Category: opinions

poem & afterthought

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D id we say one thing and do another?
e verybody singalonga Joni going
p lease o please look after the garden
l eaving a mountain of trash at the gate
e verybody singalonga Joni going
t ill it’s gone you don’t know just what you got
e verybody living on borrowed time

Easy when you think green to imagine it’s other people making all the mess. The truth is, everybody bears some responsibility. Anyway, shared guilt works better than pointing the finger. And just because we’ve fallen short doesn’t mean we should stop singing aspirational songs. Touchstones, yardsticks, beacons … call them what you will, their manifest truth lives on in spite of all our feeble backsliding.

So, once more with feeling

Image: Rolling Stone

Stimulus: WordPress Daily Prompt Deplete

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Troll Alert!

“Either you think, or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.”

This quotation from Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is The Night is really resonating with me at the moment. In recent posts I’ve explored ideas about how improvisation and originality could counter a spreading culture of fixed thinking and received opinion. Cyberspace has become a virtual battlefield where a multitude of rival ideologies compete for our attention.

That some may be indisciplined and uncivilized doesn’t really lessen the thrust of Fitzgerald’s maxim. It may even speak louder in our internet era.

As social animals we naturally internalise cultural conflict but I suspect our solitary online existence makes it harder for us to process so much disparate input. Simply put: these days, when do we get to talk stuff over? Evolution has made us sophisticated interpreters of face-to-face interactions but are we quite so clever when it comes to mysterious coded messages left by individuals and/or groups whose facial expressions or body language – and therefore true motivations – we can’t read?

Nothing new, you might say, it’s a problem that’s been around at least as long as printing presses. But the provenance of books, newspapers and magazines is pretty easy to uncover. Checks and balances around conventional publishing have grown up over a period of almost 700 years. By comparison, the internet is a mere whippersnapper run wild who can only communicate through mysterious signs and signals in a strange language all its own.

Mowgli, maybe? But I’m reminded of another Rudyard Kipling tale, from his Just So Stories, where a little girl writes a picture message to her mum which is hilariously misinterpreted – much to the discomfort of the foreign gentleman who has kindly offered to deliver it. Highly recommended, if you’ve never read it – just click on How The First Letter Was Written.

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And while I’m on the subject of stories for children, I think that the following short video offers a tidy little reminder of online etiquette rules. Not that you need reminding, of course … being a fine, upstanding and wholly honourable member of the blogging community! But you may find it handy when crossing the little wooden bridge over the stream to the lush green pastures beyond – trip trap! – only to hear a deep, gruff, grumbly voice beneath you …

You Couldn’t Make It Up … Or Could You?

I enjoy responding to the WordPress Daily Prompts because they force me to think on my feet. I have to improvise.

The idea of conjuring up something out of nothing excites me. I like it when set routines  break apart in unexpected ways – when comedy magician Tommy Cooper’s tricks go wrong or when Pete and Dud sketches dissolve in fits of giggles. I’m not a big fan of quick-fire punchline humour, unless it’s done really well – the late Ken Dodd was a master – usually preferring longer ‘observational’ material with a more off-the-cuff feel. Sure, this can be almost as scripted as one-liner comedy but it has often been worked up through improvisation –  UK comic Stewart Lee and the late US comic Bill Hicks being excellent examples. Both create a frisson of danger by bouncing off audiences.

I’m drawn to music with a high level of improvisation – like blues or jazz – because it feels more ‘in the moment’ than, say, classical music with its elaborate arrangements. Again, the idea that anything can happen adds excitement. That’s not to say great composers and conductors and orchestras don’t thrill me to the core but the near-telepathy of impromptu music usually moves me more. And it doesn’t stop there …

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My idea of a failed evening down the pub is when everybody just sits around cracking jokes or recounting well-rehearsed personal anecdotes. They have their place, of course, but there’s much more chance of genuine interaction when the conversation is improvised. And then there’s that ‘frisson of danger’ …

But it may be that old jokes and anecdotes are the safer option. There are sharp polarisations in our cultural and political life which can put all kinds of dampers on free speech. Fixed positions can easily become flashpoints. Civilised discussion can degenerate into a slanging match before you know it.

I’ve just read something by the Irish poet WB Yeats which struck a chord:

A nation in crisis becomes almost like a single mind, or rather like those minds I have described that become channels for parallel streams of thought, each stream taking the colour of the mind it flows through. These streams are not set moving, as I think, through conversation or publication, but through ‘telepathic contact’ at some depth below normal consciousness; and it is only years afterwards, when future events have shown the theme’s importance, that we discover that they are different expressions of a common theme.

He was writing in 1922, just after the partition of Ireland which followed years of conflict. The Troubles in Northern Ireland exploded in 1968, continuing for 30 years until the common membership of Ireland and the UK in the European Union facilitated the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. I sincerely hope that the UK’s proposed withdrawal from the EU does nothing to damage that hard-won peace settlement. But is there a Warning in his words?

The words Yeats uses are old-fashioned and poetic but am I alone in thinking he could be describing the internet and the platform algorithms which may be polarising opinion not just in Britain but across the world … each stream taking the colour of the mind it flows through? And with worrying phenomena such as confirmation bias and trolling, are we already beyond real conversation and genuine publication? When you add in the shrinking of conventional mainstream media, cross-border hacking and online censorship within several nation states … well, at the very least, the high hopes for enhanced human communication which those enthusiastic internet pioneers once held might now seem a shade or three too optimistic.

And yet … what the hell archie – to use one of my mum’s favourite phrases … I’m hopeful. There’s our instinctive social grace evolved over aeons that enables us to seize on moments, opportunities, connections. There’s my granddaughter turning everything (and everyone) into an imaginary game where she is in control and from which she can learn about the world in her own good time. There’s my son, a talented amateur drummer, facing a big audience with a new band whose musical arrangements he hardly knew but using his natural ability and some serious listening to see him – and them – through in some style.

And while I’m on serious – really serious – there’s a huge demonstration in the US with no other plan but to stand side by side in the fervent hope of bringing about change.

To use another phrase my mum liked, it’s not beyond the wit of man to make things better. When the play goes wrong and everybody forgets their lines, there’s only one way to rescue the performance.

Improvise your way to a better place. Learn to seize the time. It’s never too late.

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Something New #3

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If John Lennon was hard on other people, he was harder on himself. But he was never Nowhere Man. Today it’s his radiant honesty that’s remembered, a shining sincerity that sometimes got him into trouble but more often – and especially since the senseless tragedy of his early death – won the much longer battle of hearts and minds.

Lennon’s originality lay, I think, in his capacity to touch a raw nerve. There was no formula, no going through the motions. His music always retained an improvised edge.

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Lesser artists are often shameless crowd-pleasers. The great ones are themselves usually their own toughest audience. They lead rather than follow taste because what they give us has come through such rigorous quality testing. And the most important quality is authenticity.

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Image result for originality quotesIs it too far-fetched, I wonder, to compare artistic originality with escapology – the evasion of constraints to liberate the self from chains or, to push the analogy, from convention? And if there’s any magic, perhaps it’s in the sudden realisation of freedom. Truth is the touchstone.

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Good news, then, you don’t have to come up with anything new! Let’s stay in the 19th century for confirmation of this.

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Nietzsche once said that, without music, life would be unimaginable. Time perhaps to consult a musician …

Nifty link, huh, even though all I did was type Originality into Google Images?

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Another comparison comes to mind, originality and alchemy – the transformation of base metal into gold. If that seems too supernatural, consider the miraculous implications behind this next idea.

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We may not be original but what we do can be. New writers are often given the following piece of advice.

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After all, it’s one of life’s truisms that we can only ever start from where we are. Duh! But, as so often, Philip Larkin comes to the rescue.

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Ah, takes me back to those ‘possibilities of being’ that were the plus side of Pirandello’s ‘multiple identities’! Perhaps you remember them from Something New #1? And let’s cheer ourselves up some more with a photograph and a playful comment from the person who took it.

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Playfulness is another facet in the jewel that is originality. I play with my granddaughter and marvel at how she naturally and instinctively incorporates whatever happens to be lying around in the creative games we play together. She connects me to my younger self like a bolt of lightning links heaven and earth.

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Striking image, eh? 😉 And speaking of striking images, how about this one?

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The trouble with the visual image, though, is that it can’t really capture the inner nature of an abstract concept like originality. Surface not substance, pose instead of profundity. (Enough alliteration already. Ed.) 

Ah well, let’s plough on …

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Playing with whatever I find online is fun, though I usually try to acknowledge my sources. Too many to list here but just this once I’ll risk the lawsuits in the interests of, er, art or whatever!

More seriously, a general point emerges – however original people are, or try to be, they should  always credit their guiding influences. And as my WordPress friend Curt Mekemson put it: Creativity emerges from clashing ideas.

I would venture to add that the most vital motivation is a moral imperative – put simply, we care. Which brings me to my final sequence of images.

Luigi Pirandello wasn’t wrong about mutual incomprehension and multiple identities and the clash of vibrant life with inert forms, structures or templates. But William Blake’s law of contraries holds that every negative contains its own positive – much as the Buddhist higher worlds (Learning, Compassion, Realisation) are said to emerge from the lower worlds (Hunger, Anger, Animality, Humanity) – a source of much comfort and no little inspiration to me.

Turns out there’s light at the end of every tunnel.

Duh!

Who knew?

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Oh, and don’t get me started on Tribute Bands … deep breath, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 …

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Ah, that’s better! I’ll end this circuitous exploration with somebody way beyond imitation …

 

Something new #2

Imagine living in a society where the biggest compliment you could give someone would be that they behaved – and even thought – just like everyone else. My question would be, do you think you would like to live there?

If your heart leaps with joy at the idea, stop reading now. This post is not for you. Originality – for you – is something to be mistrusted or even feared. Change is terrifying. The idea of people freely speaking their minds fills you with unaccountable dread. Close your eyes and let your thoughts drift away to the sound of a marching band …

They’ve gone. Thank goodness. Now we can be rude about them.

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The rest of us – I’d wager a much larger group – will view mindless conformity as a dystopian nightmare. Every sci-fi writer worth their salt attacks the clone or robot state, where free will and rational dissent are prohibited. There may be lackeys of repressive regimes or systems who peddle propaganda for Big Brother but their oily eulogies make sensible people feel queasy.

Sensible people want to think for themselves, thank you very much, and refuse to be told to shut up and do as they are told. Freedom of speech and action are inalienable rights, qualified only by the need to protect others from harm and hate.

So one important reason to include someone in my list of major influences would be their independence and ability to stand out from the crowd. In other words, that they were original.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to that list – https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com/2017/09/06/guiding-spirits/

But what is originality? I think it’s easier to recognise than describe. One thing it’s not, you’d think, is imitation … but take a look at these:

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Heavens to Betsy, you cry, are we all frauds and liars seeking to bamboozle one another? Even the great Einstein is encouraging us to smuggle the answers into the exam room in flagrant disregard for the rules! But hold your horses, here is another heavy-hitter to shed light on the matter …

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Turns out there’s good and bad imitation – one slavish, the other creative. You could picture the second kind as beachcombing, shaping and assembling random flotsam and jetsam to construct beautiful new and hitherto undreamed artefacts. Einstein mentioned creativity, which sounds like a separate concept but isn’t.

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Habit and routine are the danger zones – good servants but bad masters, perhaps?

And talking of good and bad, somebody – I forget who – once said: Life is neither good nor bad. It is original. I do remember that Shakespeare gave Hamlet this line: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

This brings to mind one of my favourite William Blake sayings: Without contraries is no progression. A more colloquial version might run, learn to take the rough with the smooth. Mistakes and misfortunes are not only inevitable, they’re the stepping-stones to another place entirely.

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As a teacher I saw only too well that an obsession with right and wrong answers can lead to cowering conformity and a timid mistrust of ambiguity, producing a fear of difference. School should be a place of open discovery. But you don’t make something heavier by weighing it.

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And I don’t know if the following school report was real or apocryphal but it hits home nonetheless:

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As with Captain Beefheart, whose unschooled genius featured in the interview that ended Something New #1, formal education isn’t the sole passport to success.

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But what is it that school all too easily rubs off? Can the discoverer of relativity enlighten us?

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Ah, Imagination, the place this post began! But isn’t making things up the root of all deception? Oh well, it seems we have to take the rough with the smooth.

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Stay home, maybe, never knowing what we might have missed. Ignorance is, after all, a kind of bliss.

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Another alternative voice was Kurt Cobain, who certainly knew whereof he spoke. To reduce your chances of ignoring Marilyn Manson and turning into a couch potato, this next picture features a unique customised individually-interactional element:

Phew, that’s more than enough for now! Like a lazy river, my meanderings have allowed virgin islands to form and it looks like I may have to explore them in Something New #3. Let’s hope I don’t drift out to sea!

I’ll end this segment with the Beatles and John Lennon’s haunting and characteristically honest reminder of the ease with which originality can drift into unoriginality …

Something New #1

Reading some Alan Ginsberg poems, I was reminded of his memorable maxim: First thought, best thought. He was a huge fan of Walt Whitman, who also influenced DH Lawrence. Lawrence didn’t go in for rewriting, either, having a quasi-religious faith in the freshness of first inspirations.

So in the spirit of freewheeling abandon I’ll jump headfirst on a metaphorical trolley made of orange-boxes and old pram-wheels and head off steeply downhill … Holy smoke! Did I really do that when I was ten years old knowing full well there was a busy main road at the bottom of the hill – busy, that is, for 1959! – just to impress a few kids? Consequences were for cowards in those distant daredevil days – you could always use your trailing foot as a brake, even though your mum always complained about the terrible rate you got through shoes! One of her favourite words, that was, terrible

I’m getting side-tracked already. That’s the trouble with metaphors, wheeled or otherwise, they can run away with you. This post is supposed to be about, er … well, my previous one was about nothing so perhaps I should continue down that unbeaten trail. My very first post on WordPress was about getting lost. Deliberately. Going off piste. That was the guiding spirit of A Nomad In Cyberspace. A kid heading off with no particular place to go …

Haha, cue song!

Now there’s a side-track for you, if ever there was one! We’re rushing ahead of ourselves. I haven’t even hit puberty yet. At least my youthful persona hasn’t and at this rate he never will, appearing only in extended metaphors which I’m trying to cut down for the sake of getting somewhere specific.

That’s better, Dave, you’re starting to sound more convincing … authoritative, even … eager eyes fixed on a worthwhile goal! Making sense. Nice work if you can get it. It pays to be serious these days. Perhaps I’m falling under the influence of my elders and betters … well, not elders, most of the British cabinet are younger than me … and as for betters, well, that’s a value-judgment beyond the remit of this post.

Remit? This post is remitless. New territory beckons. I’m continuing in the full knowledge that there’s now a wavy red line under the word remitless. Another. Ah, what the heck, let’s throw grammar to the winds and ride bareback into the wild and windy night like there’s no tomorrow!

Like there’s no tomorrow. Simile? Metaphor? Or ghastly reality?

The British cabinet in its venerable collective wisdom has just tried to heal present and future internal and external divisions with a phrase of incomparable genius – ambitious managed divergence. We are clearly not worthy nor ready – too young and inferior? – to comprehend such lofty concepts without help. Here’s Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian:

You’re not being fired. Heavens, no. You and the company are merely going through what we call an “ambitious managed divergence”. The torture Brexit inflicts on the English language escalates daily, the latest indignity being the euphemism coined after the tellingly named Brexit war cabinet had an eight-hour session among the whiteboards at Chequers on Thursday. “Ambitious managed divergence” was the agreed description for the planned future relationship between Britain and the EU, a phrase so blatantly designed to stitch together two clashing positions you could see the seams.

“Divergence” is there to satisfy the Johnson-Gove-Fox axis of Brexiteers, while “managed” is meant to placate the Hammond-Rudd rump of remain realists. “Ambitious” is the heroic attempt to dress up what is, in fact, a dollop of fudge chock-full of contradictions and likely to melt on first contact with the heat of trade talks in Brussels.

The phrase I like – nay envy! – is “an eight-hour session among the whiteboards“. Who hasn’t sat in a tedious meeting where a desperate team-leader eventually pleads for a summing up of deadlocked positions? ‘A form of words, that’s all we need, then we can all go!”

Go where? Home? Down the pub? To hell in a handcart? That’s the beauty of living in a free country, see, we get to choose? Mind you, according to the dramatist Pirandello – my latest minor obsession, see the previous post! – choice is an illusion. So is everything else, pretty well, including our notion of individual identity. How, he asks, can such a fragile construct survive …

” … the deceit of mutual understanding irremediably founded on the empty abstraction of words, the multiple personality of everyone corresponding to the possibilities of being found in each of us, and finally the inherent tragic conflict between life (which is always moving and changing) and form (which fixes it, immovable)”?

One hopeful note is found in the phrase “the possibilities of being”. Luke Rhinehart comes to mind, throwing dice to expand his range of life experiences. Couple that with the idea of life “always moving and changing” to discover the potential, at least, for continued human evolution. Technology may have stopped us evolving physically but it has multiplied our chances of cultural and social change.

Some people baulk at this, perhaps fearing the rise of a repressive society in lockstep to a prescribed beat. The following interview with Captain Beefheart, arguably the most creative and original performing artist in the colourful history of rock music, is a vivid reminder of both the dangers and delights of so-called popular culture.

I’ll leave it there for now. My next post will consider the value of originality at a time when unthinking conformity is, perhaps surprisingly, pushing us all further and further apart. Perhaps we do need to be ambitious if our divergence is to be, er, managed …

 

Something and Nothing

Warningthis post is about nothing.

If you have something – anything – else better to do, you are advised to get on with it. Unless, of course, you can’t be bothered – in which case, reading this could be a perfect excuse to postpone starting that.

If by some unlucky chance you have to begin that without delay, why not treat yourself to a well-earned break after a little while and come back to this? Then you can read about nothing and save your mental energy for that important something – that vital anything – else.

And if you’re just kicking your heels, this is right up your street.

I’ve been reading plays by Pirandello. Don’t worry, they aren’t about anything. Turns out there’s nothing out there for them to be about. That wouldn’t stop theatres charging you to watch them, mind, nor reviewers and critics trying to sell you their opinions about Pirandello’s brilliant creation of nothing.

But this isn’t the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. His characters have plenty to say and nothing turns out to be surprisingly interesting. Something of why is contained in the following online critique of Pirandello.

Before that something, here’s a nothing that is – unsurprisingly – tedious. Watch it all and you may even turn with some relief to the final quotation. As Pirandello suggests, everything is relative, and as I once heard someone who showed us some very dull experimental films say in answer to an adverse audience reaction: ‘There’s no such bloody thing as boredom!’

Things we regard as Constant constantly change in the restless turmoil we call life. We think we catch a glimpse of the situation. But impressions change from hour to hour. A word is often sufficient or even just the manner in which it is said to change our minds completely. And then besides – quite without our knowledge – images of hundreds and hundreds of things are flitting through our minds, suddenly causing our tempers to vary in the strangest way.

In all his best self-questioning plays, Pirandello’s characters find that the firm selves they believe they own are in fact made up of evanescent hopes, impulses, wishes, fears, social pressures, the instincts of the animal inheritance.

They are driven deeper. Pirandello said he tried to make them express “as their own living passion and torment the passion and torment which for so many years have been the pangs of my spirit: the deceit of mutual understanding irremediably founded on the empty abstraction of words, the multiple personality of everyone corresponding to the possibilities of being found in each of us, and finally the inherent tragic conflict between life (which is always moving and changing) and form (which fixes it, immovable).”

Hence his characters usually wander as in a hall of mirrors, thinking they look for reality, while in fact they desperately try to find safe illusions -“ideals”- to live by. When, for a moment, they seem “real” to an audience, their non-realism is often suddenly declared: they turn out to be in a play-within-a-play.

Hmm, sounds a bit like blogging …

Haha, only kidding!

Or am I … ?