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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.

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