A Doze By Any Other Name

My father, in his declining years, had a propensity for dozing off with his mouth wide open in the presence of visitors. He also had a thing about his pyjamas. Around lunchtime he would start to ask my mother: Can I get into my pyjamas yet? Almost as soon as you arrived he would start looking at his watch, covertly – except it wasn’t very covert because he had eye problems and had to peer quite closely and at a certain angle – apparently counting the seconds until you left, so that he could revert to Pyjamas.

At the time I found these features of my father embarrassing and mildly irritating. Now, as I move closer and closer to old age/older age I begin to understand that it had to do with the way time increasingly telescopes, in ageing perception. Hours feel like quarter-hours. Minutes pass like seconds. Presumably, on that final day, one senses that time has halted, that one has entered some perpetual state of Now…

I always promised myself I wouldn’t start dozing off. Particularly I wouldn’t start dozing off and drooling – a disgusting habit. Still vivid in my mind is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson, in the mistaken belief that the world is going to end the following morning, decides he has neglected religion and vows to spend his last night on Earth reading The Bible from cover to cover. So he starts, at Genesis, and a few seconds later is fast asleep. Morning finds him in his armchair, Bible still open at page 1 of Genesis, drooling copiously – and the world has for some reason not ended.

I do doze off, only I tend to call it Listening To Music. I think, well, I have been busy for all of an hour now and accomplished quite a lot, for me, so I will just plug in the ear-thingies and listen to Spotify for a while, thus broadening my musical horizons and revisiting old favourites. Several hours later…

This evening when I emerged from my musical not-a-doze I discovered the three-legged cat (the same cat that bit me most viciously before Christmas and caused me to spend the entire festive season driving back and forth to hospital to have antibiotics injected into a cannula in the crook of my arm) cradled in that same crook, gazing up at me adoringly. It occurs to me that cats may be the only animals – aside from human beings – that would waste time and energy in gazing adoringly at that beloved, but totally unconscious, Somebody Special.

This was not particularly unpleasant. What was unpleasant was discovering that my eardrums were now being assaulted by an appalling, appalling cringe-makingly mawkish Irish ballad entitled Scorn Not His Simplicity, performed by someone with a big-ish red beard by the name Luke Kelly. Upon not-falling-asleep I had been listening to Irish ballads – I seem to have quite a Celtic thing going on recently. I had started off with my current favourite Loreena McKennitt and moved on to Bert Jansch singing The Curragh of Kildare

I feel bad that I cannot abide Scorn Not His Simplicity since on googling it I discovered that it was written by songwriter Phil Coulter about his struggle to come to terms with the birth of his Downs Syndrome son. I do feel bad, for him, but it is still a very bad song. And yet Sinead O’Connor also recorded it: the great Sinead O’Connor – so can it really be that bad? Apparently it’s an Irish classic. But it’s still bad.

I think why it’s bad is that 1970s ramming the message home with a sledgehammer thing. There was a phase, in the late 60s, early 70s, when everything had to have a message and the message was so Crucial, Man! that nothing in a song was allowed to take precedence over it, and especially not the music. It was a phase analogous to that Victorian one where people were greatly affected by tales of orphans giving up their porridge to other orphans in work-houses and little match girls freezing to death on street corners with seraphic smiles on their pinched little faces.

Irritating that a Downs Syndrome child – such children now being readily accepted and even cherished – should then have needed to have excuses made for him, a special case in his defence. Irritating the golden hair and the ‘eyes that show the emptiness inside’. (Irritating also that Spotify listed it as Screen Not His Simplicity.)

What does this dreadful song remind me of? I asked myself, levering myself up from the corner of the sofa and dislodging the worshipping three-legged cat. And back came the answer: Camouflage.

Camouflage was actually written by someone called Stan Ridgeway in 1986, but about the Vietnam war. It reached number 4 in the English pop charts, number 2 in the Irish – surprise, surprise. Camouflage tells the story of several young marines caught in a barrage (how I abhor that phrase) who are rescued by a huge marine who suddenly appears in the jungle and performs all sorts of unbelievably heroic feats, thus saving their lives. On returning to camp they learn that the massive marine was in fact known as Camouflage. Whilst lying on his deathbed the noble Camouflage had expressed one final wish – to save some young marines caught in a barrage. At the very moment he expires – pouf! his giant-sized ghost reappears in the jungle and saves the young marines who are indeed caught in a barrage. Oh… eushhh!

I just recalled another one called Working My Way Back To You. In this case it wasn’t so much the song itself that was cringe-worthy as the Top Of The Pops dance routine that went with it. They were dressed in shiny jackets and lined up and miming rhythmical shovelling as if digging a whole row of imaginary graves and throwing the earth over their shoulders…

detroit

Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.

souza

 

Where sheep may safely graze

I always associated this piece of music with England, perhaps from constantly hearing it on The Home Service (1939 – 1967 national radio station, now BBC Radio 4) in my childhood. Now (ach!) I discover that it is in fact Bach’s Cantata 208 and the ‘sheep’ of the title are not so much our lovely, fat woolly English sheep roaming over hill and dale, as the citizens of Weissenfels, who could ‘safely graze’ under the gracious care of the Duke of Weissenfels. Presumably the Duke was a patron or sponsor. Later it came to be thought of as the sheep being looked after by the Good Shepherd. However, it’s a lovely piece of music and I have included a classical guitar version of it. Much prefer guitar to other instruments (particularly abhor trumpets).

I was thinking about the love of one’s country the other night, whilst plugged into the MP3 player, drowning out the upstairs-and-downstairs thundering of the beastly neighbours by listening to, among other things, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Music is more powerful than words. It cuts through all those ‘logical’ explanations, our sophisticated smokescreens. Like Sheep, The Lark Ascending reminds me that if you are British you cannot ever really get away from the love of your own country. This is an unfashionable and somewhat embarrassing thing to say, and it usually only surfaces here when some external threat arises.

It’s one of those visceral things like there sometimes are between people – an invisible cord joining the two, painless and mostly-forgotten about until you try to pull, or find yourself being pulled away. I feel that I have always been here, through all my incarnations. I suspect some of us are ‘travellers’, soul-wise, and some of us arise the soil. We grow out of a particular landscape, and are part of it.

When I was quite young my mother sank into depression. In those far-off days everything female/unhappy-related came under the heading of – in ascending order of severity – Needing a Tonic, Nerves, or Nervous Breakdown – the standard treatments being a) bottle of iron tonic from the chemist b) Pull Yourself Together – ‘Curtains’ as the Samaritans put it – or c) Being Taken Away. Suspect Mum had the Nervous Breakdown. She did not get Taken Away, but it felt as if she had gone away somewhere, and she only half returned.

I remember she stopped practising cartwheels on the lawn and no longer felt like playing tennis on the road with us, in the gaps between infrequent (and always black) motor cars. I remember mainly that it seemed to go on for years, and involved having to be quiet while Mum curled up on the sofa with yet another headache and Nan tiptoed round doing the housework, and getting us our tea. I remember all the aspirins, and the four hour thing. On the dot, every four hours, another two aspirins. No more than twelve a day. I remember Dad telling me it was my fault, for arguing with my sister. If I was better behaved, he said, Mum wouldn’t be sick.

One thing I don’t remember, from then, but do recall overhearing Mum talking about years later, was her obsession with the Atomic Bomb. She was convinced that we, her three girls, were all going to die, at once, and soon, under some great mushroom cloud. I am guessing that this bit of her illness may have been around 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently it has occurred to me that what with North Korea, and America, and Russia – the whole world, it seems – threatening dire outcomes and technicolour mass destruction – wouldn’t it just be ironic if what Mum so feared for her children were to come to pass after all, but over half a century later and when she was way past fearing or comprehending it? What if she even somehow wished it into being and is somehow linked, to it?

But let’s not venture onto that same dark pathway into the woods: no good ever comes of it. Let’s just say the music made me think, about all that has been, here, on this little archipelago of islands, swished around by a chilly sea, lashed by gales in winter, rained on every few days, blessedly warm and sunlit on occasions.

All our history, all those little lives. Dinosaurs once walked where I live now. We find their footprints. We find their bones. All those kings and queens, those beggars and paupers. All those families, all those mothers fearing for their children, all those wars, all that surviving somehow-or-other, all the new generations, all the moving on, the changing and the staying the same. Sometimes, like my mother before me, I feel that something pulling away, that potential for catastrophic loss, that painful tug on the cord.

Playing piano in the dark

Years ago I read that the Zen way to learn piano would be to sit in the dark and start to play. I sort-of understand this. I suppose the idea is that, in the correct frame of mind, you can tap into the part of you that already knows full well how to play – your portion of the universal mind, maybe. I’ve never tried it, but then I’ve never had a piano.

And today I read an article in the New Scientist about a woman with deteriorating memory, now aged a hundred and one.

‘She rarely knows where she is, and doesn’t recognise people she has met in the last few decades.’

And yet apparently she can play nearly four hundred songs by ear. She plays ragtime, show tunes, gospel and many other genres, and can also learn new songs just by listening to them.

She says she does not know how to read music; she just finds the starting note and her fingers do the rest. Although she cannot now remember having learned to read music, researchers think she would have done, at some point. Born in Tennessee in 1914, she learned to play piano and violin as a child, earned two degrees in music education and played the violin in a women’s orchestra, though she did not play much after 1946.

What it is about music that ‘sticks’ when so much else, even everyday common-sense things do not? How can a person, for example, not know that they are hungry or thirsty, whether it is day or night, and yet play the piano with almost as much skill, and as much energy as when they were younger?

As yet no one seems to know whereabouts in the brain music lives. One suggestion is that musical ability may be diffusely located – so presumably damage in one area is less likely to have a dramatic effect on it, as it might with something more localised, like speech.

I do hope this aged lady gets as much pleasure from playing the piano at one hundred and one as she did in her youth, and isn’t just doing it because it’s the only thing she can remember how to do. Supposing it wasn’t just music; supposing we were all allowed to keep a single gift to the age one hundred and one and beyond – or even a single memory, a single name and face – what would those be?

The lake a lady’s mirror

It’s astonishingly hard to remember lyrics, I find. Separate from the music, that is. The very best songs are those in which the lyrics need the music and the music needs the lyrics – but either would stand alone.

I suppose it’s the poet in me, but I do tend to go for lyrics that tell a story. Right now, for example there’s I Wasn’t Expecting That by Jamie Lawson:

I like this acoustic version, though it sounds like he’s struggling with a sore throat.

In “olden times” we had The Last Time I Saw Richard by Joni Mitchell. Shadows of hippie café sadnesses. This is the last verse:

  • Richard got married to a figure skater
  • And he bought her a dishwasher and a Coffee percolator
  • And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
  • And all the house lights left up bright
  • I’m gonna blow this damn candle out
  • I don’t want Nobody comin’ over to my table
  • I got nothing to talk to anybody about
  • All good dreamers pass this way some day
  • Hidin’ behind bottles in dark cafes
  • Dark cafes
  • Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
  • And fly away
  • Only a phase, these dark cafe days…

And later, Dire Straits’ streetwise take on Romeo and Juliet

  • A lovestruck Romeo sings a street suss serenade
  • Laying everybody low with a love song that he made
  • Finds a convenient streetlight steps out of the shade
  • Says something like you and me babe how about it?
  • Juliet says hey it’s Romeo you nearly gimme me a heart attack
  • He’s underneath the window she’s singing hey la my boyfriend’s back
  • You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that
  • Anyway what you gonna do about it?
  • Juliet the dice were loaded from the start
  • And I bet and you exploded in my heart
  • And I forget I forget the movie song
  • When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

I suppose my favourite lyrics of all in my favourite ‘genre’ would be those to Story of Isaac by Leonard Cohen:

  • The door it opened slowly,
  • My father he came in,
  • I was nine years old.
  • And he stood so tall above me,
  • His blue eyes they were shining
  • And his voice was very cold.
  • He said, “I’ve had a vision
  • And you know I’m strong and holy,
  • I must do what I’ve been told.”
  • So he started up the mountain,
  • I was running, he was walking,
  • And his axe was made of gold.
  • Well, the trees they got much smaller,
  • The lake a lady’s mirror,
  • We stopped to drink some wine.
  • Then he threw the bottle over.
  • Broke a minute later
  • And he put his hand on mine.
  • Thought I saw an eagle
  • But it might have been a vulture,
  • I never could decide.
  • Then my father built an altar,
  • He looked once behind his shoulder,
  • He knew I would not hide.
  • You who build these altars now
  • To sacrifice these children,
  • You must not do it anymore.
  • A scheme is not a vision
  • And you never have been tempted
  • By a demon or a god.
  • You who stand above them now,
  • Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
  • You were not there before,
  • When I lay upon a mountain
  • And my father’s hand was trembling
  • With the beauty of the word.
  •  
  • And if you call me brother now,
  • Forgive me if I inquire,
  • “just according to whose plan?”
  • When it all comes down to dust
  • I will kill you if I must,
  • I will help you if I can.
  • When it all comes down to dust
  • I will help you if I must,
  • I will kill you if I can.
  • And mercy on our uniform,
  • Man of peace or man of war,
  • The peacock spreads his fan.

Now, this is one of those rarest of songs – an actual poem. It doesn’t need the music at all, although the music complements it. Cohen takes you to that scene on the mountainside:

  •  Well, the trees they got much smaller,
  • The lake a lady’s mirror…
  •  Thought I saw an eagle
  • But it might have been a vulture,
  • I never could decide…

You climb that mountain with the father, and the child, half knowing, half not-knowing that his father intends to sacrifice him with that golden axe.

 

PS: Interesting to note how the words differ in this early live version from those that he settled on eventually. It’s a kind of privilege to watch a poet “in the process”.