Category: people

Guiding Spirits

I regard organised religion as more of a dividing than a unifying force but I share with those who are religious an overwhelming desire to express thankfulness. Naturally I am grateful to family and friends but beyond them I would like to salute all the men and women whose energetic effort, excellent example and power to Elevate have enriched my life immeasurably.

I may have left out a few but this is the best I could manage in half an hour. It’s not much to give for a lifetime of encouragement.

Jane Austen 
Samuel Beckett 
William Blake 
Jorge Luis Borges 
Boudica 
Ray Bradbury 
Emily Bronte 
Big Bill Broonzy 
Arthur Brown 
Lenny Bruce 
Gautama Buddha 
William Burroughs
Samuel Butler 
Italo Calvino 
George Carlin 
Leonora Carrington 
Lewis Carroll 
Rachel Carson 
Miguel de Cervantes 
Anton Chekhov 
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 
Peter Cook 
Marie Curie 
Charles Darwin 
Ray Davies 
Richard Dawkins 
Charles Dickens 
Emily Dickinson 
Bob Dylan 
TS Eliot 
Harry Enfield 
Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot) 
Ella Fitzgerald 
Anne Frank 
Mahatma Gandhi 
Khalil Gibran 
Alan Ginsberg 
Jane Goodall 
Kenneth Grahame 
Jimi Hendrix 
Bill Hicks 
Christopher Hitchens 
Billie Holiday 
Barry Humphries 
Aldous Huxley 
James Joyce 
Carl Jung 
Franz Kafka 
Frida Kahlo 
Paul Kantner 
John Keats 
Jack Kerouac 
Martin Luther King 
Rudyard Kipling 
Philip Larkin
DH Lawrence 
Edward Lear 
Ursula Le Guin 
John Lennon 
Abraham Lincoln 
Nelson Mandela 
Katherine Mansfield 
Bob Marley 
Spike Milligan 
Dudley Moore 
Jim Morrison 
Van Morrison 
Arthur Miller 
AA Milne 
Joni Mitchell 
Friedrich Nietzsche 
Florence Nightingale 
Flann O'Brien 
Joe Orton 
George Orwell 
Wilfred Owen 
Emmeline Pankhurst 
Rosa Parks 
Louis Pasteur 
Edgar Allen Poe 
Richard Pryor 
Queen Elizabeth I 
Francois Rabelais 
Arthur Rimbaud 
Christina Rossetti 
Mary Seacole 
WG Sebald 
Mary Shelley 
Percy Bysshe Shelley 
William Shakespeare
Grace Slick
John Steinbeck 
Lawrence Sterne 
Robert Louis Stevenson 
Marie Stopes 
Tom Stoppard 
Dylan Thomas 
EP Thompson 
Thomas Traherne 
Harriet Tubman 
Leonardo da Vinci 
Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) 
Kurt Vonnegut 
HG Wells 
Oscar Wilde 
Hank Williams 
Tennessee Williams 
Virginia Wood 
Virginia Woolf 
William Wordsworth 
Neil Young 
Malala Yousafzai 
Frank Zappa

 

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Image: Pinterest

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We Can Be Together

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The death of Paul Kantner has hit me harder than I expected. More than anyone else that comes to mind, Paul represented the idealistic free spirit of the late 1960s when I had the very good fortune to come of age. Wordsworth’s lines about the French Revolution always carry a special power for me:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Wordsworth grew more conservative with age, perhaps because his fame and celebrity drew him to the establishment, whereas Kantner remained unapologetically radical to the end. His later Starship band may have been more commercial but was based on a concept that Paul brought to fruition as late as 2008, with the protest album Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. His continuing radicalism is clear in a recent interview with Ed Vulliamy:

“After a while, a figure approached, walking up the steep street in slippers, no socks, hair flowing from beneath a beret with a red star on it. Unmistakably: Paul Kantner …

… I always try to explain the entwined processes of age and politics in terms of two lines written by Paul. One is “Tear down the wall” – self-explanatory, from the Airplane’s revolutionary canon – and the other is “We are leaving / You don’t need us”, from Wooden Ships … One line affirms the revolutionary faith that is only extinguished – if it was ever felt – in those who lack soul. The other is the realisation with age that “the Wall” is still there, doing just fine, but one’s head hurts from banging against it and it is time to leave. For that distant place, be it in space – as Kantner believed – or within, or some shore towards which the Wooden Ships sail on their “fair wind blowing” …

… Kantner seemed ready to set sail. He broke into a requiem for all the things he and psychedelia had stood for, and a tirade against former vice president Dick Cheney – “almost as dangerous as fascism – at least Hitler had a cause!” – against SUV vehicles and mobile phones. But, he insisted, once the Summer of Love had happened in San Francisco, and the Airplane’s music was unleashed, “You are not going to be able to unring the bell! Thank you for your time.” With that, he stood up, shook my hand, signed my vinyl first edition of Surrealistic Pillow and strode off into the morning, cigarette in hand.”

In those volatile times – Vietnam was a huge awakening – Paul Kantner’s lyrics rang celebration and alarm bells alike and still resonate half a century later. But the revolutionary nature of bands like Jefferson Airplane was as much in the medium as the message. There was a wild, unpredictable, improvised edge to the music that defied the glib egotism of commercial celebrity with the fierce teamwork of a firebrand popular democracy – freedom, equality, solidarity – and the end result was always more than the sum of its parts. Surrounded by so many impassioned live bands – as I was lucky enough to witness – acts like the Airplane kept their headline status with a thrilling and daring musical empathy bordering on telepathy.

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The musical collective was as much spiritual as political.  Soon after hearing that Paul Kantner had died, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sat down and composed a statement about his fellow rhythm guitarist.

“Paul lived at the heart of the music, where the chords, the melody and the rhythm join together with the lyrics to form the story. His guitar was the glue that held all that together. His voice was the foundation of the choral vocals. Paul lived at the heart of the song. He was there for the Muse – when she needed a human voice or instrument, she channeled it through him.”

Weir explains that in the Airplane, the spotlight was on Grace Slick and Marty Balin, and musically, on Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady on bass.

Paul’s work was the mud from which those two lotuses grew. He made it possible for Jorma and Jack to be more adventurous with their lines, because they had a harmonic context, and a rhythmic context, to work off of.

As Bob Weir implies, Paul’s singing also underpins Grace and Marty’s extraordinary vocal flights in much the same way. His pivotal role is confirmed by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, speaking after Paul’s death:

The Airplane was an amazing aggregate of personalities and talent. That we could all coexist in the same room was amazing. That we could function together and make the lasting art that we did was nothing short of a miracle. In my opinion Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious… he could be loving and kind… his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable.

These revealing personal insights made a refreshing change from the many lazy obituaries I ploughed through, all recycling the same facts and reducing Paul Kantner’s cultural significance and influence to a kind of celebrity tick-list. Put him back in the Sixties Box seemed to be the main idea. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Wall has been rebuilt and the Man is in charge again …

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But let’s not get gloomy, that was never Paul’s style. Bob Weir concludes with a more optimistic thought:

When somebody you’re part of, and of that kind of import, dies, it’s a good time to take stock of what he offered, and see what you can make of it, and what you can take from it.

Haha, where do I start? Well, I began this post with the intention of saying what Paul Kantner means to me and ended by sharing what he means to other people. But I am moved that what I sensed from a distance is confirmed by people who knew him. It feels good to have and to hold Paul Kantner in common. He was, after all, a warrior fighting for a shared human future. And are we brave enough to honour his memory, I wonder, by looking for all the other things we have in common and learning how to settle our differences amicably?

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We live in the spaces between one another. Music teaches us that. Like songs, we live on in the minds of others whenever we are out of sight and sound. In that sense, I suppose, we are already ghosts. Alive, dead, who cares as long as we are remembered with pride and affection? As William Faulkner once said, ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’ And I’m still 19 whenever I listen to Crown of Creation.

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What else have I learned from Paul Kantner? Well, today, it’s … don’t vote for people who preach hate and division …  get out the car and go for a walk … and switch off your mobile phone.

It’s a start …

 

Spike in Audience Ratings

It’s official!

The World’s Funniest Joke is – or rather was, in 2002 – this little gem:

Two hunters are out in the woods in New Jersey when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed.

The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says: ‘Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says ‘OK, now what?’

Everyone knows that you can’t analyse humour, any more than you can capture music in words. Trying to work out why something is funny is like dissecting a frog to find out what makes it tick. The joke came top in a survey and the organiser has his own ideas about why it was so popular:

Professor Wiseman said the gag almost certainly originated from a 1951 Goons sketch written by Spike Milligan. He thought the joke contained all three elements of what makes a good gag – anxiety, a feeling of superiority, and an element of surprise.

“It plays on the death theme and it makes us feel superior to the complete idiot who does not understand,” he said. “It also has the surprise element as we don’t see the death coming.”

“I think Spike was a genius with that great kind of surreal humour,” he added. “He actually once wrote a sketch about finding the world’s funniest joke so it’s a fantastic quirk.”

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Now all this comes as no surprise to us British post-war baby-boomers. We grew up laughing at Spike’s anarchic comedy and our forced landing in sober-sided adulthood was cushioned by two TV shows that owed a huge debt to his madcap legacy – Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Not Only … But Also.

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I was too young to hear the Goon Show broadcast live, though I’ve heard most of it since. My first dose of Milligan was Silly Verse For Kids, a Christmas present for 1959. My brother and I would roll around the floor to stuff like this:

Today I saw a little worm / A-wriggling on his belly / Perhaps he’d like to come inside / And see what’s on the telly

There were holes in the sky / Where the rain gets in / But they’re ever so small / That’s why rain is thin

The following year, what reduced us to quivering jelly were the letters to Harry Secombe written on a sea voyage in A Dustbin of Milligan. One joke, reconstructed from memory, is typical Spike – he reminds me of a high-diver, who can only gain the best scores by attempting a greater level of difficulty:

The motto of the Shipping Company was, The More You Eat The Cheaper You Travel. This morning at breakfast I left a Scotsman trying to eat enough to enable him to travel free.

Who else would have dared that one? The intensity of Spike’s clowning, I discovered recently, came from writing these books while he was terrified that his bi-polar breakdowns would destroy his marriage and thus stop his access to the children. He was writing the silly stuff to keep his kids on his side. And to think, we all benefited from that … don’t know about you, but it sends a shiver up and down my spine. Laughter and tears are always closer than you think.

Aged 17 I went to see him in his West-End one-man show Son of Oblomov, the story of a young man who spends all day in bed. As you can imagine, I found that easy to relate to. There had been a full cast but they couldn’t keep up with Spike and dropped out one by one. The show opens with a spotlight on a bed. Somebody is under the covers. There is a loud knocking at the door and Spike’s head emerges from the bedclothes, with a daft nightcap, to furious applause. He establishes instant audience rapport by miming a hilarious range of emotions before going to a door and nervously opening it. Light floods in but nothing else.

Puzzled, he indicates he will go out and investigate. So far he hasn’t uttered a word. He exits. We are then treated to a lengthy symphony of ridiculous noises – screeches, bells, whistles, explosions and more – both live and recorded, before Spike enters from the opposite side of the stage at pace, his nightshirt flapping around his thin legs, slamming that door behind him. Panting, he turns to the audience and announces: ‘Nobody there!’ Rushing back to bed, he dives under the covers. The spotlight fades to black.

A little while and many laughs later, Spike spots a couple of late-comers pushing past audience knees to their seats. He asks for the house lights to be turned up and sits on the edge of the stage, legs dangling. “The story so far, folks!” he says and proceeds to tell them what has happened, mysteriously adding one element that hasn’t.

The couple sit down and the ‘action’ continues for a bit. Then Spike says something that causes this couple and nobody else to burst out laughing. They falter in confusion as everyone else slowly cottons on to his brilliant ruse and their laughter builds like a series of waves. I’ve never heard anything like it. We are in the hands of a comedy god, a cosmic conjurer, playing with us like toys. The show continued and I actually saw people falling out of their seats with laughter. It is one of my happiest memories.

Spike’s appearances on TV chat-shows were like high-wire acts. Would he make the perilous catwalk or crash to the ground? You never knew. Some – like my grandma who’d tut-tutted at first seeing the Beatles – just found him silly. She was right, of course, but I always thrilled to his wild risk-taking. How could you know what was acceptable unless you found out where the line was?

The putative Pythons had come up with a lot of funny sketches with weak punch-lines. Terry Jones talks of a light-bulb moment when, walking upstairs, he suddenly remembered Spike’s Q5 show. With such a dense flow of jokes, you didn’t need punch-lines. Just bring on a comedy policemen to stop the nonsense. And Terry Gilliam explains how he was given the ending of one sketch and the beginning of another and asked to come up with a cartoon to join them. That’s freedom, he grins.

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Favourite moments in Q5 include the Dalek coming home for his tea and a spoof David Attenborough visiting the East End Cock-a-Knees as if they are some exotic foreign tribe. Spike’s radical comedy kicked a hole in stuffy and genteel post-war ‘humorousness’ and greatly broadened the scope of what could be attempted. As to The Goons, there are so many wonderful moments – who can forget Eccles explaining the advantages of the stopped watch that’s right twice a day? But here is my favourite moment. You need to do the voices to get the full benefit but, hey, I’ll take the risk that it will fall as flat as a pancake. Spike was never afraid to risk that.

Bluebottle                                                                                                                                                                     How dare you call me thick! I’ll have you know, I’m as intelligent as the next man!

              (Pause)

Eccles                                                                                                                                                                              Oi’m da next man!

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Swimming Against The Stream

5 April, 1982, is a day I shall always remember. All afternoon the TV news showed huge crowds waving hundreds and hundreds of union jacks at departing battleships bound for the South Atlantic. The British Task Force was setting off to recapture the Falkland Islands, seized by Argentina just three days earlier. We watched in stunned silence, hardly able to believe our eyes. The speed and scale of it was overwhelming. Oh well, I said in a loud voice to no one in particular, they must know what they’re doing.

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In the kitchen, a pan crashed to the floor. My mother had heard me. She hurtled into the lounge in her apron and in no uncertain terms proceeded to read me the riot act. Her actual words are now a blur but that righteous anger of hers brings a blush to my cheek to this very day.  I can still see my kids on the floor where they were playing, open-eyed and open-mouthed, their faces turned up to watch and hear their grandma – kind, gentle, sweet-natured grandma – tearing into their dad as if he was still a small child himself and one who had been brought up to know much better than to spout such stupid nonsense.

My mum began to hurl imprecations at my head like the Fury in a Greek drama, o ye gods, how on earth could I have forgotten that the Americans had promised they would mediate between us and the Argentinians at the United Nations? Surely I could see that this ridiculous trumped-up farrago of force and hubris was designed to pre-empt negotiations which might yet save lives? This was just another shabby deal behind closed doors, a dirty conspiracy between the hawks in the States and Whitehall, yet one more lost opportunity to employ ‘jaw-jaw not war-war’ … her words return to me in fragments … ‘that man Haig’ … ‘she wants her way, they’re all terrified of her‘ ‘the old, old story’

Once my Mum got going like that, there was no stopping her.

Oh, I try but I can’t really reply to her. There are things I could say in defence of the British action, if only I could think of them, but I’m entirely absorbed in how my kids are reacting to this new and unexpected experience. Their eyes skitter between grandma and daddy, taking in her beautiful anger and my sheepish submission. My cheeks are still burning, more than thirty years later, but now it’s pride and gratitude that lights them up.

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I’m so glad they got to see her like that, in her true colours, flying before the wind of her indomitable human conscience. Whenever she disagreed with something you said, she would use a phrase which she got from her dad who must have heard it from one of his own forebears, a phrase that has always stayed with me … Never, she would say, never in the memory of man

Mum believed that the United Nations was at the summit of all human striving for a better world. She agreed with Thomas Jefferson that the price of freedom was eternal vigilance. And there was no one more vigilant than she, especially when others were climbing on a bandwagon going the other way. That April afternoon, amid all the bunting flying and ships’ horns tooting, never in the memory of man was her contrary clarion call.

And now it was a touchstone my own children would inherit.

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Full Circle

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… and when the child awakes, the fun begins again. I find myself clowning around with my grandchild just as my granddad did with me. The guy was hilarious, bless him! One time he comes to visit and presents us with a big box of Quality Street chocolates. We open it eagerly and start to unwrap the sweets, only to find he’s carefully wrapped up lots of silly little things like pebbles and nuts and bolts. When we express disappointment he keeps calling us greedy. We’re almost finished laughing when he brings out the real chocolates in an old brown paper bag and starts eating them himself, which absolutely kills us kids off.

Another time we – my brother, sister and I – are walking down a country lane with him and he points up at a wooden notice by the side of the road with the message illegible because the paint is peeling off.

“Know what that is, don’t you?” he asks.

We shake our heads.

“That,” he says with a straight face, “is a notice for people who can’t read.”

The three of us laughed so much, we fell into a hedge,

It was granddad who told my mum, his daughter,  about the man outside the League of Nations building after World War I – see my earlier post entitled Homage. And I suppose this present post is a homage to my granddad for filling our lives with hilarity. We never stopped laughing when he was around. If I can give my own grandchildren something of that, I will die happy …

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My mum was an idealist. She hated cruelty, elitism, xenophobia, greed and selfishness. She would always argue from the heart, her moral values needing no appeal to evidence. She knew what was right and could never understand why others might not share her passionate beliefs in universal  liberty, equality and fraternity.

I recall many occasions when she was surrounded by others trying to make her see how impractical her ideas were – human nature being what it is, they would tell her, not everyone is as good-hearted as you. Wrong, she would reply, what about the man who walked up the steps of the newly-opened League of Nations building after the carnage of World War I – the war to end war, their watchword – what about him? The man who chained himself to the railings, unfurling a banner whose words went around the world: “I ——– (name), from ——– (country), hereby renounce my nationality and proclaim myself The First Citizen of the World” That man, she would say before leaving the room with all the dignity she could muster, is the person I admire.

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Bless you mum, long gone but never forgotten, I wish more people thought and felt as you did …