a draughty church hall, the churchwarden and his wife doing a stately foxtrot. Finding Top of the Pops was an epiphany, and instantly I developed a taste for folk-rock (James Taylor, Carole King, Neil Young in his early incarnation) and prog-rock (Yes, Genesis, The Floyd). Like many people I’ve often tried to narrow down my eight choices for Desert Island Discs and found it impossible; I come up with different records every time. But today’s choices are:

Oh Jesus I Have Promised (the original music not the newfangled jolly tune which sadly I can’t find anywhere but I’m sure the BBC could) – this reminds me of the time the organist asked me my favourite hymn and played it on the organ.

Leonard Cohen: Suzanne. This reminds me of the first time I heard Cohen, in a classroom in 1972.

Argent: Hold Your Head Up

Gerry Rafferty: Baker St

Anderson and Vangelis: Somehow I’ll Find My Way Home (very apt, eh?)

Bob Marley: Jammin. I went to see Bob Marley in 1980; he was already ill and shortly to die of cancer, though we didn’t know it at the time.

Carole King: It’s Too Late

Leonard Cohen: If It Be Your Will

And the one I’d save from the waves? The last one, which I also would like played at my funeral. There’s also this version, which I love.

What would your Desert Island Discs be?

Kirk out

Tomorrow Night Have a Good Time With This App

As I write to you I am listening to what OH calls ‘the only right-wing pop song ever’ (though I think OH may have forgotten ‘Sweet Home Alabama‘ or anything by Ted Nugent) in other words, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again‘ by The Who.

I absolutely love The Who, not least because they are from my home town (though I was far too young to see them play at the White Bear in Hounslow) and I don’t consider ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ to be a right-wing song so much as a cynical take on revolutionary politics, more in the vein of ‘Animal Farm’.

I’m pausing for a moment while I wait for Roger Daltrey to scream.

OK that’s done. I’m now trying to think of some way of celebrating the New Year whilst realising deep down that having woken up at 5.30 this morning, I’m 99.9% certain to be asleep when it comes (I’ll be pushing out the zzzzz’s when it comes; I’ll be pushing out the zzzz’s when it comes….) there are times when I really do feel old and pathetic. But hey, it’s not as if a jumble of events are competing for my participation; as far as I can see folk in Loughborough are all asking themselves what’s happening for New Year and the furthest they’ve got is someone saying they’re going to Diane’s house. I don’t know Diane so I’m stuck. It would be nice to have somewhere at least to pretend to go even though I know I’ll inevitably fall asleep on the sofa before 10 o’clock.

In 2020 I’ll be there for a while but I don’t think I can have a drink or any dinner tonight or tomorrow night if I don’t have a drink or tomorrow night if I don’t have a shower then again I have a good time to do with this app.

That is what I’ll be doing next year according to the predictive text on my phone, which gives a rather dispiriting insight into the type of words I use most often and what a rock-n-roll life I lead.

*Sigh*

Ah well. Happy New Whatever.

Kirk out

Giving Thanks (for the Dance)

It’s Thanksgiving today in the US which, unlike the spurious phenomenon which will occur tomorrow (and which I refuse to name), is something we might do well to import. Of course it’s tainted, because everything is tainted now; tainted with the knowledge and guilt of colonialism and with the awareness that many people around the world don’t have much to be thankful for. But those of us in the blogosphere surely do; at least I do, and one of them is the latest Cohen album (yes, he’s still churning them out from beyond the grave.) Actually to say churning out does him a great disservice, for Cohen was always the slowest of writers and could take years to produce a song and decades over an album; of all artists he knew how to take time over his work. But death seems to have sped him up a little, for this one has been less than three years in the making; the bones of it are recordings he left behind and the meat on the bones is the performances by those he worked with in his lifetime. It has a bleak, faded beauty with that unmistakable Cohen flavour and as to whether it works, it’s an incredible fusion of voices and intentions.

It feels like a return to his beginnings; one voice in a room, a guitar, other voices slowly coming in with maybe a gentle sax, a Spanish guitar, a piano, some distant drums. This is no cynical attempt to milk his legacy but a genuine collection of unreleased work made more beautiful by the collaboration of his old partners. The title track recalls both Joan of Arc and Take this Waltz. The Hills builds from a single voice to a near-orchestral climax and The Night of Santiago features the plaintive passion of a flamenco guitar, echoing Cohen’s love of Lorca.

It feels like Cohen singing through an open door after supper. They could even be in the same room.

Perhaps they were.

Kirk out

RIP Leonard, We Miss You

Three years ago today we lost Leonard Cohen. As I write this I’m listening to ‘Democracy’, a song which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it (have a listen and perhaps you’ll see why). People had the idea that he was gloomy and depressing – the prince of suicide, the bard of bad vibes, the grocer of despair – but with his self-deprecating humour he could be a total hoot (‘people were very rude about my guitar-playing: they used to say I only knew three chords, when in fact I knew five.’)

It was hard in the early years to be a Cohen fan because people were so mean about him; my own mother used to call him ‘old groaner,’ which was very rude and disrespectful. After all, I was never allowed to criticise Eartha Kitt.

Actually I quite liked Eartha Kitt. But I wasn’t so keen on Mendelssohn’s Elijah which we had to listen to quite a lot. Musical taste (amongst other things) was a one-way street in our family: basically we had to listen to whatever the adults liked, which meant listening to what our Mum liked. Tired of this, one Christmas I assembled the family, turned down the lights and put on Dark Side of the Moon. Ten seconds in my Granddad grabbed my Grandma’s arm and joked ‘Gigs! I’m scared!’ and when Breathe began he started playing along with the maracas. I gave up. As for introducing them to Cohen, it was unthinkable. You might as well stand outside and ask people to throw snowballs at you.

But it got better; in the ’80’s Cohen drew widespread acclaim with ‘I’m Your Man’ and when the financial shenanigans of his manager forced him out of retirement and back on the road, a song from ‘Various Positions’ was picked up and covered by just about everyone from Rolf Harris (no, scrub that) by everyone from Willie Nelson to Justin Timberlake. My favourite apart from the original is Rufus Wainwright’s, though Jeff Buckley’s is probably more famous. It also featured in Shrek, sung by John Cale.

It was Cohen’s refusal to shy away from the darker side of life that made him challenging, especially in America where, as Jennifer Warnes put it, you’re supposed to ‘put on a smile and come out swingin’, no matter how ruined you’ve been.’

Cohen was not the most prolific of writers but over the course of his career he released 15 or so albums, the penultimate of which, ‘Popular Problems’ he joked would be succeeded by ‘Unpopular Solutions’ but which was in fact followed by ‘You Want it Darker’. By the time of recording this he was so ill that he had to sit and sing the lyric into a desk mic while his son Adam produced the album.

I won’t sport with your patience by giving you a full bio; there’s plenty of information out there including the recent BBC series ‘Marianne and Leonard‘ about his time on the island of Hyra with Marianne Ihlen and her son Axel, but it seems both ironic and fitting that his two most famous songs should have both gotten away from him. He lost the rights to ‘Suzanne’ when they were stolen by an unscrupulous agent, and though he retained the rights to ‘Hallelujah’ it’s other versions which are more widely known than his.

Soldier of the heart, grocer of despair, go well.

RIP Leonard Cohen, Sept 21 1934 – Nov 7th 2016

STOP PRESS: there’s going to be a new album!!!!! composed of material he was working on, assembled by Adam Cohen and including collaboration by people who worked with him during his life. It’s called Thanks for the Dance and it’s due out on Nov 22nd. Oh. My. God. Even when he’s dead that man just can’t lie down and let himself be buried.

Kirk out

Excuse Me While I Colour the Sky

Just when you think it’s safe to wake up in the morning, this happens:

OH: I have serious problems understanding why the sky is blue.

Me: Oh?

OH: Don’t you?

Me: I hate to break this to you, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it

OH: In fact I don’t believe it is blue. I think it’s actually purple.

Me: Oh, right

OH: Don’t you think so?

Me: I don’t know really. I don’t think about it much

OH: I have serious problems understanding why the sky is purple.

Silence

OH: do you know what I mean?

Me: I really think you should stop asking that question

Last night I went to see Rocketman. I first came across Elton in the early seventies (I still have Honky Chateau) and have always considered him a total one-off. There’s a sort of rocket theme going on at the moment with the oddly-titled Stephen Poliakoff Summer of Rockets (I’ll probably get to that later) but the biopic was stupendous. It was stirring, stonking, stupefying and contained stupid amounts of alcohol and drugs.

The story begins with Elton in a red and gold outfit with wings – like a cross between a superhero and a carnival queen – walking off stage and into rehab from where he tells the rest of the story in flashback. The narrative focusses on the early to middle years: Reggie’s childhood with an emotionally absent father and a self-indulgent mother – his Gran the only person who takes an interest – his scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, his interview with a record company and subsequent meeting with Bernie Taupin and then the rocket-like trajectory of his success. And here the film really goes to town with the songs, the outfits, the glasses, the concerts, the parties, the coming-out as gay, the fake marriage to Renata, the success and the excess and the final crash.

What made the film so great and so un-cliched was the naturalistic acting of Taron Egerton (he also played Eddie the Eagle) and his singing! I was astonished to discover that he actually sang the songs, as he managed to sound so like Elton and yet without parody.

The film was made in collaboration with the singer himself and it finishes with a short update and some pictures of him with David Furnish. It was a shame the film didn’t get as far as his friendship with Diana but then that’s a whole nother story.

So there it is. Now showing at a cinema near you.

Kirk out