Category: opinions

Artful (Part Two)


Intention does not make good art.

George Saunders

Good news for those of us who can’t make up our minds … isn’t it? The ultimate slacker, of course, was Sir Francis Drake who – legend has it – greeted news of the Armada’s arrival during a game of bowls by remarking that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards. True or not, it’s a cool story! And here’s the blurb to Russell Hoban’s inspiring children’s tale, “How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsman”:

Tom is so good at fooling around that he does little else. His Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, who thinks this is too much like having fun, calls upon the fearsome Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach him a lesson. So the Captain challenges Tom to three rounds of womble, muck, and sneedball, certain that he will win. However, when it comes to fooling around, Tom doesn’t fool around, and his skills prove so polished that the results of the contest are completely unexpected …

Turns out the puritan work ethic isn’t the sure-fire short-cut to success it always claims to be. Nothing wrong with doing your homework, of course, provided you’re the one who set it. And as anyone who is micro-managed into a stupor will tell you … er, duh?

I enjoy blogging. You can please yourself what to write and each new post is ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ as TS Eliot put it … though not in a post, because he died in 1965! The phrase occurs in his long poem “Four Quartets”, a profound meditation on life and death, where he keeps circling back in frank admission that he has not yet found the right words:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Uncanny, don’t you think, how well that describes every would-be post you’ve sent to the trashcan? But something keeps us coming back for more, perhaps the hope that this next one will articulate a wholly new idea never before even half-imagined … ah, dream on, Dave! The cold reality you need to face is that there is nothing new under the sun … but who is this galloping towards us, blowing his cavalry bugle?

No artist tolerates reality.

Franz Kafka

Ha, if Kafka’s brave enough to ride a horse, who are we to wave a white flag? Or stare glumly at a blank page, for that matter … each new post may not grasp the grail but together they may amount to more than the sum of their parts.

Both Eliot and Kafka produced constant variations on just a few themes. This brings to mind a principle of musical construction known as isorhythm, where a fixed rhythmic pattern undergoes a series of melodic transformations throughout the course of a piece. Jazz pianist Geoff Eales, who even calls his band Isorhythm, says: “It’s a marvellous way of achieving unity within variety.” If you have six minutes to spare, here’s a taste of their music:

Hang on, do I spy a figure in flowing robes riding a camel down that sand-dune? Could be John Barth with more support for the aesthetic existence:

Reality is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Let’s stay in the clouds awhile. Whether or not you agree with Walter Pater’s dictum that all art constantly aspires to the condition of music, it’s hard to deny the importance of pattern. What else are new works of art – or new blog posts, for that matter – but variations on a theme? That’s a phrase that could also describe evolution itself and there’s something to be said for the argument that we are no longer evolving physically because cultural change has taken over – ever since we decided body hair was uncool and started wearing animal skins.

Or maybe we just like dressing up. We’ve grown used to the mystery of attire and love playing peekaboo, much as we love words which seem to mean one thing when they also mean another. Our natural survival instinct is to hunt for variations in patterns which might signal advantage or warn of danger. Perhaps this is why I find it so rewarding to work within tight constraints of form – strict verse patterns, regular rhythms, rhyme schemes, limited word lengths and so on. I like the way you can construct a whole world in a small space – a forgotten world, maybe, or a spoof version – or even, perhaps, a better world? And unlike the real world, this one is under your control. William Blake knew the power of imagination:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Ah, the thrill of the chase!

What do you mean, you can’t spot the connection? If Seamus Heaney can compare his pen with his dad’s spade, please allow me to wear my deerstalker hat when I go on a word hunt … though I am trying to make a serious point here. Words and ideas seem to come more naturally when I’m struggling to make them fit into a tight space. Focusing on the how, perhaps, I’m less self-conscious about the what. How is style, whereas what is substance …

Let me cut back to the chase. Meaning is political and, in a world that’s shrinking fast, you can’t open your mouth without putting your foot in it – or else open your ears without some foul poison seeping in. So easy to feel hopeless, helpless, voiceless. But Scott Fitzgerald, as ever the canary in the mine, came up with this clear note of caution:

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

Or drive you to self-medication, maybe? But we all swim in the same sea these days and perhaps art is our only lifeline.

Art is the link between soundbites. Well, why not? I’m a great admirer of playwright Joe Orton who assembled his hilarious satirical farces much as a visual artist puts together a collage. Each play had one main theme – sex, work, the holiday industry, death, religion and madness all took turns to amuse! – and his preparation was to make lists of possible ingredients which included … Titles/Names … Exclamations and Ripostes … Longer Conversations. Sometimes he had particular characters in mind but much was free-floating and using only the barest plot outlines he cut and pasted wild and unpredictable romps that have barely dated.

I saw a brilliant production of his ‘What The Butler Saw’ – set in a madhouse – only the other week. It was fast and furious, leaving the audience in a state of breathless excitement – torn between wanting to laugh and not wanting to miss the next line.

Whenever actors and directors complained to Joe that lines weren’t funny, he went home and used his lists to come up with new lines. One actor described him as ‘indefatigable’. Orton said that he wanted his lines to be ‘irrefutable’.

Indefatigable and irrefutable! Now there’s an artistic manifesto …

Well, I could carry on like this all night but I need my beauty sleep. The way I usually bring my ramblings to a close is to write on A4 paper and – when I reach the end of the second side – force a conclusion which sums up what I’ve written, often random thoughts and stuff I’ve copied from books or newspapers, before adding an all-encompassing title. It’s good training but useless here, where you can go on and on and on and … on that note, I’ll bid you a fond farewell and leave you with a reminder of what might be at stake if only we could pull our fingers out!

We created the art before we had the society.

Vladimir Tatlin

PS.  If you are the famous boy with your finger in the dyke, please ignore my final exhortation …

Image result for finger in the dyke



Image: The Daily Player

Artful (Part One)

One dictionary definition of art describes it as “the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words”. 

You can’t argue with that, of course, but it’s a faintly lacklustre description of what seems to me a magical process. (By magical, I don’t mean anything supernatural. Nature herself is plenty deep enough for me.) So I sat down, contemplated and came up with words to finish a sentence beginning Art is …

Art is … 

celebration	   empathy	    example	      acknowledgment
clarification      preservation	    representation    remembrance
focus		   transformation   symbolism         vision
refuge	           escape           relief            rescue
vision             affirmation      assertion         critique
play               consolation      exorcism          purging
purification       journey          confession        exploration
adventure          creation         mystery           completion
record             analysis         synthesis         experiment
therapy            weapon           touchstone        composition
meeting            bridge	    mirror            reflection
sharing            contribution     warning           recommendation
conversation       spur             signpost          rallying-cry
prophesy           manifesto        subversion        provocation
illumination       healer           argument          questioning
collaboration      catalyst         explanation       unique

Great art can be all of these things. No wonder creative people are prepared to go through agonies to produce something worthwhile. But following your own inner promptings while keeping your eye on the subject and your ear tuned to the expectations of an audience is a juggling act which requires psychological stamina and deep determination.

A big ask.

But artists aren’t superhuman – very often their expressive ability is rooted in misfortune and injustice, their human frailty the source of strength. The struggle against mute power, says philosophical novelist Milan Kundera, is the struggle of a theatre group that has attacked an army. This is an almost comic version of the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword.

But it’s also a heroic image. Art embodies the hope that we aren’t helpless – something can be done.

My previous post, featuring an unbelieving Philip Larkin reflecting on religion to draw fresh conclusions, suggests that cultures can merge to create something new. A paradox – art is nothing if not original but grows best when nourished by tradition. Someone commented that today’s European churches were often built on the sites of ancient temples and I replied that many were dedicated to gods of healing – perhaps our new temples are the medical centres, sources of endless antibiotics.

As to our spiritual needs – answers to big questions like Who am I? – we have modern-gothic malls to bestow the dubious blessings of consumer identity. I shop, therefore I am?

But there’s trouble in paradise. Shop till you drop becomes Shop till you drop the climate in a hole it can’t clamber out of … and this, I like to think, is where art appears at the top of the hill like the cavalry to the rescue. Or is it the Commanches?

Hang on, our movie seems to have jumped forward a few reels … let’s wind back a bit!

Ha, look, that’s me in a walk-on role! I play the part of a free-thinker who has a tendency to get himself lost. Being in love with words doesn’t help – chasing fine phrases down ridiculous rabbit-holes butters no parsnips, as nobody said to anyone ever. I never know what I want to do until I’ve done it and consequently am the world’s worst procrastinator … or else a close second to this chap!

Image result for AA Milne shipwrecked sailor

To see AA Milne’s poem about the poor fellow, click on

Where was I? All over the shop, as usual, and whenever shop-assistants start to hover I tell them Just browsing … you too, huh? Hmm, going into shops without buying anything could be the new agitprop – “political propaganda promulgated chiefly in literature, drama, music, or art” – but would anybody notice? I suppose you’d have to combine it with requests for impossible objects – gold-plated cycle-clips in honour of Philip Larkin, perhaps?

By the way, Larkin has form when it comes to supplanting religion with art:


If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin’s tone is ironic but the beauty of the final image suggests a serious intention. It is open-ended, inviting the reader in to wonder … or wander! The poem steers clear of religion’s didacticism and enters a more democratic artistic space. I am reminded of the campaign to bring pure drinking water to the world’s poor and its unforgettable images:

Image result for children at water taps

In trying to create my own artistic space, I’m encouraged by novelist Richard Ford’s words:

I’ve always tried to abide by EM Forster’s famous dictum … that … fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life”. To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalisations about as the people we actually meet every day … I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost’s advice meant specifically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.

I’m drawn to this because I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. Does he mean, be mature but don’t forget to have fun? Is he saying, go for realism but leave room for fantasy? Maybe the message is that rules are there to be broken – there’s no progress without contraries, says William Blake.

But are Ford’s two principles really opposed? I suspect that a childlike point of view – immune to cliché, where the merely childish are wholly susceptible to it – would appreciate ” the incalculability of life”. When once we start to reduce the “variegated and vivid” and content ourselves with stereotype, we lose our appetite for life. This is where all the trouble starts …

I’m well aware that the artist in me is wary of making generalisations, where my inner preacher can’t get enough of them. A friend of mine once said I had a “shopping-trolley mind” by which he meant that I pull ideas off the shelves at random like a lucky winner in a supermarket sweep.  You may have more ingredients than anyone else, he said, but they may not add up to a successful meal.

Ah well, time to empty this particular shopping bag and see what I can serve up in Part Two … maybe a tip or two on turning a million and one ideas into something tasty and satisfying. Just don’t expect me to have a shopping list.

And in defence of my somewhat round-the-houses approach, I’ll end with some curiously encouraging words from writer George Saunders:

Intention does not make good art.



Image result for race round supermarket


Image: Mirror


Communication Breakdown, Part 2

As 2016 finally implodes in a shitstorm of fake news and false facts, I find myself in need of consolation. If I was a hedgehog, I’d hibernate. My previous post ended in a soothing flurry of proverbs but their analgesic effect has now worn off, so here’s another one:

‘When the heart weeps at what it has lost, the spirit laughs at what it has found.’

Arab proverb

Gulp, think I’m going to have to wait a while before that one works!

In the meantime, here is some music:

Hmm, that’s blown away a few cobwebs, if only because it was 1970 and not 2016! My life was ahead of me then, all speculation and no nostalgia. Who was it said, I wonder, that nostalgia is not what it was? I reckon we were the first mass-media generation and the fusty old past was a backward-looking book we were only too keen to close. Like Bob Dylan, we went along with Rimbaud’s injunction that it was necessary to be absolutely modern. Adults in the 1950s, wearied by the war, usually seemed happy enough to let us get on with it. After all, our freedom was what they had been fighting for.

And by comparison with children today, we were allowed to run pretty wild. But don’t run away with the thought that it was a golden age. My cousin Helen makes this thoughtful observation:

As children spawned just after WW2, we remember what it was like before the screws tightened on British society: schools were often appalling, there was little Health and Safety, and we had rights now gone for ever thanks to Thatcher and Blair. While this meant industrial accidents, child deprivation and unfairness, it also meant freedom to protest. Freedom of action. When in Marrakesh for my 60th, I was overjoyed at the lethal collapsed pavements which we had to navigate to avoid breaking our ankles. I felt once again the thrill of being in control of my own path – literally! I suppose what I’m saying is that you need some danger, mayhem and confusion as the crucible for inspiration and change. What have we lost in our present over-protected first world?

We learn best through trial and error: without mistakes, no achievements. How else can we grow up and not just older? Here is Helen again:

Young adults today don’t know anything different from the over-scrutinised, coddled society we have today. They don’t suffer from the feeling of loss of rights. How much more obedient will future generations be? They will accept without question their body-chipped, iris-recognition life. We also have to be vigilant for signs of the return of repression under the excuse of protection and safety.

We have always been contaminated, heavily, with the infantile responses programmed into us by all the “Sit still, be quiet, do as you’re told” directives of childhood: but looking over the parapet today it seems (Warning, generalisation alert!)  that younger generations are lacking in the cussedness, determination and daring that makes my generation such an inconvenience to the Establishment when we cross swords with it.

1984 has been and gone, with no obvious sign of Orwell’s Big Brother, but soon enough our every move will be followed by the often shadowy forces of control and commercial exploitation. Can you have a true democracy where adults are, in effect, infantilised? Helen traces the problem to our shallow ‘soundbite’ culture:

I blame the internet in part – the tsunami of information which helps to desensitise compassion and stifle curiosity. But why be curious anyway? The apathy of today is a realistic assessment of our political system. When you’ve grown up with celebrity culture, naturally you’ll be more interested in the Kardashians than the fact that there’s been a 6.5 earthquake in the third world.
Helen and I used to exchange long illustrated letters in our early teens and we’ve just resumed our correspondence on, ah yes, the internet! Perhaps we can prove Marshall McLuhan wrong when he said The medium is the message … in our case, I very much hope and believe, it’s not the how but the what!
Anyhow, no more talk of hibernation, I’m inspired to write and post an epic poem in defence of freedom before the weather closes in completely …
Image result for sun and storm

Blow Back

P eople say that writer’s block is when you
R un out of ideas. Don’t believe them. It’s when a thousand thoughts
O verflow and jam
T he
E xcessively narrow
S traw they’ve stuck in the
T urbulent milkshake of your mind.

I wrote this acrostic poem in response to yesterday’s Daily Prompt Protest but didn’t post it because it seemed, well, just too damn odd! Looking at it again, though, it does seem to summarise the way I feel at the moment about broadcasting my viewpoint to the world. So I thought I’d try to work out what’s happened. I don’t feel up to stringing a logical argument together, so here are a few random bullet-points in no particular order:

  • the political situation in post-Brexit Britain and pre-Trump America is an airless vacuum as if everyone has taken a deep breath at the same moment
  • facts are stranger than fiction, as always, but in shorter supply than usual
  • any attempt to be satirical is bound to fall short of the weirdness that calls itself reality
  • writing about yourself feels like changing the subject
  • anything you say about what’s going on in the world could become irrelevant before you finish the sentence
  • being controversial may alienate some and frighten off others
  • trying to be funny feels like whistling in a graveyard
  • whistling in a graveyard makes you look stupid
  • every word you utter reveals how you voted, which defeats the object of a secret ballot
  • when did words ever change anything anyway?

Is this just me, I wonder, or is any one else struggling with this stuff too?Image result for whistling in a graveyard




when the music’s over turn out the light

Lear, the aging king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom evenly among his three daughters. First, however, he puts his daughters through a test, asking each to tell him how much she loves him. Goneril and Regan, Lear’s older daughters, give their father flattering answers. But Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and favorite daughter, remains silent, saying that she has no words to describe how much she loves her father. Lear flies into a rage and disowns Cordelia, who flees his court.

Lear quickly learns that he made a bad decision. Goneril and Regan swiftly begin to undermine the little authority that Lear still holds. Unable to believe that his beloved daughters are betraying him, Lear slowly goes insane. He flees his daughters’ houses to wander on a heath during a great thunderstorm. With nobody left to do his bidding, he tries to command the weather:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man.

This is a tyrant who has lost power and wants everyone else to suffer for it. It seems a small step to the final days of Hitler in his Berlin bunker, still gripped by delusion, willing the destruction of the German people because they have let him down. They haven’t fought hard enough. Not a thought for the pain and sacrifice he has put them through.

Hitler is the ultimate psychopathic narcissist: it’s all about him. Yet Lear has retained some humanity and begins to realise that others are suffering too. He’s not the only one out in the cold. There are flashes of compassion and then this remarkable moment of lucid insight and empathy:

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

The greatness of this play is that it dares to ask the big questions, still unresolved 400 years later. Is it really every man for himself or are we somehow responsible for one another? If power corrupts, does absolute power corrupt absolutely? And should the poor be content with whatever trickles down to them from the tables of the rich?

Same old questions. But wild new questions arise which Shakespeare can hardly have meant to ask. Is the weather punishing us for ingratitude, after all? Not content with the bounty of nature, have we greedily pushed her to the edge of destruction? Our destruction, that is, and the destruction of our fellow species … nature herself will do fine without us … oh, and the ants and cockroaches!

It’s not a cheery view and recalls Jim Morrison’s cry on an old Doors track, ‘When The Music’s Over’:

What have we done to the Earth?
What have we done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her,
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn,
And tied her with fences and dragged her down.

Of course, some people don’t accept there’s a problem. Why, they ask, should we believe warnings from scientists who keep telling us they don’t have the funding to do a good job? And we have dominion over the earth, don’t we, giving us carte blanche to rip up the joint? Tell you what, honey, you sweet-talk me good and I’ll fetch you the goddam moon! I’m famous, see, I can make stuff happen …

How’s that for poetry?

Image result for moon



Stop Press: Truth Stranger Than Fiction!

The only newspaper I read is The Guardian every Saturday. I’m pretty comfortable with its broadly liberal, slightly left-of-centre viewpoint. And there’s so much to read it lasts me well into the week.

On a bus the other day I picked up a discarded copy of The Sun, a right-of-centre tabloid. I flicked through it and found myself torn between laughter and horror at its unhealthy diet of salacious gossip and prurient titillation. Not for the first time I found myself wondering whether this rag – you can’t call it a newspaper because it has little actual news or analysis – creates or simply confirms a narrowly philistine and frankly nasty mind-set in its regular readers.

Aha, I think to myself, let’s cleanse the palate with another post set in my fictional town of Bafflesby. The spoof tabloid can be called something alliterative – the Bafflesby Bullhorn, maybe, with a silly motto like ‘We Shout Louder Than You’ – and sending this garbage up will be a walk in the park …

Wrong! As screwed-up pieces of paper piled up on the carpet, it began to occur to me that this stuff is beyond satire. Who would ever believe me if my headline article was anything like the one they actually printed:


Jet perv films up BA girl’s undercarriage


A FIRST Class British Airways passenger has been arrested amid claims he used a phone to film up a stewardess’s skirt at 30,000ft.

Businessman Martyn Mennis, 61, is alleged to have pushed the handset under the 26-year-old (Continued on Page Four)

There is nothing else on the front page. I would remind you that The Sun, unlike the Bafflesby Bullhorn, is a national newspaper at a time when major domestic and international events are coming thick and fast …

One confession, though, I did change the names. Maybe I will be able to do a parody, after all, but my satirical target – The Sun – has set the bar pretty high … or should that be low? The prospect of writing it makes me feel a bit grubby. I wonder if Sun journalists feel grubby, or do they just get used to it? Perhaps they’ve all got thick skins to begin with …

Image result for cartoon airplane