Blessay 25: Planetary States

Holst’s The Planets suite is an astrological not an astronomical conception of the planets. It’s concerned with planetary psychic influences and mental states. No Earth, Moon or Sun was composed by Holst. Pluto was discovered after The Planets had been composed and shortly before Holst’s death.

In 2000 Colin Mathews wrote an ‘appendix’ to The Planets. His Pluto, the renewer, has been recorded on cd to follow on, without a break, before the last movement Neptune, the mystic, fades away. At just under seven minutes, Mathews piece conveys solar winds and comets, nearing the edge of our solar system. At mid-point the orchestra bursts out, with a faintly Mars-like rhythm in the background, that’s followed by a wordless female chorus.

Pluto is certainly effective but somewhat artistically redundant. Once Holst’s own ethereal writing, for the chorus, eventually dissolves into nothingness, only silence is required. Of course, silence did follow Monday night’s performance of The Planets played by the BBC Philharmonic and conducted by Susanna Malkki.

However before the end of Neptune a small boy cried out in the stalls of the Albert Hall. The toddler was removed by his father. His twenty-second outburst, more moans than crying, at first annoyed me as I stood in the Proms arena. Then I let it become an unintended extra sound-effect. Life and art intertwined. A disturbed, little boy had heard the siren call to enter a musical world now fading into nothingness.

That child’s intervention sent my mind spinning of, not into outer space, but associations. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey employs Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra to accompany a gigantic image of a star-child. I imagined Kubrick’s cinematic foetus, of hope or despair, becoming a newly born, yet upset child. A tiny, earth-bound being resisting the pull of the womb, space and the void.

On the train going home, some famous lines from Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam came to mind.

‘So runs my dream: but what am I ?/ An infant crying in the night / An infant crying for the light / And with no language but a cry.’

A primal fear of abandonment. Lost in Space. Did the little boy unconsciously hear something of the tone of his mother’s voice in the female space sirens? That he feared she might be leaving him?

Ruminating a little more, on the idea of abandonment, Becket’s haunting play Breath, surfaced. The curtain opens on a stage full of rubbish. We hear two brief and faint baby cries. The play’s ‘action’ lasts thirty five seconds. Then the curtain falls. In his stage directions Beckett says of the rubbish that there are to be ‘No verticals, all scattered and lying.’ (Assuming that the desolation of Becket’s horizontal mess, might be compromised by anything vertical, suggesting an upright thing – some flicker of hope?) Whilst the stage cry is the ‘Instant of recorded vagitus.’ and that it is important ‘that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronised light and breath.’

Vagitus is the Latin word for ‘the crying of a new-born baby.’ It is rarely used now. Vagit is a 17th Century word meaning, ‘A cry, lamentation or wail.’ Whereas Vagitate meant ‘To roam, or travel.’ If you link Vagina with Vagitus and Vagitate, we have Becket’s view that birth is a sad business. And that unhappiness accompanies our journey through life, which is so fleeting, to the finality of death. As Beckett’s poem, My Way says ‘and live the space of a door that opens and shuts.’ (That door metaphor resonating for me with Holst’s instructions that the women’s chorus be invisible and far away from the orchestra. And that the stage door be closed on the singers as the voices finally drift away.)

Years ago I had a small amount of Psilocybin mushrooms swallowed down with a cup of tea. Then I listened to a recording of The Planets. Very little happened until Saturn, the bringer of old age movement. At that point I slumped in my armchair feeling lethargic and experienced my body shrinking. During Uranus, the magician I twitched and turned trying to shake of my tiredness. This was a feeble struggle. I became smaller and smaller. Somehow I got up from my chair only to fall to the floor. Now, Neptune, the mystic was calling to me. I shut my eyes, which were streaming with tears, assumed a foetal position on the carpet, and fell asleep. It was a short yet blissful sleep. I awoke, full size again, feeling wonderfully content.

Throughout my planetary ‘out of body’ experience I wasn’t  afraid. Perhaps a little apprehensive during Uranus. But I realised my mind and body had to be released. It was instinctual and inevitable that I move on in my induced state of quasi death and transfiguration.

Beckett had a touch of genius in his play Ohio Impromptu. It’s sole actor says, ‘Thoughts, no, not thoughts. Profounds of mind. Buried in who knows what profound of mind. Of mindlessness.’ Adding ‘s’ to profound makes for a curious plurality and creates an odd non-existent noun. A breathtakingly brilliant touch.

If friends go on too much about how miserable their life is I sympathetically tell them, ‘Yes, maybe that’s so, but don’t forget there are many profounds of mind. And some profounds can be unthinking joy.’

In 1918 during a run-through of The Planets, Holst’s daughter Imogen watched the charwomen, in the concert hall, dancing in the aisles during Jupiter, the bringer of jollity. The cleaners surely felt a tune of mindless profounds exciting them. Whereas the nerves, of the Albert Hall toddler, were jangled by the mindful profounds of Holst’s women calling out.

Planetary states, abound.


Blessay 24: Animals I have known

I grew up in a house with a traditional tabby cat and, for a brief period, a collie dog. I’m not sure what happened to the cat, but the dog ran away in the park. Father claimed he ran after it, but I suspected he was lying, that he’d deliberately let the dog loose. For awhile I was angry with Father. Then I forget my anger. Another stray dog, minus identifying collar, could always be found roaming the streets of Liverpool.

My childhood Toxteth street contained animal exotica. A parrot owned by a retired docker whose screech froze my infant blood. And a Pakistani neighbour had a small pet monkey, wearing a fez, that once wrenched a bag of crisps out of my tiny hands. These were the exceptions. Most households just had dogs with raucous barks, wailing backyard cats or budgerigars frequently un-caged to fly round over heated, coal-fire rooms.

The first time I encountered wild animals was when a circus parade marched down the high street. Amidst the acrobats, jugglers, musicians and clowns were horses, a camel, an elephant and a monkey or two. It was a hot Sunday afternoon in August. I cheered and ran with other children, leaving our parents far behind. They seated some kids on the horses. Even one on an elephant. I looked a long way up at that little girl. She swayed on her fleshy mountain in the sky (Today it seems so dreamlike, like a circus explosion in a Fellini film.)

The last time I owned a pet was over forty years ago when I was a student. It was a sleek black cat named Slotta. I’ve no idea why I called it that. Maybe after too much beer, my slurred speech delivered Slotta instead of…? With a Scouse emphasis going on the ‘ta’, as if to weirdly thank myself. Slotta lived with me in Park Village on Sussex University Campus. Sadly the stress of finals, and my marriage breaking up, hit me. Slotta was passed on to an American student, who later gave him to a butcher: where no doubt he led a contented life being fed the left-over offal.

I’ve considered owning a cat again. But I don’t really need the company, don’t want the smell or clingy cat hairs on my sofa. I suppose I could manage it if it were practical to do so. Living very near the top of a high-rise estate doesn’t seem fair on a cat’s urge to roam outside – though cats are regularly stolen in my neighbourhood. I’ve fantasized about letting a cat stroll along the corridors and down the stairs: after I’d carefully taught it how to press the buttons of my lift, to let itself in and out!

The only animals to enter my flat were a nervous cat and a bewildered seagull. I looked after the cat whilst a friend was on holiday. It would constantly hide away, only to reappear at meal times, ignore me and then disappear. When found it hissed, scratched and wouldn’t be picked up. The cat had been parted from its mother too soon. Its owner was undergoing therapy. Perhaps some neurotic transference was subtly occurring?

The bird was an intruder. One Summer morning, a seagull flew through my open bedroom window.  We jointly panicked. After crashing into the bookcase it headed back to the window and missed. Somehow I managed to get the seagull out. This wasn’t exactly my Tippie Hedren (The Birds) moment – no bloodied pecked head as I thrashed out with a torch in my hand. After closing the window, and with my heart still beating fast, I had some tea and remembered that director Ingmar Bergman had once spoken of his irrational fear of birds.

I can sympathise with Bergman’s anxiety only if birds deliberately attacked me. In Norway a bird once struck me on the shoulder. Yet I ascribe that to the fact that I was wearing a red windbreaker and eating a tuna sandwich. Apart from a dog, the only animal that really went for me was a sheep. Yes, a sheep. A flock of them.

It was Good Friday in the Cambridgeshire countryside. A friend and I were walking across a field having a fit of giggles about something. Our comic absurdity (without the aid of any drugs) was suddenly transferred to a flock of sheep. We pretended we were Jesus and Paul addressing a large crowd. It became a sermon on the mount for the well-being of the sheep. A few sheep onlookers were joined by some more. And more. We became vociferous and silly, promising them all eternal sheep life. The sheep grew noisy and restless. Gradually the flock drew menacingly closer. Things became strangely unpleasant, even threatening. Pursued by angry sheep we ran to get out of the field.  Once over the fence those sheep faces still looked mean( Not one ram agitator amongst them. ) A determined few pushed against the gate. We made tracks, rapidly.

Since then I’ve questioned my stereotype of the docile and passive sheep. Watching Aardman’s latest animated film, Shawn the Sheep, a sheep’s need to be strong and decisive was confirmed. The sheep take the bus to the big city in order to find their owner. They quickly gain confidence to outwit the animal control unit. The scene where sheep enter a charity shop, to get clothes to disguise themselves, and then frequent a posh restaurant is hilarious. If they can do that in art then they have the ability to pursue me in real life.

What also follows me round is a laughing cow. Not a real one, but the cow artwork on the packaging of processed cheese portions. For years when backpacking I would have outdoor lunches consisting of a white baguette, a tomato, a spring onion and a Laughing Cow spread. Yesterday a Goth looking woman was drinking a can of cider and eating a Laughing Cow, under a bus shelter next to the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm.

I wanted to hug her and say enjoy yourself darling! I hesitated. Somewhere a more knowing seagull, neurosis-free cat, or militant sheep would not have approved.

Blessay 23: Dying Salesmen

Last month I went to see the RSC production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It was a great evening. The production, direction and performances were pitched to the highest level. Anthony Sher’s portrayal of Willy Loman, the small-time salesman, was masterly. Yet Sher never dominated the play. He played out Willy’s tragic fate whilst his co-actors brilliantly observed him. Miller’s play was written in 1951 yet our world of 2015 still contains plenty of deluded Willy Lomans.

Once the visceral impact of Miller’s masterpiece began to wear off, I began to think about the role of the salesman/woman today. In America the occupation is in decline. It seems people’s wariness of scams, the ease of Internet shopping, retail outlets not needing sales people to demonstrate their goods ( the information can be found online anyway ), many outlets competing with cheaper products and a general tendency to be more suspicious of the hard sell has all contributed to fewer people doing the job.

According to Angela Stringfellow, Chief Ideation Officer ( what a job title! ) of CODA Concepts LLC ( What a company name! I’m tempted to re-title it COLA Concepts ) door to door sales jobs in the US will decline by 15% by the year 2018. As for the UK there may be fewer salesman around too. But it’s still probably a less endangered species than in America.I suspect that there are great regional variations in the number of people knocking on doors for double glazing, unwanted gold and jewelery, subscriptions to Sky TV services or skin products ( the long-lived survivor Avon left me a leaflet yesterday, and promised to call round if I rang or contacted them online.)

When it comes to charities, the door to door approach seems to have been largely replaced by the obdurate cheerfulness of the high street peddler. That beaming young man, or woman, desperate to persuade you to support their ‘most worthy’ organisation. Wearing bright logo t-shirts they lunge at you, eager to deliver stark statements about cancer rates or child poverty. I move on. Not because I don’t care about those issues but would prefer to consider them, without such badgering, in my own time, at home ( If I do acknowledge their business I tell them that I regularly visit their charity shops. And in spite of the hiked up prices, my purchase of a CD, book or shirt, contributes a little to their cause, or at least their high administrative costs and middle management salaries.)

Of course we all feel that so many other people are alway trying to sell themselves. Politicians, entrepreneurs, models, movie stars, singers, authors, painters, etc. That ego has become a product in a celebrity zoo. ‘Buy me, Love me. Buy me again. Love me more!’ Some sell mediocrity, some their genuine talent and hardly any their genius – except a certain genius for selling you the idea that they are a genius. Add the promotional tool of social media and the narcissistic self has been fully democratized.

I’d like to ruminate a little on the darker implications of the salesman idea. In the introduction to his collected plays Arthur Miller says,

‘…Willy Loman has broken a law without whose protection life is insupportable if not incomprehensible to him and to many others; it is the law which says that a failure in society and in business has no right to live. Willy’s law…is, rather, a deeply believed and deeply suspect “good” which when questioned as to its value, as it is in this play, serves more to raise anxieties than to reassure us of the existence of an unseen but human metaphysical system in the world. My attempt in the play was to counter this anxiety with an opposing system which, so to speak, is in a race for Willy’s faith, and it is the system of love which is the opposite of the law of success.’

That was written in 1958, the year in which such film titles as Sweet Smell of Success and phrases like ‘the rat race’ or ‘dog eats dog world’ circulated in newspapers and books on sociology. I thought such raw terms were no longer employed. That the English had replaced them with ‘hard working’ or ‘enterprising’ in a world where we might ‘prosper’ ( a favourite of Tony Blair.)  However the adjective ‘sweet’ still endures. Just witness the video of  David Cameron uttering the words ‘sweet victory’ on hearing that he’d just been re-elected as Prime Minister this May.

The word success is so bound up with the word ambition. And ambition is tied to the world and workplace. Little emphasis is placed, in our educational system, on inner ambition and realising yourself. Full potential seems to have been appropriated by a conservative free market individualism. What I am saying is really old hat stuff, lucidly expressed in Eric Fromm’s books The Art of Love or To Have or to Be, published many years ago. More giving than grasping. More growing than conditioning. More creating than destroying.

All these words can be mis-used and mis-appropriated. Easily become clichés in a lexicon we compile to try to make sense of living. But let me just rescue three words that should escape from our mendacity ( or bloody lying! )

Aspiration, Realisation and Fulfillment.

We will never realise and fulfill all of our aspirations. Lack of free thinking education, inequality of opportunity, poverty, our temperament, societal constraints and sheer bad luck will prevent us. Yet we have to stop the ‘door to door ‘ selling of our competing egos. We’re not salesmen and saleswomen. Only men and women trying to live as fully as possible in the face of our own mortality.

I’d take my three words, aspiration, realisation and fulfillment and chant them quietly in the moment, knowing we can never full live in the present. And on the back of, not a business card, but some fluid promissory note of well-being, scribble these words of the great mythographer Joseph Campbell.

‘People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive…’

I’d like to think that rapture can resist and subvert relentless salesmanship.

Blessay 22: It’s All Right Ma, I’m only Dreaming

Dreams are often opaque and slippery things unable to be fixed down to a clear unequivocal meaning. They can be viewed as important messages from the unconscious but equally as anxious, absurd or blissful nonsense that we desire to make too much sense of.

I do believe that dreams are far more than Freudian wish fulfilment. And that Jung’s inspiring concept of the collective unconscious, with its ideas about archetypes, within dreams and without, still matters. He speaks of the archetype as not merely a concept but as a ‘a piece of life, an image connected with the living individual by the bridge of emotion.’

There was a time in my life when I experienced very disturbing dreams. I’d just separated from my wife and two sons. I was a recent English Literature graduate, unable to find work and moving from one temporary bedsit to another in Brighton and Hove. I kept a dream journal to try to fathom out what to do with myself. Indeed I lived just in order to eat, drink and most of all sleep. My dream recording proved to be very negative. I couldn’t make sensible decisions. Dreaming became an addiction.

Jung wrote perceptibly about an over-reliance on dreams for solutions to problems.

‘Experience has shown me that a slight knowledge of dream psychology is apt to lead to an overrating of the unconscious which impairs the power of conscious decision. The unconscious functions satisfactorily only when the conscious mind fulfills its tasks to the very limit. A dream may perhaps supply what is lacking, or it may help us forward where our best conscious efforts have failed.’

Keeping a dream journal reached a point where the dreams were getting more chaotic and puzzling. Each time I fell asleep I hoped that the new dream would throw some light on the previous dream. That a dream pattern would emerge and eventually reveal the secret plan. Once I knew that then I could act. I couldn’t find answers on the streets of Brighton but only in the ambiguous alleyways of my unconscious.

Of course this was physically exhausting. By day I was, feverish, indolent and spaced out; eating and drinking very little, staring at the bedroom wall and constantly craving for more sleep. Thankfully I didn’t drink any alcohol, but few close friends were around and my next door neighbours were very noisy.

And then I had this dream.

‘I’m at a dinner party. Michael’s house (rich place, expensively dressed guests.) attracted by the superficial glitter. impatient to eat but first need to go to the toilet. this lies at the top of the house in a large attic room. Here is a long, medieval banqueting table. At either end are two plates of steaming hot food. A white mouse is running from one meal to another. Nibbling and retreating. I go to the toilet. Can only manage half a piss. Return to table feeling anxious. I accidentally spill a bottle of tomato ketchup over my dinner jacket. The startled mouse runs away. I begin to cry very intensely. Gradually I look up to see Carl Jung seated at the head of the table. Wearing an immaculate tweed jacket, carpet slippers and holding a pipe. Very much the benign Swiss patriarch. he looks deeply concerned. I begin to chant. Mickey Mouse hah hah hah!  Mickey Mouse hah hah hah! Jung places a sympathetic arm over my shoulder and says, “For God’s sake stop recording your dreams. Wake up and accept your mouse!” I dry my eyes. Jung disappears. More plates of food are on the table. All have been half-eaten – then abandoned. Now I want to socialize with the guests downstairs.”

This was the dream that made me stop writing down more dreams. This was the dream that convinced me to see my doctor, refuse medication and persuade him to get me an appointment with an NHS psychiatrist. And this was the dream that was later published in an anthology of writers’ dreams, The Tiger Garden published by Serpents Tail.

After six sessions with the psychiatrist I felt much better, more human and able to figure out a conscious plan about what to do next. I moved to London, did volunteer social work, took up learning to play the flute, got myself a flat and a girlfriend.

I still have that old exercise book of scribbled down dreams. Occasionally I do take note of a dream and include it in my writings (Most vividly my Bali travel incident. I dreamt of Balinese dancers meshing with the mysterious masked stranger who came, with money, to Mozart’s door and said his master wished to commission a requiem mass. I panicked, kicked out in fear and woke up to discover that my foot (unhurt) had cracked the window. My real Balinese hotel manager gave me a very warm smile. I paid him £2 for a new window. And the dream lived on in a poem.)

I won’t, and can’t, make a comprehensive analysis of my Jung dream meeting. But will suggest that the unfinished food on the table was probably a sign of the banquet of life. That the mouse was my small and timid response to life. And that dear kindly old Carl was a bit like my mum shaking the bed of a lazy teenager and telling me to get up, or I’d be late for college. Except it was a lot more important. I had to accept a reality principle and get on with things. Well I have, but not quite.

Blessay 21: High Rise Living

I am fortunate to live in social housing. My high-rise block estate is in Swiss Cottage, seven minutes walk  from Primrose Hill – an enviable location for most people. The building is 22 storeys high. I live on the 20th floor. However the lift only goes to the 21st floor. To get to the very top you have to take the stairs. This is because in the early sixties the building project was privately financed. The company ran out of money to complete everything (goodbye, lift ascension!) and the building, along with four other high rises along the road, was purchased by Camden Council.

High-rise housing was heavily criticised in the seventies and eighties. Some very cheaply made and poorly insulated buildings were demolished. My building, first generation high-rise, is built of sturdier stuff. 10 years ago it was refurbished by the Labour government under chancellor Gordon Brown’s PFI scheme. The tenants have new bathrooms, kitchens, heating, double glazing, better communal areas and new lifts. Whilst the exterior cladding has given the estate a smart apartment look.

I like living high up in the sky with my spectacular views of clouds, sunsets, sunrises and changeable weather. My one bed roomed flat allows me to tap into the dreamer inside me. The sunsets can be of a Casper David Friedrich intensity. The rain running down the window, on a winter’s day, creates a Monet like impression. And storm clouds can be positively Old Testament Hollywood epic. Yet though I am a writer and poet my feet manage to stay firmly on the ground. Daydreaming is strictly for the tea breaks.

Sadly I can see very few stars in the night sky. A telescope would be a waste of money as there’s too much light pollution. If I were Minister for the Environment I’d drastically cut down on restaurant, shop and hotel lighting, and encourage people to experience a fuller, and still safe, night-time. Still I do have the moon. if I were prone to be affected by it then the position of my bedroom window would have pushed me into lunacy long ago. (Waking up at three in the morning, to go to the toilet, a full moon can bathe my room with its light. But I’ve never howled back at it.)

Noise travels up. If the window is open a cry from the street can disturb me afpter midnight. Though it’s rarely a single cry but several.  A conversation ensues. ‘Gerry! / Hello! / You’re going the wrong way / What?/ The wrong way / I’m not / You are / No way! / You are, man. You are!  Thankfully Gerry does find the right way and he, and his friend, stagger on to Chalk Farm or Camden Town.

When there are drilling noises, tapping or knocking I open the window to filter the sounds with traffic noise (my urban ‘sea sound’). If the noise persists or gets louder than earplugs are at hand. I’ve spent a little more money on better earplugs now. They work well enough. So I’ve resisted ordering personalised designer ones. Occasionally I have to trace the origin of the noise. But where noise comes from can be very deceptive. I’ve been convinced that persistent manic banging came from one floor above, only to later discover it was actually three floors down. If you strike the walls hard enough then the plumbing reverberates sound throughout the building. It takes detective work and patience to track the source.

The windows are large and give me much light. My panorama of the seasons, played out against a terrific view of North London, is affirmative. Of course, in the summer it’s too hot in the living room ( I don’t bother with curtains or a blind. ) The bedroom, plus a fan, is my cooler option. Actually I wish they’d retained the old pre-refurbishment window, for you could pull it down to let the hot afternoon sun shine in. Then I could apply sun cream lotion and sunbathe just from lying on the floor, propped up by cushions against the bed.

I am not a complete fan of minimalist decor. But anything too heavily antique would look a bit out of kilter here. Still next to my modern sofa is the top half only of a Victorian wash stand, rescued from a skip, that I enjoy for its oval shape and green tiles. Behind the PC, is a stained glass window of 1930’s sun-ray design. My coffee table is plain and round. I try out arrangements of things in a room – moving them about every few years. It’s a changeable balance of the old and new, wanting to emphasise curves and circles to mitigate against boxy, over-square rooms.

Books, cds and dvds are an expression of my taste and identity. But I don’t want them to dominate a room. So I utilise the space of the flat’s long corridor next to the living room, kitchen and toilet. Here the artefacts cover the wall. This prevents sunlight fading their spines and covers and stops me, from being distracted too much by their titles. Only my bedroom contains some left over books.

But here there’s less of a problem with the sun. And because all the fiction’s directly facing my bed I don’t seem to mind too much about titles. Whilst sitting on the bed only a handful of names are in my sight-line. Camus, Borges and Perec are the threesome.  And my over familiarity with their titles, Carnets, A Personal Anthology and Things has blunted any urge to open them up again very soon.

The kitchen could be bigger but it’s fine for one person. My bathroom has a few ornaments but nothing precious. And I have a small storage space in which I keep my bicycle and the cardboard boxes for my hi-fi, as I sometimes fantasize about moving. A lottery win, that Georgian looking house in a street next to Primrose Hill with Italianate back garden et all. Yes, well my cardboard boxes will probably grow very old with me!

Twenty years ago I had a story published in a paperback anthology. In the short bio on me, it said ‘Alan Price was born in Liverpool but now lives in a Swiss Cottage in London.’ I never contacted the editor to correct the error if the book was re-printed ( It wasn’t.) A high-rise Swiss Cottage chalet would be really bizarre.

Last week I took the train to Rochester. Charles Dickens loved the town and asked to be buried there. He wasn’t. That was Westminster Abbey. Dickens used a Swiss chalet as a summer study for his writing. It’s in the garden of Eastgate house in Rochester. So I like to think I have a tenuous alpine link with the great man. And what would he think of my view of London, knowing the Mayor had recently authorised the building of over 200 new skyscrapers, mainly offices and highly expensive apartments. A few containing a tiny gesture towards  ‘affordable housing’. But no more big social housing estates. ‘You live in a social dinosaur.’ Dickens might declare.

In the opening page of Bleak House, Dickens describes a foggy and muddy London where ‘…it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’ Climatic changes killed off creatures of that length. Market forces have killed off council flat housing of my great height.

I stare out the window. Dubai like high-rises will approach. Soon I will be surrounded. Yet one day my home and London’s capitalist architecture will all be extinct – lying under a thick Megalopolis mud alongside of the Megalosaurus.

Blessay 20: Nice People, Getting on Well

Last week I was in a branch of an exchange store in Camden. I was buying two second-hand Blu-ray films. On the counter was a notice asking for people to work in its shops. A young male assistant picked up the notice and started to joke, with his colleague, about the terms and conditions. It was obvious that their work didn’t pay much. I made some remark about jobs, poor pay and how chancellor George Osborne seemed out to attack the young both in work and out of work ( It was only a few hours after he’d delivered his budget speech, so its divide and rule agenda was still in my thoughts.)

A female assistant agreed with me. I made the obvious older persons’ remark about being glad that I was no longer young as it was so stressful for young people today. This was followed by ‘I knew the sixties. We were optimistic and believed we could change the world.’ The young man smiled half in envy and half in amazement. Almost as compensation, for a 21st century lack of idealism, the young woman declared, ‘Well we do have really nice people working here, and we all get on well.’ I said that was very good. She genuinely wished me to have a lovely evening and I left with the Blu-rays.

The young will put up with a lot because they are just starting out. Probably work for little money in order to gain experience. Apart from being shop assistants there are those entrepreneurial people who have clever ideas for online businesses that pay them buttons. I listened to a recent Radio 4 programme where the ‘strivers’ ( horrible term ) where having fun: crashing down with their sleeping bags on the floors of relatives and friends flats; running their own business, from their laptop, and having a second job, both providing meagre pay.

It made me think about how important it was to have meaningful work ( well paid or not ) and enjoy working with others. I didn’t think of the office or factory environment  but the shop. Shop assistants have always been poorly paid and very few ever join a union to find out their rights. When I was young I worked in a record shop ( an almost vanished species. ) It was in Liverpool, just next door to Brian Epstein’s shop NEMS. It had a highly musically literate staff. Three guys were very knowledgable about classical music. One enthusiastically knew his jazz. The two women were totally grounded in folk and blues. Whist I kept up with everything happening in popular music.

We were not incredibly well paid, but never needed a second job, could afford to leave home and pay the rent for a bed sit and generally get by. The six of us inter-acting with one another, and the customers, like students doing some history of music course at a progressive Adult Education College. For me it was a wonderful exposure to music genres. I listened excitedly to The Doors and Velvet Underground: Mahler, Beethoven and Stravinsky were banging at the door, whilst Miles Davis and Stan Getz sneaked in round the back.

The owner of the shop, who was Jewish, and bore a slight resemblance to Gustav Mahler, enjoyed a little ‘easy listening.’ I scorned his love of the anodyne music arranger James Last. Yet so long as we didn’t over-indulge in chatting, over the counter, he gave us a free reign. He respected, though underpaid, his knowledgable staff, appreciating that staff camaraderie was important for us and his business.

Zero hour contracts didn’t exist back then. Neither did the minimum wage. But we were all permanent staff and to some degree less materialistic. Each of us was your average Joe doing his, or her, job without placing a high premium on ‘getting on’ and acquiring more money. It may have been an unambitious drift of a job, that few could do forever, but if you had enthusiasm for what you were selling, then it was a very pleasant occupation. No one then had aspirations to work in the city or be self-employed. Though we probably regarded our shop work as vastly superior to stacking goods on supermarket shelves or admin. work in an office.

I’m writing this essay, just after having a coffee in a  West End branch of ‘Cafe Nero.’ I was sitting in the basement reading a novel, Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith. It’s quite brilliant, but so intense that I needed a short break. Three other people were there. Two young men, with laptops, where discussing a business model. And a young Chinese woman was scrolling through her phone and writing, pencil in hand, things down in a notebook.

My gaze was averted to the bookshelves where the spines of books played their part as some relaxing wallpaper. You know the kind of thing. Job lots of old books, remaindered hard cover bestsellers and the occasional coffee-table cook book or travel guide. I stood up and browsed through them, suspecting that this was very un-cool. As few people read the books and no one disturbs the decor.

The busy upstairs staff never looked at them too. In quieter moments they too pored over large or small screens. Such a self-contained activity. Perhaps this was the new camaraderie that they shared with the customers? A continuous passive, but genial, non-interaction. It was the glue that held them together. They’d become a community of hands, eyes and devices. Playing with information. ‘Nice people that got on well’ As the exchange shop assistant said.

I sure they also talked about what they were selling in that exchange shop. Whether it be a Blu-ray, a computer game or a smart phone. But did they really enthuse to the customer? Did they have the time, or motivation, to share some critical specialist knowledge or was it all a just stream of information, in constant need of processing? Was wading in the stream enough, where being an informant took precedence over opinions and knowledge?

Blessay 19: Tinting and Toning for the Silents?

Should we colour tint or tone silent films? Or just leave them alone in good b & w prints? I’m not an academic. I can’t bring erudite film scholarship to bear down on this question. If you want that then go to the online sights devoted to early cinema and visit the extensive Reuben Library at the BFI Southbank. This piece is simply some observations of a cineaste who has watched a fair amount of silents.

Daniel Blum’s ‘The Pictorial History of the Silent Screen’ was a large book of photographs of the silents (Over 80% of which were lost or missing films.) As a teenager I would flick through its pages wishing they could be restored to life on my bedroom wall. Theda Bara, Zasu Pitts and Tom Mix needed to be animated. Any colouring of their bodies and surroundings didn’t matter. When I did get to see them move it was in a time when you watched silent films without any colour. No tinting. No toning. Just b & w prints in bad condition (Long before the 1980’s when Kevin Brownlow and David Gill restored films for Channel 4 TV)

In the mid sixties I sat through murky 16mm copies of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Intolerance and Tol’able David. As a schoolboy I watched 8mm clips of silents on a friend’s tiny home projector. One was a reel from the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera. Lon Chaney played the organ in the sewer under the opera house. Then his scary skeletal presence would have been far less effective if tinged green or blue.

The first silent I saw, that was tinted, was Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm. It was at the Everyman Cinema in the early eighties. I remenber the film suddenly turning blue in a night scene, green in a country scene and sometimes yellow or violet indoors. It was a shock, a novelty and quite disconcerting. The drama of a b & w world had been ruptured. Initially the ‘charm’ of colouring a film didn’t work for me. It stood in the aisle of my idea of cinema; a little hesitant and unsure. For re-assurance, that this was permissable, I went to the library and researched the business of tinting.

Even today it’s difficult to determine if this is what the director wanted. And if he or she did was it been done according to how they wished it to be done? Many studios, each competiting with one another, rushed out their films utilising tinting and toning as part of a commercial imperative. Sometimes a careful colour continuity had been prepared. Sometimes not. There are films that look as if the celluloid has simply been crudely dipped into a chemical dye. Whilst other movies have a painterly elegance about them.

Things are more problematic in our computer age. Digital restorations of silent films are to be applauded. Yes, clean up the print. But add the colour with subtlety (The recent superb restoration of Intolerance is blighted by a toning that’s intensely fierce. Blu-Ray exacerbates its forbidding dazzle, so much that you want you play it in black and white. In an otherwise enthusiastic, and sensitive review, of the restored film in Sight & Sound, critic Pamela Hutchinson completely fails to even mention the tinting.)

Another recent restoration has been Hitchcock’s The Lodger. Did anyone find any colour continuity notes when they were working on this? The story concerns Jack the Ripper and a mysterious lodger who is suspected of being the infamous killer. Mostly the film consists of night scenes set in a foggy London. For this the restorers chose a horrible, browny orange tint that dominates the screen for over two thirds of the film’s running time. An occasional blue came as a relief. Surely more variation of colour was possible? Did Hitchcock intend it to be like this? Did he have any say in the matter then? Is the chosen offending colour just what the BFI thought would be appropriate because they’d no information on the toning used in the twenties? And was it released toned and tinted in 1926? For me that ‘foggy colour effect’ gave the film an undue heaviness (Fog turned into a sickly blanket instead of curling sinister in the frame.) The Lodger dragged horribly making it a tedious experience for what is normally (untinted) the most exciting of Hitchcock’s silents.

Yet there are successes. Take Griffith’s wonderful Broken Blossoms. And especialy the famous closet scene where the furious father (Donald Crisp) attacks his daughter (Lilian Gish). The tintinting/toning is of a brownish hue that feels just right for the dinginess of her home. As the father takes an axe to the closet door, Lilian Gish (an unforgettable performance) writhes, claws at the air and moves as a terrified creature. This is briefly intercut with blue street shots of the gentle Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) running to save her. Blue breaks up the tension and ‘horror’ of the brown. It’s as if the instrumental colours of a symphonic tone poem cut, or conducted, by Griffith’s exact editing where at play here. The whole film is so intelligently coloured; adding greatly to the poignancy of the melodrama.

And finally Edwin S.Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). Last night I saw for the first time a beautiful hand-tinted print. This was done at Pathe, by the women employed as colourists, in its factory at Vincenees. At the end of the film, the robber points his gun at the camera and fires it. A reddish brown smoke appears. If the film had suddenly added a subversive inter-title, or broken into speech, the robber might have said, ‘Look out audience were comin’ to get yer and we aim to colour your world proper one day!’

Blessay 18: A Self in the Rock

Wallace Stevens is often regarded as notoriously ‘difficult’. Yet Stevens’ ‘difficulties’ are all part of the challenge and appeal of this great poet. He is dense, rhythmically taut and playfully ambiguous. His poetry and poetic method can be best summed up by the opening lines of the poem Of Modern Poetry.

‘The poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice / What will suffice.’

You really need to tackle Stevens head on and unpack the rigor of his word patterning. The patterns are meaningful and also wonderfully self-sufficient. The contradiction between the musical power of his words, that resist full meaning, and yet invite so much interpretation, proves, for the reader, to be a lot more fascinating than exasperating. You have to trust Stevens. Flow with him and realize that his writing isn’t a loose or showy abstraction. Stevens has an incisively observed, if very interior view of the world. By his detractors Stevens has been called, over-cerebral, obscure, a poet’s poet and ‘worse’ that he was unpatriotic.

All this is untrue and a smoke screen to hide his concerns. His poems have lots of Americana hidden, or obvious. He is no more forbidding than T.S.Eliot or Robert Frost – both poets perhaps more universally loved than Wallace Stevens. I’ve been reading Stevens for many years and I still don’t fully get all of him, but maybe that’s the point. He is an irreducible mystery case. His poetic thinking is very much concerned with a pure state of being. Not being in an existential sense but more an aesthetic one.

Stevens tends to view the idea of reality, as more interesting than the reality itself. Is he just being playfully, and seriously, philosophical? Yes, often. But he’s not a philosopher, but a literary guy.

‘The philosopher proves that the philosopher exists / The poet merely enjoys existence’

That’s from an essay called ‘The Figure of the Youth as a Virile Poet.’ It’s part of a book of collected essays called The Necessary Angel published in 1951. (I urge all poets to read this book. It contains, alongside the criticism of Coleridge, some of the most insightful comments on the relationship between poetry and philosophy ever written.)

Let me make it clear, Stevens is not a cold poet. You will find much warmth and humanity behind his abstractions. He is tender, funny and deeply sensitive in his highly original attempt to comprehend things. One of his most well-known poems is Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction. The first section called ‘It must be abstract’ has these lines.

‘You must become an ignorant man again / And see the sun again with an ignorant eye / And see it clearly in the idea of it’

For me this echoes Blake’s powerful warning/declaration in The Auguries of Innocence.

‘We are led to believe a lie / When we see not thro ‘the eye’

I think Stevens is often saying that the creative mind is endlessly making images. Images that are meant not to pin things down as a fixed set of thoughts or reflections. But an opening up to multiple ways of observation that remain fruitful and expansive. This activity is beautifully expressed in these lines from The Sail of Ulysses.

‘In the crystal atmospheres of the mind / Light’s comedies. dark’s tragedies. / Like things produced by a climate, the world / Goes round in the climates of the mind / And bears its floriasons of imagery.’

I love the use of the French word floraisons – meaning blossoming. It suggests a natural growth, or evolving, of the mind. It also makes me think of the old word floriated – having ornamentation based on flowers and leaves. Stevens enters the mind a lot in his poetry. There is a constant looking at the world through the prism of his interior landscape. But this is a truism. It’s what all good writers do. Yet what matters to Stevens is also what you also imaginatively journey towards. How the idea of that perceived external reality is then shaped into words. And in the case of Stevens and Blake it’s a constantly new possibility or visionary shape. Back to The Necessary Angel.

‘The real is constantly being engulfed in the unreal…(Poetry) is an illumination of a self in the rock.’

Wallace Stevens is illuminating, full stop. Read him. Penetrate the rock.