BLESSAY 3: Grim Reaper, just practising

There’s a wonderful troubling part of a sentence in Camus’s L’Etranger  In the first English translation of the novel it reads as “I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull…” This is said just before the protagonist Meursault shoots the Arab man on the beach. Since reading the book, in my teens, I’ve often been prone to imagine death as a dazzling sun and those clashing cymbals as the sound of its approach.

The loudest clash meaning this could be it, the not so loud clash declaring I’m weighing you up, and the gentlest stroke of  the cymbal saying death’s decided against taking you, this time round. I’ve experienced three near misses with death Heared those cymbals clash.

I was in my early thirties. I was holidaying in Morecambe, where I’d spent a late afternoon, to early evening, first sunbathing and then swimming. The tide was coming in very rapidly. I was standing very close to the pier and letting the water get high up against my chest, almost playfully daring it to reach my neck. I hadn’t been drinking, but the hot sun had made me a bit spacey. When I’d had enough of the tide I tried to make my way to the stone pier steps. I suddenly experienced severe cramp in my left leg. I couldn’t move and grab hold of the rail. When I did move a bit, I hit against a large rock.  I slipped and slipped again. The water was almost at shoulder height. It was then that I physically froze and let myself absurdly imagine being drowned, when so ridiculously close to the pier.

The light was fading and no one was around. I wanted to shout out for help but couldn’t – for fear hadn’t completely engulfed me. I started to slap my thighs, then twist my hips to get more movement, as both legs were now suffering from cramp pains. For several, horribly slowed down minutes I felt that the cramp would lock in deeper, and the water knew this and was just waiting to cover me. A cymbal clashed. This was all too real. My foot struck something wooden. I placed my hand underwater and touched a wooden pole. I pulled it up to discover it was a walking stick. If I could move a bit more, then I might get close enough to hook the stick onto the step rail. The cramp lessened enough for me to walk. I caught the rail, employing the stick like a rope, got there and slowly ascended the steps. Afterwards I felt like a stupid exhausted kid who’d dared the sea’s power, become unstuck  yet let off with no warning – the sea being its own master, having no time for me now.

Cymbal clash no 2 with death occurred in 1972. The early seventies was the height of the IRA bombing campaign in London. Bombs were going off at tube stations and on buses. My girlfriend (then pregnant, a fact unbeknown to both of us at the time) and I had just returned from a long trip to Italy and Greece. We were seated in a small cafe in Euston station, having a snack whilst waiting for a train to Colchester. It was a dreary Wimpy hamburger style place. My head was still full of  Mediterranean sunlight scenes on that very chilly grey September afternoon.  I remember fantasising about such an ugly place being blown up in the manner of the great explosion sequence at the end of Antonioni’s film Zabrieske Point (where damaged material objects, including food, float slow motion style in the sky.) We finished our cardboard tasting sandwiches and then caught our train.

That evening on the six o’clock evening TV news I learnt that the cafe we’d lunched in had been bombed by the IRA just 20 minutes after we’d left it. It chilled me to think how close my girlfriend and I had come to being injured or killed. Luckily there had been very few people in the place. No one had been killed or injured. The stools near the window had been damaged. In the TV still image it looked like the very spot where we’d been sitting. I felt shaky and drank some coffee as the cymbals, of relief, clashed very softly.

The last clash happened in Turkey in 1984. I was travelling with a friend in the Kurdish region, south east of the country. We were staying in a small town called Hakkari. I’d read in the guide that it was a good area to walk in the countryside. I also read that to go walking without a guide it was first advisable to get permission from the local police, but that this was only a formality. In the event we both had to put up with indifference, soft soap prevarication and pleas from the inspector in charge, revealing his battered exercise books, and asking us to help him with his evening class English lesson. The ‘put on’ comedy and intimidation proved too much. We escaped and decided that next morning we’d still do the walk.

Hakkari on a spring day in May was beautiful. The flora and fauna, the trees, mountains and warmth of the sun were a sensual delight. We walked for three hours breathing in such sweet fresh air and listening to birdsong. In a hilly area,with rocks and caves, we stopped to eat a packed lunch. It was noon and hot enough to make us both sleepy. Alberto (the Argentine hitchhiker I’d teamed up with) crashed down underneath the shade of large boulders and rocks. I found a shady spot close to him and also rested. My nap lasted about ten minutes. I woke to find Alberto still in a deep sleep and snoring. I drank some water and looked at my very basic walking map again.

It was then that I heard a machine sound. At first I thought it was a tractor – but what would that be doing here, so high up?  It got louder and closer. An aircraft? The cymbal warning went off and instructed me not to stand up so as to get a closer look. If I lay back in my rock shelter it was unlikely I’d be seen, but I could watch. An army helicopter, with two soldiers inside, flew overhead. They had rifles with them and were obviously undertaking a routine security patrol of the area. We were very close to Iraq, Iran and Armenia. I looked back at my map. It looked like our slight departure, from the walking route, into the mountains had placed us in that sensitive and dangerous border region.

Alberto, who had drunk heavily the night before, was still asleep and oblivious to the danger. If the helicopter came down any lower, and turned, there was the chance it might see us. I crouched down even more in my shelter, hoping it would soon pass. The helicopter hovered but its pilot and companion did not deviate from their procedure. And then they were gone. Even when the sound of the helicopter had completely disappeared, the loud beating of my heart continued. Alberto woke up and smiled at me. ‘My head still aches from the wine.’ he said. I said nothing to that or mentioned the helicopter. The cymbal clashes continued inside of me to obliterate the memory of chopper blades, and the decisive sound of the soldiers’ rifles if they had fired at us.

I’ve thought a lot about those narrow escapes from injury, or more likely death. Did some benign force, supportive destiny, fate or sheer luck intervene to save me? It’s odd that we could be lightly erased, from an indiffferent universe, at any given, but unforseen moment. We cooly behave as if we are immortal. That our routine comfort zone of existence will always defelect danger: keep THE END at bay, until we decide that it’s fine to switch off the light and enter ‘the undiscovered country’.

After removing old age and disease from the equation, what we often fail to factor in are not so much the banal accidents (run over by the 31 bus or a plane crash into the cold Atlantic ocean) but horrifically unpredictable and absurdly arbitrary happenings. Mistakes directed with deadly and deathly precision at us, giving us such little time to escape.

Three escapes. There might be a few more yet before my END. I’d prefer not to go through such tension. No more practice runs, please. No disease of mind and body. Just a quiet, undramatic, slipping away, grim reaper!

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BLESSAY 2: The Raw and the Cooked

I’ve been wondering why it seems to have become a recent trend to prefer works of art that are edgy, radical and transgressive over art that appears to be safer, conservative and genre built. I appreciate that you have to remain pretty open to keeping these descriptive terms in single inverted commas. (I won’t do it in print here. But just remember that fact, please!)

I’ve just read, in a friends blog, a great defence of the musical complexity of It Won’t Be Long an early Beatles song. He wrote this in reply to an online writer praising John Lennon’s solo liberating rawness, once he’d parted from the restriction of the over smooth harmonies that that Liverpool band were supposedly guilty of. And last month, I came across a person at the BFI Southbank, who was so full of praise for the “the subversive power.” of the film he’d just seen, that he then decried all conventions in art as detrimental to the fullest expression of the artist. Why can’t you have both? I said to him. The angry aesthetic grit of the now and the glue of structure and tradition? One doesn’t cancel out the other. Both can co-exist. And both, if they really succeed as art works, can have revolution and social order both paradoxically on their side, even when they first appeared this might not have been so.

Let’s consider Beethoven’s 3rd symphony. The Eroica is rightly acknowledged as a landmark for its assertion of innovative musical technique and form, its remarkable musical confidence and the drama of the composer, making himself damn well known to the world. It was and still is revolutionary. Yet it’s not a bomb going off in a musical vacuum. Behind the Eroica is Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven’s love of the heroic ideal in Homer, Plutarch and Napoleon (who he later dropped as the dedicated inscription on the symphony). Of course Beethoven both exploded and expanded musical form. But why should some conductors keep on emphasising  Beethoven as a revolutionary? That’s what John Eliot Gardiner  was doing last year at the QEH during a performance of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, as if this was the ultimate great transgressive point of all Beethoven’s creativity. Well it’s a part of Ludvig Van – but what about the gruff humour, the deep lyricism and the architecture? If you always conduct Beethoven as a radical force then the musical results can mean too much clipped  legato taken at a breathless speed that seriously underplays the tenderness and the warmth of the music. It’s not that there wasn’t humanity in Gardiner’s intepretation, but by over emphasising the Beethovian rebellion, found in the 7th and in the 3rd, it’s in danger of becoming a force, even mannerism, that makes the spirit of the music sound too cut and dried, so we miss the energy of something transcendent of human effort, not just a transgressive force that can seem to do away with human struggle.

Returning to the radicalism of the Eroica symphony. In its phenomenal way it breaks down the old music order at the same time as creating a new language.  We have assimilated the Ludwig newness – it has become part of the grammar of writing a symphony. A musical orthodoxy, following on from Beethoven,  might be one of the consequences of  his achievement, but the achievement itself, now an accepted part of the musical social order, has never dated or been tamed, or simply turned into a blind force,  so long as  you conduct it right.

Erich  Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Lovro Von Maticic all break the rules and reinforce them at the same time. Or to put it another way, they can will up the Beethoven sound without making it appear a self -conscious act of their conductor will power. They don’t transgress the material but transport you to Beethoven’s thoughts and feelings.  And angry and frustrated creature that Beethoven was, his music offers both conservative consolation (The Triple Concerto, big chunks of the Pastoral Symphony) and radiant, if disturbingly beautiful, innovation ( The opus 111 piano sonata and the late string quartets). Order and chaos come through the composer’s deafness and astound us. Beethoven’s achievement was to upset the norms of our hearing range and transgress the listening experience itself.

You may be wondering why this piece is called The Raw and the Cooked.  The title was pinched from a book called that by the anthropologist Claude-Levi Strauss.  I’m not about to map out a Straussian graph of  tribal myths, but perhaps I could suggest, for followers of this blog, that examples might be presented of works of art that are Raw and Cooked (transgressive and / or conservative), Part raw and Part Cooked, Fully raw and Fully cooked or maybe even frozen raw -tried to get into the oven to be cooked, but never quite made it!  You can’t make an easy distinction between ‘avant garde” art works and ‘bourgeois ‘ ones. God, I’ve finally inserted my single inverted commas!

Some ‘uncompromising’ and ‘conforming’ suggestions D.H.Lawrence’s Women in Love (both Raw and Cooked intimacies) Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Raw ritual magic) and  Brahms’s 4 symphonies (Well done but with chewy raw tonal bits).

PS.  I began my blog with Happy Days saying that this would be my first Bless – ay. The dash has now gone. That and all new blogs will now be Blessays. Thank  you. Or, bless you!

BLESSAY 1: Happy Days

England isn’t living through happy days. Despair at the cost of living, stringent attacks on welfare, political confusion and the storms, currently battering our coastline, ensure this is so. It’s February 15th 2014. And I’m writing the very first entry for my blog. Not with any intention to dramatically change the state of the nation, but casually inform, instruct, hopefully entertain myself and others: give people a happier day!

I’m too old and undisciplined to start a diary or journal. The only time I tried that was in my early thirties and the result was too gushingly existential and introspective. I’ve written the occasional essay, book or film review but I never felt I put my heart into it. They always appeared the scribblings of an unpaid hack journalist. Now the world of the electronic blogosphere has tempted my ego to have its day, and its say, channel my thoughts into blog essays that will try not to be too wilfully opinionated.

For this new form I’ll coin a term neither blog nor essay, but the blessay. Last week, a close friend of mine announced that we were blessed to live in London and enjoy so much of its culture for very little money, or for free. So to him I dedicate my first blessay. No, capital letters. The BlessAy. No, I have to also insert a dash. The Bless – Ay. That’s better!

On Wednesday afternoon I struggled through the wind and the rain to make my way to the Young Vic for a matinee performance of Beckett’s play Happy Days. I’d seen a production well over fifteen years ago at  the Barbican theatre. That production convinced me it was a masterpiece. Until then, and I’d been a great admirer of Beckett’s work since I was a teenager, Happy Days had struck me as a minor play compared to Godot or Endgame. A tour de force of theatrical absurdity about Winnie, a middle aged woman in the silly predicament of being buried, up to her waist, and then neck, in sand. So what? I hadn’t been moved by her plight; somewhat in the way the woman trapped in a hole in Teshigara’s film Woman of the Dunes struck me as being more of a symbol, than a real person demanding my sympathy. I still have problems with the Japanese film’s entomologist and his dune companion, but nowadays Beckett’s Winnie reduces me to tears and laughter. No longer an abstraction but a trapped human being. It requires great acting to let us empathise with Winnie, and appreciate Beckett’s poetic dialogue: convince us that she can never be pulled out of the sand. For the sand trap is our lot and we heroically grin and bear it.  Juliet Stevenson played Winnie so brilliantly that I came out of the theatre convinced that there was sand in my own shoes and socks, that the grains would drive me, and my feet, mad but I had try and shake them out, and never forget to laugh.

In 1980 I was lucky to be able to watch Beckett on stage directing an actor in Endgame. He did it as if he was conducting; addressing an orchestra player on how to get the maximum expression from their instrument, or untrain their actor’s voice so as to express Beckett’s inner voice.  Billy Whitelaw intuitively understood that.  And so does Juliet Stevenson. She inhabited that sand dune as if it had always been her home. In act one, when her arms still have mobility, she employed a body language that was both playful and poignant. The way Stevenson picked up a magnifying glass to watch an emmet, in the sand, crawl onto her body, was so expressive. Her watching of the insect was the watching of all of us, so small and insignificant, then become funny, and meaningful, for a moment, as we ‘fall’ against the body of Winnie, with her universe of absurd gestures and whims, as she passes the time, playing with a glass, toothbrush, spectacles, parasol, mirror, and revolver; whilst continually rummaging in her beloved black bag. Winnie is a very funny and bleakly dotty creation. And also a hugely courageous and vulnerable woman.

This production of Happy Days cast its spell right to the very end. And what an ending! Husband Willie, dressed in formal wedding gear, crawls towards his wife. Willy’s progress towards Winnie is both shocking and deeply moving. Yet his own struggle to ascend the mound is an example of Sysiphus acting technique that’s a ‘joy’ to experience. If Juliet Stevenson has, of course, nearly all the words, all the survival monologues, speeches and asides, then David Beames’s performance as Willie conveys a body language to equal her own. His final, desperate physicality conveyed such heart rending sadness. Beckett would have loved it.

The wind had dropped, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining when I left The Young Vic. Weather wise an improvement. Yet Sam Beckett’s world clung on. “Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! (Pause.) After all. (Pause.) So far.”