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On the Firebird Anthology, the National Poetry Awards and Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’

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The Firebird Writers’ Group are, with one exception, all on board with the idea of a Firebird Anthology. The chosen theme may be ‘Resurgence’, a kind of combination of the themes Amber Forest suggested, though Terry has just today pitched one about flouting social norms. I’m still wondering whether to take a backseat role as editor or contribute myself—the honest assessment is that I’m a better editor than poet—but as I record this I know the answer. ‘Judas Jon’, which is undergoing heavy revision so that I can submit it alongside ‘Train to Tbilisi’ in the June window for Long Poem Magazine is actually a contender for a contribution, though I was considering submitting the opening section along with the ‘House that Jack Built’ passage of ‘Jack Johnson’ to Under the Radar, to see what would happen if I threw a couple of stones at their May window.

I’m still confident of publishing Poems I Couldn’t Get Arrested With, a volume of all the verse I’ve had rejected, printed under the text of each rejection slip, but I need to submit far more. I’m convinced that I’m so much against the grain of the zeitgeist that such a work will come about.

Whatever, it’s thanks to our two burgeoning publishers, Alice and Dom, that there is an engine for moving the anthology forward.

On the subject of poetry, it’s with a feeling of impending doom that I have received

the latest edition of Poetry Review, ever since the Spring 2019 volume, which featured two poems so similar in subject, structure and thrust to poems in my almost-completed Sinister Theme Park: a Journey to North Korea that I abandoned the book there and then. This issue features the National Poetry Awards winners. Although the Poetry Society tends to give me a wide berth (I’m assuming because either they think I’m rubbish or, more flatteringly, a disruptor) they did invite me to the ceremony, which was of course, unceremoniously, cancelled. And I’d bought a suit for it, since only men in suits were allowed in (‘cocktail dress’—I would have preferred a striped jumper and a beret in a smoky cellar where cool jazz played).

This was a shame, not least because Maurice Riordan was the token male-pale-‘n’-stale among the young female judges and I would have liked to meet him. I’ve read his fascinating anthology of early Irish poetry, The Finest Music, as well his book on Hart Crane. I am not impressed by Crane, but it struck me that where Crane did succeed was in descriptions of sea voyages, the imramm which Riordan clearly loves in the Irish poets. Alas, it is a conversation I’m unlikely ever to have.

Also down in ‘Commended’ in the results was Joe Dunthorne, a Faber Poet made famous by his novel Submarine, as well as a very personable and talented young man. I met him once and would have been pleased to have seen him again. I’ve read his ‘Due to a series of ill judgements on my part’ numerous times since receiving the Winners’ Anthology: it is disturbing, thought-provoking and a genuine poem.

Note: At this point in the original draft of this journal entry there followed several thousand words of analysis of the winners of the National Poetry Awards, of my opinion of the judges and what they themselves had written, the poems in the latest Poetry Review, the current state of poetry in this country, as well as my opinions on Bob Dylan’s elegy on the death of Kennedy, how it relates to a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career, how its references cohere with valedictory numbers from other performers, etc.

When I realized how pleased I was with all my opinions the warning bell rang out in ts clear timbre, I dismounted my high horse and decided to devote this blog to where I should be concentrating all my written energy: to my experiences in learning verse humbly at the feet of the great and in fulfilling the role I created for myself in promoting unsung authors.

While my duties here have receded and blessed me with time I felt drawn to a little research into Bob Dylan’s career and how he succeeded, resulting in a sketch for a possible poem:

The Method

Be a sponge for this child’s play,
A blotter for the rain
Absorbing all that comes your way
To filter and to strain,

Then return it purified,
As with your truest friend
Who sadly seeks you as a guide
For their fortunes to amend;

Whose wheat you take into your hand
And blow its chaff apart.
Returning kernels newly fanned
To the storehouse of the heart.

And if you’re soaked by the piercing hail
That pins you to that tree,
Look out, look out, to the Malvern Hills
Whose light will set you free.

‘Is this a poem or the posy of a ring?’ as Hamlet said. I’m struck that if I did make a proper poem of it it would fit in nicely with the theme of ‘Resurgence’. I kept hearing or reading about how Dylan’s method (I had originally thought to call it ‘How to Succeed’) was to be a ‘sponge’ or ‘blotting paper’, absorb all influences, filter them through his psyche, then finally express them as his own. The third stanza is taken from an Arabic proverb, while the last is a return to my ‘King Charles’s Head’ of gnosis, which, unlike the Dickens version, cannot be mentioned often enough—you’d better believe it, and you might have cause to thank me for it.

These squibs, if finished, might decorate a long narrative poem, but I can’t see any other future, as I can’t bring myself to set much store by them. At least until I produce something as good as ‘Leisure’. Imagine the contempt with which Davies’ poem would be treated today.

Larissa has been referring to the present status quo as ‘the Zone’ after Tarkovsky’s Stalker, my favourite film. Tarkovsky based this on the Brothers Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, which seems closer in tone and desperation to what is happening now. It’s also a possible poem:

Roadside Picnic

When the roadside picnic is over
And the world peeps out at last
After an eternity in cover…etc.

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On the future of the Firebird Writers’ Group

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Click for Firebird Writers' Group siteI thought it was, since I had time on my hands (being a high-risk case in total lockdown) a priority that I thought of the future of Firebird, a writers’ group that only depends on online communication, so I suggested that we collaborate on an anthology of members’ work.

The two publishers among our number, despite their considerable commitment to other projects, were happy to help, although both insisted on a theme for the volume. Quite rightly my suggestion of something associated with the pandemic was roundly rejected.

This is an exciting development and one about which I’ll keep this journal regularly updated.

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On The Professor and the Madman

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(I’m still searching for a decent combination of typefaces to make this journal more user-friendly–apologies if it is still looking odd or difficult to read. I switched to Elementor as an editor at one point in an attempt to resolve the annoying header issue after I’d got the balance right, but somehow everything got skewed, producing a fatal error to boot).

Facing twelve weeks in which I’m not allowed out of the front door, I’ve taken to seeing what is on Amazon Prime and Netflix. To my surprise last night Prime as showing the Prime Minister’s latest broadcast, but of course it was inevitable that he would want to reach those who had had enough of the panic stations.

So I watched The Professor and the Madman, a film made in 2016, but whose production troubles meant it wasn’t seen until 2019, when it premiered in Mexico. Despite its poor distribution (mostly, it seems, in Australasia) and panning by critics, it found its audience with me. Here is my Amazon review:

Samuel Johnson said that making dictionaries was ‘dull work’ (in his definition of ‘dull’) but James Murray’s making of the Oxford English Dictionary (originally the New Dictionary) was anything but, as shown by this engrossing film version of Simon Winchester’s book, only marred by some overwrought climax-building and a few niggles detailed below.

Unbeknown to Murray his chief contributor was an American schizophrenic killer resident in Broadmoor, whose title, Dr William Chester Minor, fooled him into thinking he was a doctor there. In portraying Minor Sean Penn gives something approaching a performance of a lifetime, while Mel Gibson (rather tanned for a Scotsman) gives us a kind of linguistic Braveheart for Murray, a self-taught outsider among Oxford snobs.

Minor’s most notorious action comes a little early and the script fills in with some made-up melodrama involving the wife of Minor’s victim, which unnecessarily weakens what in itself is a riveting tale. The character arc of Murray’s wife is too flat to earn her later involvement and Steve Coogan has too silly a demeanour for Murray’s solid ally. There is also a slight air of foreignness about the proceedings, this being unusually an Irish/French/Icelandic coproduction: it feels it bit American, Dublin is substituted for Oxford (which caused Gibson to disassociate himself from the enterprise) and there are (ironically) anachronisms in words as well as events.

But overall the film is a success, making a good story well known to academics accessible to the general public. In its best parts it is moving and thought-provoking, as well as inspirational. Murray was a superhero of his time, proving that paper qualifications weren’t everything, and that no matter how impossible a task looks it can be overcome by determination and hard work.

What’s needed now is a film of the making of Johnson’s Dictionary, which has even more potential.

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On Coronvirus II, Patriotism and Faith

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‘A man may fight many battles and never die, unless it be the will of God that he die.’—Sinbad

‘Trust in God, but tie your camel’s leg.’—The Prophet Mohammed

In the present pandemic—and panicdemic—I’m increasingly grateful to those responsible for the set of beliefs I’ve built up through life, but equally find myself under attack for holding them. They are nonsense, it seems, and I’m not taking the crisis seriously enough, because it’s real and we should all be terrified. The history of humanity, according to these people, is one of ignorant darkness (spiritual faith) followed by the dawning of light (science).

One wonders, if that is the case, why there has been such a rise in diseases linked primarily to scientific and technological advance (cancers, for example, or stress-related illnesses, if not COVID-19 itself) and why, in this age of the science of the mind, so many people are unhappy. If the Age of Miracles is dead, then it’s science which has killed it. One can read Anglo-Saxon texts written before the Middle Ages in which miracles were dealt with in a matter-of-fact way: two companions were going to visit the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, when they came across a man crushed by a falling tree; they brought him back to life, then all three continued on their way to have tea with the Archbishop.

Of course, the present all-pervading secular mindset makes the recorder of this event a liar or fantasist. But there is no pretence in the story, no indication of exaggeration or embroidery, or even of monetary gain, which would mark it as suspect. Because it doesn’t align with the sneering scepticism of the modern age doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Another objection to a belief in spiritual solutions is that I myself have fallen seriously ill many times, occasionally nearly losing my life, from whooping cough at the age of 2 to tuberculosis at 13, all the way through to the Legionnaires’ Disease I caught in North Korea a couple of years ago. I’ve even survived a murder attempt.

But it’s not that I’m ungrateful for the medical staff who have been instrumental in saving my life—I’m only saying that they wouldn’t have been able to do it if my number had been up. The fact is that I’ve survived: as Cormac McCarthy suggests, everything is on a binary switch, which makes a miss as good as a mile (though near misses should cause pause for thought). Of course, no-one should tempt fate (or ‘the Lord’) by deliberately not reaching a compromise with worldly conventions—even Jesus paid his Council Tax—and for this reason I’m happy to keep washing my hands, wearing a mask, etc.

One might, considering this, wonder why the Christian religion isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do, at least based on the thrust of the Gospel, which focuses on healing the sick and raising the dead as principal occupations for the believer.

The answer is contained in the word itself—religion is not spirituality, but a collection of rituals designed to represent spirituality in a worldly form. This has resulted in the case of Christianity with its becoming big business early in its transmission, and cutting spiritual corners increasingly as it progressed. Women priests were abolished, to encourage conversion of those following patriarchal religions, and once the Roman Emperor was converted it allowed the Church to commandeer the Roman roads as business routes and send the Roman army against the followers of the rival belief system—the Gnostics, or monks—and either bring them to heel or eradicate them. One profound difference between the Christians and the Gnostics was that the Christians preached that heaven was in the future, the Gnostics that it could be found in the present moment, without priests.

An exception to the grinding worldliness and lack of faith of the religion I was brought up on has for me been the Christian Scientists, who are probably as close as you’re going to get to the original Gnostics (though they themselves don’t seem to think so). You can’t become one—correct me if I’m wrong—unless you’ve proved you can heal somebody. I became a fan when I witnessed a quite astonishing healing of someone close to me, but less of a fan when I needed them later in life: some practitioners were charging ludicrous fees. I’ve just looked on the Christian Science website just now and their advice, I’m glad to say, concurs with the sensible opinion of any believer:  the prayer that reduces fear brings out one’s natural immunity to disease and heals the symptoms of disease.

Another belief I hold, again previously mentioned in this journal, is that globalization, global capitalism, globalism and the so-called global village—call it what you will—is universally, fundamentally, wrong.

This needs some explanation. While spiritually everyone is equal (albeit at varying stages of spiritual development) and should be treated as an equal despite, say, their animosity, in the finite physical world, held by many to be the devil’s province or the solidified crust of the universal spirit—my own opinion being that the so-called devil is simply selfishness—nation states, tribes and individuals need to be respected.

After all, they have arisen for reasons which, though worldly, are crucial: geographical, religious, cultural and so forth. Each is not (as the globalists suppose) different because of ignorance, but rather that they contribute to humanity many positive facets that would otherwise go neglected. They allow in sum a cubist tapestry of existence, valuable in the multiple perspectives they give on the world.

Thus the nation state contains the richness of the ethnicities, tribes or social groups it encompasses, while these groups in turn contain individuals who, each one of us unique, adds a piece to the jigsaw puzzle of what is. 

The arguments about globalization go back to the 18th Century and the philosophes. To put it very crudely (I’m remembering this from a secondary source) the cynic Voltaire thought that a pan-global trade was necessary for human beings, as it would satisfy their inherent greed and selfishness, while keeping war in check since that would threaten mutual self-interest. Wealth would filter down all echelons of society this way. Rousseau, on the other hand, thought the outcome would rather be the merchant classes keeping hold of the money and the system functioning off the backs of the poor. Adam Smith agreed with Voltaire and wrote The Wealth of Nations; I didn’t, and voted against Brexit, TTIP and the European Superstate with (thanks to Merkel at the time) unfettered immigration.

One thing Rousseau might have mentioned was the way global capitalism would collapse like a house of cards (or maybe more appropriately a Tower of Babel) once an effect both predictable but deliberately ignored—the propensity for a worldwide plague thanks to massive migration and neglect of borders—came into being.

Being self-isolated, as we currently are, such a collapse is all too evident. We are told to shop online. Hypocritically, perhaps, with my opinions about globalization, I have an Amazon account. Bezos’s outfit was happy to accept our order for a food delivery, offered us slots, then made it impossible to take any up. When I pointed this out to a representative of the behemoth I was told I should have known that Amazon wouldn’t deliver, Amazon respected the fact that their delivery drivers were too afraid to drive their vans, and was met with disbelief when I suggested it would be good professional practice to post a notice on the website saying that Amazon Fresh was suspended.

Returning from Morocco, where Moroccans seem so proud of their nation, once again throws into relief how wretchedly this country has lost all sense of pride and patriotism, subsumed as it is into the septic sludge of greed and trash culture. The media have gleefully replaced the language of great literature with the lowbrow dialect of American capitalism, to the point—and I think it’s deliberate and financially based—where the BBC and Sky, as well as online media, share a diction that indicates we are no more or less than the 51st State. I’ll write again on this topic, but in brief the evidence is that the English Language is going the way of Greek when it became a lingua franca under Alexander the Great, but unlike the Atticists who opposed Greek’s debasement, there appears to be no-one who cares about, or even notices this trend. I’m told it’s not important, but how any nation expresses itself is crucial.

It’s the same with the way we’ve sold off the family silver: other countries protect their iconic brands as part of the national identity, but not us, whether it’s Cadbury’s, British Steel and the old ones, or newer ones whose owners fall over themselves to sell out to Coca-Cola: Innocent, Costa, even the London Eye. We pretend we are the ‘only truly global’ nation, but that is not how others see us.

Just for once we were on a package, taking in Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca, Meknes and Fez. We’d been touring for three days when we reached the Granary in Meknes which, to our astonishment, closed the door in our faces. Two police in a nearby car waved us away. It was then our guide, a Berber both arrogant and sly—he praised the pirates of the Barbary Coast, who were in fact slavers, for their vengeance for the deportation of Moors by Ferdinand and Isabella—told us our trip was curtailed, turned round the minibus and took us back on a six hour drive to Marrakesh the way we’d come.

There we kicked our heels for a couple of days under virtual house arrest in a hotel, not knowing what was going on, while, living locally, he went home. We managed to get some information from other groups, whose reps were paying them regular visits until, only after prompting from two fellow travellers, we were messaged by our guide that we would be put on a plane to Birmingham. He did, of course, turn up at the airport for his tips. I know: Judge not, less ye be judged. But his patriarchal nastiness towards Larissa gave me pause when considering just how positively prevailing national traits should be described: this is the flip side of what I said above and the argument for the enlightenment which globalism supposedly brings.

Travel broadens the mind, they say. This may be true for considerate travellers, but mass tourism does not. And one thing the guide did say effectively undermined the prevailing capitalist (i.e. American) philosophy: ‘There’s no point imposing one one country another country’s ideas—unless the second country is ready it will not work, but can only have a negative effect. Change is a slow process and must come from within.’ What is really required is broad education in all nations, through the principle of replacing an empty mind by an open one, and that way we might guarantee peace between nation states.

The journey from Birmingham to London by coach, despite giving us the opportunity to visit several shops, yielded no milk, but luckily a kind couple from York shared theirs with us.

As soon as we could we visited a supermarket the next day, having been unable to find anyone to deliver. The first bus driver wouldn’t stop for us, presumably because we were wearing masks. Once we got there we to found shelves bare of rice, pasta, cook-in sources, potatoes, washing powder and just about everything else that didn’t carry a premium price. There were three staff members guarding the toilet roll aisle, distributing one pack each to shoppers.

Then I realized that the rhyme I’d written three weeks previously, despite my original reservation that it only recorded the words of one person and might be construed as far-fetched, had come true. Here it is again in its second draft—there’s no point improving it further because events have overtaken it—and how:

Coronavirus: ThMan in Norwich Market, 28th February 2020

His voice was loud but strangely thin
And you had to look twice for its origin:
Between stalls, face pallid, head close-shaved
Or perhaps balding, thirty-odd years in age,
Small in stature, eyes of greyish stone,
Milking attention right down to the bone.

‘I’ve seen the movies, how them mobs treat you
In these pandemics: smash yer door in two,
Do terrible things to yer kids and wife—
And to protect me an’ mine I’d gladly do life.
We’re out in the sticks, a twenty mile run,

So for our protection I bought the shotgun—
Said it was for rats—’cause nowadays
Yer can’t trust no-one anyways
In this world where dog eats dog eats dog.

I’ve trained for this time, I won’t tell a lie,
 And I’ve seen on the news how them sods panic-buy,
Like gannets they flock, take all for their selves,
Like a locust plague, leavin’ bare shelves.

So when I’d got the window boards, nails,
The booby-traps, the mornin’ stars, flails,
I thought how much food and drink we’d need
For all them months when we’d be besieged
By rabid gangs of the hungry, diseased,
In this devil-take-the-last-man world.

So I bought 100 tins each of beans, toms and Spam,
Fifty boxes of Pringles and a big Spanish ham,
All the pasta and spaghetti they had for sale—
And fifteen six-packs of Lidl’s best ale,
Giant cans of fruit for the kids’ five a day—
Cost me an arm and a leg when I came to pay—
But as I filled up the van it occurred to me
That when the lecky was gone we’d still have to see,
So I got 100 candles so we could sit up at night
‘Cause that’s the one thing that’s needed, the light,
In this survival-of-the-fittest world.

Now of course I feel sorry for yer old Gran,
But it’s natural selection, all part of the plan
Of Darwin: Mother Nature always culls the least

Able, like lions take the trailing wildebeest;
And what doesn’t kill yer makes yer strong—
Puttin’ wellie in the old gene pool ain’t wrong,
Gives the next generation braggin’ rights,
Somethin’ to justify all of them fights

In this world which looks after Number One.

David Mandeville

The brevity and uncertainty of the Moroccan tour produced a single idea for a poem which I may or may not develop (I also came up with a malicious version of Simon Armitage’s ‘It ain’t what you do but what it does to you’—’To be read in a lugubrious voice’—which I’d be well advised to keep to myself):

Marrakesh 18th March 2020: The One that Got Away

It came in a flash at the start of the tour:
The plane had just landed in the dark town
When out of the haze as our vision came clear
A picture emerged in the blink of an eye
Of something I knew I’d have to record;
Something as soon as a pause would allow
Unencumbered access to notebook and pen,
Before it dissolved in the train of events—
Something incongruous, a sleight of the mind,
A glance, perhaps, of some custom or lore
So small in its greatness as to constitute
A significant touchstone or augury,
Or the elusive sound of a long-lost chord,

A ghost on the edge of perdition,
This thought still persists like a fading dream,
Or the name of a star on the tip of the tongue,
With an aftertaste tingling with strangeness
Which nothing that followed could quite surpass:

The Berber script alongside the French,
So alien, as from light years away;
The man with goats’ heads hung from his bike
Annoyed that our interest was piqued;
A stork feeding chicks on her huge Afro pile
Glimpsed through the ogive lighting a tomb;
The Dutch bar bikes in the workshop’s front
Adapted as travelling teashops;
Casablanca’s design as a spider’s web
And the mec at its heart we invited for tea,
Who said the wealth he needed all lay in his mind
Before shamelessly begging for change;
Bougainvillea cascading down ochre walls
In colours not yet graced with names,
In generosity no man could bestow;
The cafe that barred us in case we were sick
But let us drink on the plantpots outside;
The girls in front of the warning signs
Selling henna pour le COVID, garanti;
The Granary scheduled as the next Meknes stop,
Whose door was shut in our faces
While contemptuous policemen gestured us home;
The blue-tape cobweb in the Pharmacie
Hung with signs of Gardez vos distances.

And as we stare from the hotel window,
This comfortable gaol singing with birds
Each trapped like us in a fancy cage,
Considering if ever we’ll again see home,
I wonder if the image so easily lost,
Through its absence rather than meaning,
Were not an omen of something to come;
Or something already arrived.

David Mandeville

Finally, when I woke up this morning as a leper in seclusion another sketch for a poem came to me:

Old Age

Old Age is a sly volcano,
A pyroclastic flow
Which seals with its cold tephra
The contortions of one’s life
In all the mistakes and triumphs
Recorded in its lines;
And statuesque
Are the proportions of excess and lack
In permanence, for all to see
The life you’ve led
In naked judgement.

David Mandeville

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On Corona Virus, Website Hosting and Ratings Sites

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I now have stopped watching or listening to news broadcasts, but it is difficult to avoid hearing them ambiently, along with the techniques they use to disguise their sensationalism as being in the public interest.

One example yesterday from television news was, ‘What should people do about the holidays they’ve booked? Should they cancel or postpone?’ No alternative ‘go anyway’ was on offer.

I’ve long held that we get what we ask for in life, how much time this process takes depending on the strength of our belief, but also that fear is a negative form of asking with similar, but negative, results. This blanket coverage of the virus with its relentless aim of allowing us no escape from it is bound to exacerbate the situation, which unconsciously the news agencies want, as sensationalism is meat and drink to them. The hypochondriac finds it all too easy to replicate symptoms, and the way that mind works on the body psychosomatically means more genuine replication is probable.

It’s easy to suspect that these fear-mongers would, for two pins, set up a television channel purely for corona virus, perhaps called ‘The Panic Station’.

The effects of TV news in particular and trash TV in general was brought home to me when I was in Norwich market at the end of last month. I was listening to a man, about thirty, with very short hair and a pallid complexion, telling stallholders how he’d just bought a shotgun.

‘I’ve got five kids,’ he was saying. ‘We live out in the country and I’ve got to protect them. I’ve just bought 100 tins of tomatoes, 100 candles, ten big tins of peaches, ten big tins of pears… ‘ The list went on and on.

With half a mind to turn it into a proper poem, I wrote this crude sketch while taking Xenia for a walk in the park:

Corona Virus: The Man in Norwich Market, 28th March 2020

His voice was loud but strangely thin
And you had to look twice for its origin:
Between stalls, face pallid, head close-shaved
Or perhaps balding, thirty-odd years in age,
Small in stature, eyes of greyish stone,
Milking attention right down to the bone.

‘I’ve seen the movies, how them mobs treat you
In these pandemics: smash yer door in two,
Do terrible things to yer kids and wife–
And to protect me an’ mine I’d gladly do life.
We’re out in the sticks, a twenty mile run,
So for our protection I bought the shotgun–
Said it was for rats –’cause anyways
Yer can’t trust no-one nowadays
In this world where dog eats dog eats dog.

I’ve trained for this time, I won’t tell a lie,
 And I’ve seen on the news how them sods panic-buy,
Like gannets they flock, take all for their selves,
Like a locust plague, leavin’ bare shelves.

So when I’d got the window boards, nails,
The booby-traps, the mornin’ stars, flails,
I thought how much food and drink we’d need
For all them months when we’d be besieged
By rabid gangs of the hungry, diseased,
In this devil-take-the-last-man world.

So I bought 100 tins each of beans, toms and Spam,
Fifty boxes of Pringles and a big Spanish ham,
All the pasta and spaghetti they had for sale–
And fifteen six-packs of Lidl’s best ale,
Giant cans of fruit for the kids’ five a day– 
Cost me an arm and a leg when I came to pay–
But as I filled up the van it occurred to me
That when the lecky was gone we’d still have to see,
So I got 100 candles so we could sit up at night
‘Cause that’s the one thing that’s needed, the light,
In this survival-of-the-fittest world.

Now of course I feel sorry for yer old Gran,
But it’s natural selection, all part of the plan
Of Darwin: Mother Nature always culls the weakest,
Like lions take the lagging wildebeest,
And what doesn’t kill yer makes yer strong;
Puttin’ wellie in the old gene pool ain’t wrong,
Gives the next generation bragging rights,
Somethin’ to justify all of them fights
In this world which looks after number one.

I’ve had it with my website host, but am at a loss to know whom to trust. Most seem simply to be machines for taking your money, and every support call an opportunity to tell you your problems will be solved if you spend more.

Recent problems I’ve had include having to take out a separate contract for this blog ‘because it’s Linux, and WordPress only works on Linux’. But I shouldn’t worry since I could move the other sites on to my Linux contract. However, once I’d bought the Linux contract suddenly the other sites would only work on Windows, so I had to keep both contracts at some considerable cost.

Other problems I’ve had include paying for an SSL certficate that didn’t work, despite me correctly following all instructions at my end. When I complained it was implied (a common trick by web hosts, it seems) it was all my fault. Other complaints received the reply that  their only obligation on their part was to keep their server up and running.

When I threatened to post a negative review on a well-known ratings website there was no reaction — they didn’t care. And when I posted it I got a reply on the site from some manager who said he was investigating. The investigation has been happening for a long time, it seems, since I have heard nothing further.

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but negative reviews of the company seem always counterbalanced by a subsequent slew of similar positive ones, ensuring they keep their ‘Great’ rating. I note that other companies reviewed on the site not only reply to negative posts to express their ‘concern’, but also close down others with a legal threat.

There is a similar issue with travellers’ reviews. Years ago when we were in Ethiopia an American travel writer shocked me by saying that a very well known review site was completely untrustworthy, and since then there have been confessions by those paid to write phoney reviews for it.

There seems no safe haven for the truth on the Internet. ‘Phoney’ is said to come from ‘telephone’; a pity ‘netty’ doesn’t have the same ring.

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On the Modern Non-Apology and Twitter

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The key maxim that one should never spoil an apology with an excuse seems lost on corporate bodies in this capitalist world. Any legitimate complaint about faulty goods or inadequate services is usually met with self-justification, often in the form of a puff about how the company prides itself on this or that, how it always puts customer care first, how rarely it is brought to task for any failing. We are sorry that you are feeling let down [or that we have fallen short of expectations] in this instance—or somesuch—is routinely as close to an apology as you get, with the implication that this failing was a one-off and in any case appears to stem from some neurotic over-sensitivity in the client.

So it was when I complained to the company which sent my Valentine’s flowers on the wrong day. I was somehow being picky for having requested their presence on the 14thWe’re sure the recipient would have appreciated the quality of our blooms whatever the day was the gist of the reply, ignoring the fact that I’d paid extra to have them delivered when I’d asked, or that such a thing as Valentine’s Day even existed.

It is especially irritating that Private Eye magazine also resorts to this dishonest practice. When I saw that they’d sent me a personal reply to the letter I’d had published in issue 1516 I thought (in an old-fashioned way) that perhaps they were sending me, say, a fiver for helping fill their magazine, as publications used to do. The content, however, showed it to be self-justification in the guise of an apology. Here it is:

Thank you for your letter to Private Eye. I’m sorry that the cover of the current issue so upset you – it is never our intention to lose readers, but to provide an alternative, challenging and hopefully funny viewpoint. This time, for you we clearly failed. Since 95% of the press is currently pro-Brexit, and celebrated our leaving the EU with euphoric and unquestioning glee, we were trying to reflect views of nearly 50% of the voters, who may have lost the vote, but who still make the argument.

The ‘white face’ joke caused particular offence, and reflected the blatantly racist views of some of the Brexit supporters gathered in Parliament Square on the night in question. There is plenty of video evidence to suggest that the Brexit argument HAS been hijacked by some bigoted and far right elements.
Still, sorry if you were offended – but that is always a danger with a satirical publication.

Nick Newman
Acting Ed

I would have had more respect for this Nick Newman if he had simply told me to go to hell because the magazine will publish what it pleases, rather than trying to foist a phoney apology on me. I replied:

Dear Mr Newman

Thank you for your letter of 20th February regarding my complaint about the cover of issue 1515.

Unfortunately, it appears to be generic, and reads as if you were unfamiliar about the reasons for my comments, namely that the cover was not ‘hopefully funny’, but rather hopelessly unfunny, and that the magazine for which you work seems incapable of accepting that Brexit has already happened. I was not ‘offended’ as you claim; if anything, I was deeply saddened by the direction you have taken.

If you doubt that Private Eye is less funny than it used to be, compare the cover of the following issue, 1516, with the classic (or most) covers of yore: here was a ‘joke’ worn threadbare already before appearing on your ‘alternative, challenging’ front page.

You state that ‘95% of the press is currently pro-Brexit, and celebrated our leaving of the EU with euphoric and unquestioning glee.’ I don’t know where you got your statistic, but a moment’s thought will show this up as nonsense. 95% have accepted, whether pro- or anti-, that Brexit is a reality because it is, and I don’t recall ‘the euphoric and unquestioning glee’ of The New European, The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, The Daily Mirror etc.

Brexit will not be reversed any time soon and Private Eye needs to get off this tack. In a modern age which values cant over common sense there are far more important targets for your satirical publication.

Yours sincerely etc.

I suppose that’s the end of the matter, and I’m glad I said my piece in a letter, since (unlike Twitter, say) letter-writing allows the possibility of considered thought which can change minds. And despite the criticisms I’ve made of Private Eye it is the form of communication they still prefer.

Talking of Twitter, I was reminded of the comment of one standup comedian (whose name I’m sorry I don’t remember) when the platform came into public consciousness, that tweets were brain leaks. There must have been an algorithm which determined the optimum number of characters for bringing out the most combative, ill-informed and inhuman of our natures in order to make money from it. Twitter has in my opinion legitimized poison pen letter writing for the twenty-first century.

Yes, I am aware that some poetic benefit has resulted from Twitter, and I did choose Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody for the book club I belong to, but I suggest that is an outsider exploiting the form rather than the product of a rank and file user.

Anyway, what triggered these thoughts was a poem in this week’s The Spectator. I don’t believe I’m allowed to quote it in full for review purposes, but I’ll compensate the magazine and writer by advertisements (this site’s first) below the verse:

The Twittering World

It’s like posting letters to the press–
the local press, or spilling matches
from the shaken matchbox of your brain
convinced you’ve composed the I-Ching
I wuz ere in some drunken cubicle
in Vladivostock or Le Paz. Let’s be clear,
your words are going nowhere, pal,
but thin air, the ether. They skedaddle,
die, they disappear, and not one tweet
will save your neck. No one gives a toss.
So save your breath, your thumbs, your 
which, the way that you’ve been using it,
must ache. For all our sakes, grow silent
as the grass, be quiet a bit, and shut it, please.

[Advertisement] Buy The Spectator, the thinking person’s Daily Mail (especially if you take your political opinions from just The New Statesman).
[Advertisement] Buy poems by Richard Lambert, the Thinking Person’s Poet.

It was Groucho Marx who said, My favourite poem is the one that starts ‘Thirty days hath September’ because it actually tells you something.

Good advice, I think, for all who aspire to be poets.

General Posts

On Cormac McCarthy and ‘The Sunset Limited’

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The Boulevard Theatre in Soho, the brainchild of Paul ‘Revuebar’ Raymond’s grandson, occupies part of the strip joint’s—sorry, classic folies showcase’s—earlier footprint, and utilizes the very arch under which it was said every punter in the world must pass. The new glass walkway has, astonishingly, an inlay of lace to commemorate the site of a former brothel. The sleazy ‘adult’ shops are still there on every side, but the former Comic Strip venue has been transformed into a classy bijou playhouse with a state-of-the-art flexible revolving auditorium and elevator stage, an attractive restaurant and genuinely friendly and helpful staff.

It was where we saw last night a production of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited. The title doesn’t refer to a company: it is the name of the New York train beneath which ‘the Professor’, an otherwise unnamed white man in late middle age, tries to throw himself, only to be rescued by an unnamed black man in whose home—hovel—he now finds himself. The minimalist set focuses with almost unbearable intensity what the two men discuss for over ninety minutes with hardly a pause—their lives, and the meaning one has drawn from his, the emptiness that has been found inside everything for the other. From time to time the outside world intrudes as neighbours pipe up and trains shake the flimsy fabric of the tenement, while real coffee is prepared and a real meal eaten.

The two actors, Gary Beadle as the black man, Jasper Britton as the white, didn’t miss a beat: in the close confines of the Boulevard every tic and twitch, pause and glance, nuanced tone of pained experience, counted towards the meaning. The to-ing and fro-ing of argument, of light humour and tragic darkness, the tensions of flight or fight, made this little stage an everywhere.

At its heart lay one of McCarthy’s chief themes, belief, forged on the anvil of the interaction of the reformed criminal and disillusioned intellectual. Almost nothing from what you might expect to be covered in the meeting between this unlikely angel and equally unlikely devil was missed—McCarthy seems to guess the audience’s mind in advance—though I did feel towards the end that the professor was one revelation short.

Two-handers are difficult plays as any weakness is writ large, any mistake of pace risks the dead hand of prolixity–I felt the Louis Malle film version of My Dinner with Andre had a tinge of this–but none was apparent here. We were reminded of Hansard, which similarly held the viewer in its tale of a politician’s faltering marriage as they await guests who never show. Although race is not the central issue in The Sunset Limited—it’s too deep for that—its intensity reminded me of LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman, which I saw as a teenager, and I began to suspect a similar ending.

However, this is late, mature and considered McCarthy. I wasn’t expecting much after his screenplay for The Counsellor, which manages to distance the audience from any sympathy with its protagonist (a bent lawyer who foolishly invests in a major drug deal) or indeed its one deserving character, his girlfriend, who isn’t given enough screen time. I thought: Maybe McCarthy should stick to novels. The Border Trilogy and its coda, No Country for Old Men, are examples of superb Twentieth Century literature. I believed Cities of the Plain their weak link, but perhaps its sudden narrowing of vision was deliberate: the disappearance of the Old West forces its young adventurers south of the border to live the pioneering dream, but that world begins to close in and become dangerous as the Mexican drugs cartels return the visit.

I haven’t seen the film version of All the Pretty Horses as yet, but the Coen Brothers’ version of No Country for Old Men is good, more than could be said for that of The Road, a workmanlike enterprise that seems in search not so much for the sea but for a PG-13 certificate, since it removes the moments of true horror from the book. Child of God, one of McCarthy’s less ambitious stories, has a literalist film version. The as yet unfilmed Blood Meridian, according to some, is the Great American Novel, though it’s another work without a character you can relate to—and it’s very, very unpleasant. Suttree I never finished, and need to get back to.

While I’ve been writing this Adam has told me that there was a film of The Sunset Limited made in 2011, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson and with a IMDB score of 7.4. That I must see.

By the way, I knew almost as soon as I’d said that it wouldn’t, that Private Eye would publish my letter (‘On Private Eye‘). It looks like they had a slew of unfavourable responses after the weak cover of issue 1515 and they desperately tried to balance the negative comment with some lacklustre praise. The rest of the family weren’t impressed, though Adam did point out that the cover of 1516 was worse, making a wretchedly obvious joke about the conformity of Johnson’s cabinet that The Spectator and just about everyone else had already made.

Posts Containing Poetry

On Rejection, Brexit and Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’

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I have received my first rejection slip on my new quest to become a published travel poet, one that will send me on a journey to the heights of fame or the doldrums of obscurity. Here it is:

Dear David,

Thank you for your submission to Long Poem Magazine. We read your poems with interest, but will not be accepting your work on this occasion.

Kind regards,

Linda Black & Claire Crowther


Authors will be familiar with the formula here and it is one which would have caused me much pause for thought—and a good deal of distress—in my inexperienced youth. I am (as I noted before in this journal) particularly sensitive to this kind of unexplained criticism and was wondering if I would still take it as the equivalent of being locked out of the household in the cold and dark. Now, however, safe in the knowledge that life has taught me that persistence pays off irrespective of talent, and will eventually and inevitably open the green door, I take comfort from the reply.

I had supposed that since it was back in November that I had submitted the pieces they’d simply binned them and I wasn’t going to hear anything further, but no: rather, this bland rejection is encouraging for more than one reason. Note the double space before your poems—they paused, perhaps, to think of their reaction to my work and added with interest. As it happens, my base fear in interactions with humanity has always been that I wouldn’t be interesting—I could be bad, but at least I’d be interesting—and I’m consequently pleased with the judgement, irrespective of how sincerely it was meant. And, of course, there is the on this occasion. There will be indeed other occasions. The next window is June, by which time I intend to have revised two of the Georgian poems to the point where Linda and Claire could only reject them after having read them with the greatest of interest.

Finally, regarding ‘The Tiger’ and ‘Adjari Dance’, as I’ve said before (though perhaps in an entry in this journal I haven’t yet uploaded—there are a lot of those) the drafts I sent Long Poem Magazine weren’t entirely satisfactory, and so I shouldn’t complain. I was more concerned with them knowing I existed, since I have nowhere else to go: I write long poems and they are (to the best of my knowledge) the only place to publish my work in progress.

On a side note, I have received my first comment on this journal:

Great content! Super high-quality! Keep it up!
I wasn’t aware that anyone was reading this journal at such an early stage. The website behind the comment has as (most of) its front page:

We promote thousands of high-converting products and services across millions of websites. If you don’t want us to advertise on your website, that’s okay! Our system can automatically remove your website from our database within 24-48 hours.

But I’ll still take it as a compliment.

On Brexit

Back to the idea of getting poetry published, I feel that what this country needs now is  a volume entitled Poems for Brexit. I appreciate, of course, that most poets nowadays are the opposite of Brexiteers, but that is all the more reason for such a piece of disruption.

Every so often I get a flash of a new pro-British style, firm and progressive in its rhythms and visionary in its themes. But who would read it? I am the only Brexiteer I know personally, apart from my cousin and her husband who are from the North, and they don’t read poetry. What has happened to over half the population who might be persuaded to?

Anyway, I don’t yet have a fix on how it should sound, but the main theme should be that Britons no longer have to endure unelected bureaucrats lording over them, a sentiment that, say, every Romantic poet would have celebrated. If anything beyond the doodle that follows (my poetry hierarchy goes from bottom to top doodle, sketch, draft 1-999, final draft in ascending order of seriousness) should occur to me, you shall be the first to know. Albion, awake!

A Doodle for a Brexit Poem

The great oak-hearted ship takes sail at last,
Breaks free the red-rust chains of Brussels’ rule;
Britannia keeps prow, helm sunlight-bronzed,
Looks with fierce beauty to horizons bold,
While on Calais’ shore in impotent rage
The gravy-train gathers, shaking weak fists
While Honest Liberty finds port elsewhere.

Jean-Claude Juncker shall nevermore drone,
Reddened by wine from Marriott’s stock,
Words of no substance over patient crowds
Hungry for comfort in Freedom Square,
Catatonic now in the useless hot air,
While soldiers faint for lack of sustenance
To body and soul beneath a hammering sun.

That last bit really happened, as you can see from the picture above and the one below:

The Mandevilles, staying nearby in a garret room on a building site, watched as the heads of Europe filed past us back into the Marriott Courtyard.

For a fleeting moment I saw everything from an assassin’s point of view.

Good job I am not one.

I’ve attended two seminars on Brexit lately, sure in both that I was the only Brexiteer in the audience.

The first was at Hoxton 253 art space, hosted by the artist Jeyda Heselton, who had created a series of large portraits of noted politicians who had been involved in the crisis from ‘adult’ magazine collages. Sadly, from my point of view the only one with a red background was Mr Corbyn’s. There had been a point in the parliamentary stagnation when I would have changed my mind to Remain in a People’s Vote, but the opposition was so wretchedly self-obsessed and divided that this never happened. For that reason the rest of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens should all have been similarly lampooned.

The panel at 253 included Simon Booker (the novelist and screenwriter) and a couple of others whose names I’m sorry I didn’t write down. The discussion, sadly, was one-sided, and apart from a remark about pornography I kept a low profile. The food and drink also had pornographic names, but I never thought to ask why. What was the point except to attract attention? This was certainly the impression I got from the article about the event in The European. The other attendees—there were a lot of them, and I was glad the Mandevilles bagsed the only sofa—resembled the subjects of photos and cartoons in The New Yorker.

Much starker and lacking the human warmth of 253 was the ‘Brexit and the Future of British Politics’ event in the Old Building at the LSE. Chaired by a Swede, featuring a slideshow of graphs by the Very European Sara Hobolt, and featuring another LSE luminary Tony Travers, it relied on the authority of the famed political biographer Sir Antony Seldon, who didn’t look too well, to balance things up. Alas, besides telling us that the UK was probably finished and Scotland would most likely become independent and Ireland united—a bandwagon the others were happy to jump onto—he otherwise fell in with the rest with the unhelpful observation that no-one knew what was going to happen.

Larissa said they were all (excepting Sir Antony) mumbling, which is how people with nothing to say speak. Some sensible comment from the audience was either ignored (such as on the future relationship with the European Court of Justice) or not satisfactorily answered, while a late contribution from a Leodesian seemed to indicate that the wrong people were on the podium. N. M. Perera said, ‘All the great economic ills the world has known this century can be directly traced back to the London School of Economics.’ Let’s not make it a second century.

Thus neither occasion provided what is really necessary for a debate on Brexit: a balanced panel of the open-minded. And I’ll add that there is still the issue that a lot of the metropolitan liberal elite who voted Remain still preen themselves on the illusion that those who disagreed with them were simply uneducated, boorish, beerswilling, obese, tattooed, trash-TV-watching, bigoted, racist, knuckle-scraping Neanderthals, an attitude which undermined their argument by insulting the intelligence of Brexiteers and ensuring there could never be a sensible conversation.

We tended not to fit this caricature: besides those with genuine grievances about the globalization (meaning the viral spread of American capitalism) in the world there were those of us who specifically objected to TTIP, where the neocon heart of the EU was about to allow American companies to overturn the rule of law in sovereign nations, while there were others who had taken the argument back to the philosophes and the origins of the modern world, preferring Rousseau’s more human judgement about global trade over Voltaire’s cynical one. As for immigration, Angela Merkel’s decision to allow it unfettered into the EU was less than well received by those who could predict the consequences.

This is not, of course, to say that Brexiteers were mostly academics, but many of us instinctively felt that Britain, for the sake of ill-distributed wealth, had prostituted itself in the world as a global money-launderer and arms dealer, and while other countries had preserved principles, patriotism and iconic industries our nation had sold these out down the line. We had instead been demoted to the European periphery, a Trojan Horse for American culture, or as far as the Labour Party were concerned, were the detritus of an evil empire whose only salvation could in international socialism.

Sadly, I speak for only one Mandeville out of four.

On Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds

Image result for jeff wayne's war of the world
For Adam’s birthday we decided that I would take him to 56 Leadenhall Street where, behind two flaming lamps and a sandwich board resides something as old as Nineteenth Century culture, even as old as 1978 rock music, but equally as modern as virtual reality: ‘TWotW: the Immersive Experience’. I objected at first, supposing it to be tacky, but Larissa insisted that it would appeal to both of us (though not her) and finally I bought the tickets.

We were told to come early to guarantee entry and did so. Then we waited in a themed pub—I think it’s called The Steampunk Bar—for steam coming down a tube in the colour of our wristbands (green). We continued to wait until Adam decided we should have a drink. We waited further—altogether 50 minutes—before, finally, being led through a door into a corridor by an actor. The corridor was a little like those pokey ones you get in re-creations of old streets in museums—like the Docklands one—but with strange smells. In fact, I lost track of how many actors spoke to us in regional accents and how many corridors, streets and houses we found ourselves in.

The idea was that we were in a version of the H. G. Wells novel, shadowing the journalist who tells the story, and his wife. I don’t remember the journalist being named in the book, nor having a wife, but my memory might be deceiving me. I pushed Adam forward so that he became the leader of our group of eleven when one was required.

After an immersive stage show of variably distanced film featuring special effects and tricked out seats the standout memories were of a man on fire, a large room plunged into darkness where something went over my head and a women was grabbed and (apparently) hauled up a chimney, a battle on a bridge re-created by the virtual reality headsets we wore from time to time, with the rest of the group looking very, very weird, a tremendous battle at sea during which we were in a near-capsizing little boat, going blind down a slide, being on the end of an alien probe in a Martian ship and an amazing balloon flight—again in VR—over the earth and to Mars. It was very much like being in a video game which had been expanded to encompass the world.

I felt a little queasy—at one point you have to concentrate on an M. C. Escher inspired dream above you which nearly did for me—so it’s not for those with motion sickness. And among our group we had a VR expert who told me how it fell short of state-of-the-art. But we were completely sold on it—it was genuinely interesting and engaging and I felt we’d got our money’s worth. I had forgotten how familiar Wayne’s music had become—almost threadbare in its familiarity—but its accretions on the way to becoming an immersive experience made us forget how ‘typically 1970s’ it was, as Adam remarked.

In fact, the only beef we had was a pushy commercialism which took the edge off it. Besides the initial wait in a bar there’s an interval in another bar—the Red Weed—where the eponymous cocktail, a mixture of Prosecco, cherry brandy and something else, costs £10. At the end you’re greenscreened for pictures, but these cost £15 each or three for £25—a real shame, because for once I came out well.

In the final analysis, this is a show worth going to if you’ve a strongish stomach, a respect for science fiction and a sense of adventure. The teenage boys in our group loved it. But just be aware of the in-app purchases.

General Posts

On History and Private Eye Magazine

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They say you should never take an important decision when you’re tired, ill or drunk, and I guess this applies to the decision to make a soul-baring entry in an electronic journal. Since Thursday I’ve been down with flu despite having had a flu jab, and it’s even been suggested (impossibly) that it’s the corona virus, presumably based on the willingness of my doctors to diagnose exotic illnesses such as elephantiasis, ebola and legionella (though the last turned out to be true). The time-honoured advice for medical professionals is think herd of horses before you think herd of zebras.

On History

I used to tell students who had succumbed to the seductions of higher education in History, ‘Well, at least you’re still involved with fiction’.

To be an historian is to be obliged to string together a coherent narrative from surviving artefacts and accounts of varying reliability. The amount of subjectivity necessary for this procedure explains the frequent wild variations of opinion among historians, and the constant pull of revisionism.

The ‘facts’ that history produces, it seems to me at least, cannot stand as truth, in the sense that what happens in the course of the life of even a single individual is a complex tapestry of thought, word and deed with consequences that become precursors of other outcomes. The intricacy and subtly shifting hues of these intertwining threads do indeed weave pictures, but to interpret them accurately one would have to be a talented metaphysician, perhaps, rather than a factual historian. Books that show the relationship between these patterns of existence are rightly held up in awe by humanity: works of scripture such as the Bible; works of literature, such as those of Shakespeare. Or works of art: what is the greater record of the Guernica atrocity, Picasso’s painting or any number of historical narratives about it?

What determines the progress of societies or nations is not factual or logical or worldly but resides in such karmic complexity, which is often paradoxical or seemingly contradictory, yet always moral. Wiser cultures have sought to record this not as history but as myths that easily supersede in their power mortal lives and temporal dates.

It can be argued that there is only one reality, which is the present: the past is last night’s dream, the future tomorrow’s fantasy. All histories are constructed—must be constructed—from the present, as must all futures dystopian or utopian.

And I’ll go further: all news items, true stories and factual accounts are similarly false because they involve subjective selection in the present moment. The news, for example, is not raw feed at any point because of editorial prioritization (at news agency level) and an editorial rejection (at a more local level) of wars, natural disasters and atrocities that might impinge on the popularity of the programme or newspaper. Thus viewers and readers, assuming they are being told the truth, don’t realize the extent to which they are being manipulated.

On Private Eye Magazine

This brings me to the matter of this magazine, born from a combination of satire to pull down the proud and a desire to ensure that news is accurate and not compromised by privilege, vested interest or editorial bias and selection.

Perhaps hypocritically, considering what I say about history above, here is a potted history of satirical magazines through my subjective eyes (and from my selective memory). All such seem to have a limited shelf life: they rise, flourish and fall, seldom rising again. Even the mighty Punch started to falter in the 1940s after 100 years, failed in 1992 after being itself parodied by, among others, Spitting Image, was revived by Mr Al-Fayed in 1996 (as a competitor to Private Eye) but failed again in 2002. Mad, having survived the EC Comics purge, became itself satirized itself by National Lampoon in the early 1970s, continued until Al Feldstein’s departure in 1984 with decreasing sales, before losing its way entirely, being bought by DC and staggering along in its present incarnation printing endless Trump skits. National Lampoon itself lost its mojo in 1975 when its best minds left for Saturday Night Live.

When I was at school Private Eye was recommended by my English teacher as being hilarious. I bought a copy but couldn’t make head or tail of the political references. Later in life I started to understand and occasionally was drawn to it, before becoming a subscriber after its 9/11 coverage. In this, as with the death of Diana, it showed itself the sole voice of sanity in a world of mass hysteria.

It has itself been subject to satire—for example, in William Donaldson’s The Complete Naff Guide—and has fallen short in areas where Viz has been sharper, such as in skewering celebrities like Carol Vorderman or political correctness in, for example, ‘The Modern Parents’. In fact the pattern has been one of silently compromising long-held ‘principles’ (its stand against ‘homosexualists’ and ‘wimmin’ being worrying examples) by jumping each time on the rear end of each PC bandwagon as it came along. But, overall, it has kept up a courageously even-handed, fair-minded and balanced view.

That is, until Brexit, which has precipitated a marked bias which the magazine has been made aware of many times but still denies. This attitude should have waned, if not after the referendum certainly after us leaving the EU. But no—see the picture above left of the wretchedly unwitty cover of the last issue, 1515.

I already said in this journal that it would be good for my soul if I stopped reading satire since I believe it promotes negativity in my character. Here was my chance. The cover was the last straw and the letter was sent:

Dear Sir

What a puerile and unfunny cover to Private Eye No 1515. It made me ashamed to be a subscriber.

Back in the days of the death of Diana and 9/11 you were the lone voice of reason, but now Brexit seems to have proved your undoing.

When are you going to accept the reality of the British people’s decision, draw a line and start supporting the best interests of this country, instead of indulging your present attitudes of negativity and denial?

I am surely not the only subscriber who expects a balanced, incisive and mature-minded satirical magazine, not the Fortnightly Dog in a Manger.

I never thought I would say this, but please cancel my subscription.

Yours faithfully, etc.

I don’t expect the letter to be published—they never publish my letters. The last one I wrote complained about the ‘In Search of Dissent’ exhibition at the British Museum, curated by Ian Hislop. It was expensive and underwhelming, with very few contemporary exhibits—the only ones I could remember were a Banksy hoax and a £20 note overprinted with a John Bull Printing Press message, which I suggested Mr Hislop had done himself. The exhibition was held at a time when there was nationwide dissent in many forms, such as fake prostitutes’ calling cards advertising Theresa May and Boris Johnson, but these were conspicuous by their absence.

The editor wrote back to me personally, refuting everything I said. But at least, I told myself, I rattled his cage.

Sadly, with the present letter, at the very last moment I deleted the ‘Please cancel my subscription’ part.


General Posts Posts Containing Poetry

On the Netflix Witcher, Dives and Lazarus, and Robert Hunter

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I suppose an electronic journal is no more or less than a public diary, though unlike private ones it needs to serve the common interest. This is why I give warning about what each entry contains—readers can skip what doesn’t interest them.

The hiatus in these entries is from a number of causes, ranging from a mouse infestation to creating a scheme of work for the Poetry Society, to keeping the peace by doing less on the computer by going out more. The neglect of the Georgian book, Firebird website and this blog has had the benefit that my bad leg, exacerbated by working at a standing desk, no longer feels like it should be amputated and is only marginally annoying.

On Netflix’s The Witcher and an abandoned suite of gaming poems

Its condition was helped by resting it while watching the Netflix Witcher series. I read and enjoyed the books years ago, briefly played the slightly less enjoyable computer game to Chapter 2 of Witcher 1, and was looking forward to this version. Alas, the title character’s appearance has been prettified, losing its trademark scar, and the stories spun out in the modern way with the female roles of Triss and Yenefer dominating the show, resulting in periods of longueur and longing for Geralt to reappear. Triss is strangely muted, while Yennefer, beginning well in her adventures before her magical cosmetic surgery, becomes increasingly annoying in the later episodes.

The accents are an improvement the CD-Projekt game, mostly either RP or British Isles regional, and the acting is spottily good; but the writing is uneven and occasionally crass, like the worst fantasy novels. For example, just before Geralt finds Ciri there is a dialogue in which ‘okay’ is used in every line and while archaisms such as ‘sennights’ for ‘week’ are thrown in the mix from time to time like ingredients in the Macbeth witches’ broth, synonyms are replaced by repetition, such as children, animals or mythical creatures always being ‘raised’, never ‘brought up’ or ‘reared’, as if the intended audience are assumed to be less than literate gameplayers rather than readers.

The music is generally cod Irish, with some players sporting a vague brogue to echo this, but the proper names are such a hotchpotch of cultures as to be hard to swallow: ‘Oxenfurt’?

Moreover the structure of the story is beyond baffling. Without titles it is difficult for anybody who isn’t already familiar with the tales to separate flashbacks from the present day. Also, some episodes work better than others: the dragon hunt is pretty well done, but the famous one with the striga is better served by a cut scene in the video game.

Alas, Sapkowski, unlike J. K. Rowling, does not seem to have taken proper care of his creation but instead failed to take up arms against the slings and arrows of big money, and there have been far too many compromises in what is presumably another attempt at a Game of Thrones. There is, of course, the argument that the Witcher himself is a mercenary, and it’s not surprising if his creator is, but in the included interview the talented creator presents himself—sadly—as a star-struck old fool who’s ‘never been on a movie set before’, happy to preen himself while his characters and plots are done this disservice. On such evidence, which I hope is not typical, he would have made a convincing Immanuel Rath in The Blue Angel.

Watching The Witcher reminded me that I once planned a series of poems about video games. Here’s the rough sketch for

Half Life 2:

The magazines raved about the first,
Though I have to say it left me cold,
Preferring above all to play

Yet something about the sequel called to me
And patiently I slowly sank into it
Till suddenly I was hooked and gasping.
This wasn’t the same lab in New Mexico
From which some mutants had escaped
(Though it half-heartedly pretended to be):
Instead there were all these bombed-out flats,
Their entrances filth-strewn, sickening,
Their bloody front rooms turned with dentist chairs
Into makeshift chambers of torture,
Their horror heightened by the commonplace;
A traumatized people who stared right past,
Informed in Cyrillic on every building
By ubiquitous posters of state control.

The magazines said it was innovative,
Original, creative, gaming anew,
A fresh open world to explore,
But I knew it was just a medley, so slick,
Of chase and platform and FPS
Concealing behind its invisible walls
The true costs of the Yugoslavian war.

On Dives and Lazarus

Why, out of all characters available in all media, do I like the one of the Witcher? Perhaps because I identify with a soul that has swapped emotion for knowledge. Do I love with a full heart? No. Do I love with a heart sufficient for me to write successful poetry? Time will tell, but I don’t currently feel it.

Am I ignoring the Lazarus at my gate? Quite possibly—I don’t see him. I heard recently a Thought for Today on Radio 4. Usually I find the slot either annoying or laughable in its fatuous parade of platitudes and pretended altruism. But I was rightly humbled to hear an interpretation of the Biblical parable—hardly a parable—which sought to justify the terrible treatment of the rich man, Dives, who enjoyed a sumptuous life without noticing a brother human being covered in sores.

The commentator astutely pointed out that Dives’ problem is that he can’t think beyond his own household: he expects Lazarus to come from Paradise to serve him some water in Hades, just like a servant; his request that he is allowed to warn his brothers is too focused within his limited domestic realm and is met with deserved rejection.

I suppose the mercy in my own case is that I was never given much wealth or responsibility. The magnates who have—the media moguls and tech giants who exert control on the lives of billions, the princes of this world, the modern Dives—have more to fear. Occasionally, though, one sees the light and turns their attention away from self to humanity. A good example of this is the once despised Bill Gates, now seemingly redeemed through charity.

On Robert Hunter

I have it in my mind (and I hope that it is true) that Mr Gates, along with Bill Clinton and the founders of Google, was a Dead Head. We are blessed with so few geniuses to guide us in life that the recent death of The Grateful Dead’s lyricist at the age of 78 affected me deeply. I felt the same way when that other rare genius, Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian film director, disappeared (in body at least) from the world. He too was concerned with the deep undercurrents of existence, with expressing the truth—the essential underlying truth—of the human condition, and publishing an obituary on Tarkovsky is one of the few actions I have taken in life that I feel to be a badge of honour.

Watching the documentaries of the band on Netflix or Amazon—The Other One or Long Strange Trip—one might be forgiven for thinking that John Barlow occupied the key role of the band’s lyricist, and indeed the numerous obituaries of Barlow seemed to suggest this. Long, Strange Trip in particular features Barlow time and again in interviews while portraying Hunter as a cantankerous crank.

And when Hunter died there was little Press coverage. I only saw one, admittedly good, from The Guardian although, now I’ve Googled it there were others from the BBC, Rolling Stone and Billboard. But who copied from whom and who copied from Wikipedia? They’re pretty rote, with the possible exception of the Billboard one and incidents from Hunter’s life which struck me as worth mentioning—for example, his career as a Faber poet, the hostility of Dead Heads to ‘Don’t give up your day job’ and his spat with the band after he was excluded from the cover of Workingman’s Dead—don’t feature. As with Jerry Garcia’s death, so badly covered in Mojo and elsewhere, perhaps a brilliant biography exists in an obscure corner of the Press? Garcia’s was in Record Collector.

But Hunter goes back to the very origins of the Dead in 1961, when he struck up a friendship with Garcia and played mandolin with him, before going to university and getting involved in the experiments with psychedelic drugs which inspired his writing, continuing to co-write numbers with Garcia up to the end and the ‘lost’ last album. His solo career, while producing albums of very mixed quality, created the masterpiece Jack o’Roses, which reveals ‘Terrapin Station”s origins in the traditional ‘Lady of Carlisle’ and that ballad’s own origins in ‘The Book of Daniel’. Bob Dylan’s purloining of his song ‘Silvio’—a quintessential Hunter song—led to the two collaborating on Together through life.

To paraphrase Mickey Hart, if you come across the inexplicable in life, Hunter’s lyrics often spring to mind to explain it. Hunter himself saw that the communication between the lyricist and the listener is a two-way process, and the writer has to expect that the audience will respond in ways perhaps never intended. As Garcia’s music was aimed at those who wish to expand their consciousness, so Hunter’s lyrics were the philosophy for those who wished to do this, but were pitched universally and metaphysically—often aphoristically—as watchwords that excluded no-one from their meaning, and could be used to apply to a wide range of experience. At random, here are the opening words from ‘Help on the Way’:

Paradise waits
On the crest of a wave,
Her angels in flame;
She has no pain;
Like a child she is new,
She is not to blame.
Poised for flight,
Wings spread bright,
Spring from night
Into the sun.
Don’t stop to run—
She can fly like a lie,
She can’t be outdone.
Tell me the cost—
I can pay, let me go,
Tell me love is not lost.
Sell everything—
Without love day to day
Insanity’s king.
I will pay
Day by day
Any way,
Lock, bolt and key.
Crippled but free,
I was blind all the time,
I was learning to see.

Many of his compositions do indeed bristle with universally applicable aphorisms, as here in the opening of ‘Uncle John’s Band’:

Well the first days are the hardest days—
Don’t you worry any more—
‘Cause when life looks like Easy Street
There is danger at your door.

These words have come to mind many times when the danger has been at my door. I seem to remember a book called The Wisdom of Jerry Garcia, which was remarkably thin because his wisdom was in the music; a similar volume published on Hunter would be quite a doorstep.

But equally Hunter’s writing was that of the visionary, as in the vision of America by the doomed outlaw in ‘Jack Straw’:

Leaving Texas, fourth day of July,
The sun so hot, the clouds so low,
The eagles fill the sky.
Catch the Detroit Lightning out of Santa Fe;
The Great Northern out of Cheyenne
From sea to shining sea.

Or the vision of humanity by the unrequited lover at the end of ‘Scarlet Begonias’:

Stranger stopping stranger just to shake their hand,
Everybody’s playing in the Heart-of-Gold Band,
Heart-of-Gold Band.

His poetry, though, is different and is very much like that of the beatniks in the 1950s, and very good at that. But it’s closer to the surreal than the spiritual and rather shamefully I have to say at the moment I’ve yet to crack it. It seems to change when read out loud, and that’s perhaps the intention—it’s worth listening to Phil Lesh reading ‘Terence’ on YouTube to get some flavour of it.

Once aspect of Hunter that Long Strange Trip (in itself a quote from Hunter) correctly touches on is his prickly nature when asked about his lyrics. That was a mistake you didn’t make twice—as I found out to my cost when I asked him about ‘Box of Rain’. He told me that my questions reminded him of the Army doctors who had experimented on him! But my brief communications with him ended with his regret that he fell out with the producer of Jack o’Roses and wanted it to be rereleased. I had it in mind to contact the producer and sort it out, but sadly was distracted by other matters. Perhaps Hunter’s best album wouldn’t have sunk into obscurity thereafter if I had showed more resolve.

The last thing I’d like to say about Hunter is that I don’t believe he is dead, but simply lives on in a different dimension. And those who don’t accept this belief must allow that the essence of the man still dwells among us, as his words are enshrined in songs that still play, in books that are still in print. I was astonished to find a medley by many American musicians of ‘Terrapin Station’ on YouTube. It is, though, based on the Grateful Dead’s version: the Dead only recorded a page and a half out of Hunter’s seven, and my favourite passage‘Ivory Wheels/ Rosewood Track’is missing.

Thus, finally, we have lost another rare genius from the world, a true bard of the universal and eternal. As McDonald Clarke said of George Washington,

Eternity give him elbow-room:
A spirit like his is large

Or, as Hunter says himself in ‘Silvio’:

Silvio, silver and gold
Won’t buy back the beat of a heart grown cold.
Silvio, I gotta go
To find out something only dead men know.