Tuesday, 28 April 2009

WD-40

Gravity is sometimes referred to as a "weak" force, but -- perhaps like the erosive action of wind and water -- in time it will overcome everything. It's easy to forget that on Earth there is a force tirelessly pulling down on everything, everywhere, all the time, always towards the same single destination. There's not one pebble on top of another that gravity isn't reaching through and patiently testing.

Of course, once you've trapped your fingers a couple of times under something heavy, or had something hard drop on your head, you do learn respect for weight and watch out for falling things, which are gravity's calling cards. But, because we don't find ourselves stuck painfully onto a smooth, featureless plain like swatted flies on a ceiling, and because the sheer exuberant three-dimensional solidity of the world belies gravity's force (whether it's natural features like mountains or trees or human architectural constructions), we can easily take it for granted.

Some gravity-defying exuberance

But I've got an office door that creaks on its hinges, and every little draught passing through my open window makes it groan. Its lament constantly reminds me of the sheer weight of the door, all held in place by three narrow rods passing through some thin metal plates, and fixed to the cheap wood of the doorframe by just twenty four screws, which must be screaming under the strain.

Hurts just thinking about it, doesn't it? My idiotic hat is off to you, gallant woodscrews, in your perpetual agonised wrestling match with gravity. You're a class act.

But I'm afraid I have brought a can of WD-40 in today, to anaesthetize my pain, if not yours.


A gravity-approved dwelling

Saturday, 25 April 2009

You (don't really) Need Roots


A year or two ago I heard a song called "Roots" by a folk duo called Show of Hands. It's a very catchy, stirring song, with lyrics that caught my mood at the time -- basically, a feisty lament for the way the English have lost touch with their own native musical traditions (and by implication their national identity). Apparently it was written in reaction to sometime Culture Minister Kim Howells' remark that his idea of hell was three folksingers from Somerset in a pub (Dr. Howells, despite a distinguished career in Parliament, is given to such provocative remarks -- people may remember his comments on the 2002 Turner Prize).
After the speeches, when the cake's been cut
The disco's over and the bar is shut
At christening, birthday, wedding or wake
What can we sing 'til the morning breaks?

With the Indians, Asians, Africans, Celts
It's in their blood, below their belt
They're playing and dancing all night long
So what have they got right that we've got wrong?
As a veteran of the folk scene myself, it spoke to me very clearly. "You need roots" asserts the chorus -- yes, indeed. But the more I thought about it, the more suspicious I became of the feelings the song aroused. The reason we have had at least four "folk revivals" in this country is that the patient is, frankly, dead. And every time we bring it back, it's a bit more of a Frankenstein zombie. And I'm also always uncomfortably aware that "rootless cosmopolitans" was Soviet-era code for "Jews".

The English folk scene now, despite the continuity provided by the likes of the Copper family or the Carthy/Waterson dynasty, is about as authentic as chicken tikka masala. Which is to say, it's a perfectly decent reflection of our own times, but has been refracted and reflected through too many mirrors too many times to accurately show the source. Some might say it was ever thus, and that continual renewal is precisely the point. But to claim these songs as "ours" and thereby somehow intrinsic to our national identity is to raise Balkan and reactionary questions about race, land, culture and belonging. Let's face it, for anyone born post-1945, "Smokestack Lightning" is even more "ours" than "Cold Haily Windy Night". And "Smokestack Lightning" is not "ours" at all.

So it didn't surprise me at all to hear this week that Show of Hands have had to take action to have their song removed from a video put out by the extreme right-wing British National Party. Well, of course. Billy Bragg and Show of Hands might talk of "taking back" the Union Jack and the flag of St. George, but -- come on -- does anyone really want them back, knowing where they've been? The fact is that the strong emotions aroused by talk of "roots" and "tradition" may be real, but they are not progressive, in the sense that they will not take us forward from here -- this imperfect but really rather not at all bad place we call "England" -- to an even better place.

In fact, when you think about it, isn't England leading the world in its casting off of the trappings of nationalism? Have we not perhaps muddled through to a society strong enough in its self-acceptance to find itself ludicrous, and post-modern enough to enable millions of Pick'n'Mix identities to rub along together? After all, why do so many people with rather different roots find this a congenial place to come and live? It sure as shit isn't the food (though chicken tikka was definitely a step forward, except as a flavour of crisps). And why do so many of us not really mind all that much if they do come here? Apart, that is, from a few boneheads with a thing about the dilution of our mongrel "blood" and the preservation of "traditions" most of them are too ignorant to identify.

Ironically, I think the urge to poke fun at morris men and all such solemn attempts to re-invent "traditions" is one of the genuinely life-enhancing legacies on our interesting island. It's our insurance against Kultur-peddling Nazis. Remember the 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch? Scripted by Ian McEwan, it used the fact that the "traditional" ploughman's lunch was invented as a marketing ploy as a metaphor for the continual and self-serving rewriting of history by our masters, about which we have every right to be cynical.

Of course, apart from a few peculiar backwaters like Rottingdean, the singing of folksongs (other than in folk clubs) died out in most of England so long ago that no-one can actually remember when. People have always sung, of course. In the late 70s my partner and I used to drink most nights in a pub called The Phoenix in Bristol -- on certain weeknights the entire pub would resound with the communal singing of about thirty or forty well-oiled senior citizens. I never did hear them sing a single "traditional" song, though, but "Delilah", I recall, would raise the roof. No more though: subsequent generations have lost the taste for the singalong, and that may be something to be regretted. This has nothing to do with "roots", though, and a lot to do with the professionalisation of entertainment.

But "Playing and dancing all night long?" Give it a rest, some of us have got work in the morning, mate.


Friday, 24 April 2009

The Red Dragonfly


Par la bonté bouddhique, Bâshô modifia un jour avec ingéniosité un haïkaï cruel composé par son humoristique disciple, Kikakou. Celui-ci ayant dit : " Une libellule rouge – arrachez-lui les ailes – un piment", Bâshô y substitua : "Un piment – mettez-lui des ailes – une libellule rouge"
André Breton, Ode à Charles Fourier, 1947
(Out of Buddhist kindness, one day Basho cleverly changed a cruel haiku composed by his witty disciple, Kikaku. The latter having written, 'A red dragonfly - tear off its wings - a pepper', Basho substituted 'A pepper - add wings - a red dragonfly').

Gosh, sounds like Basho may have pulled Kikaku back from the haiku Dark Side.
Kikaku: Your powers are weak, old man.
Basho: You can't win, Kiki. If you write that down, I shall become more poetical than you could possibly imagine.
(And in case you were wondering, it's a burst plastic football. What did you think it was?)

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Fair Friend

We are meaning-making creatures. Constructing random dots into faces and unrelated noises into malevolent intruders downstairs seems to be what we do as a species. It appears to have worked well for us, although those dark, windy nights in the Ice Age must have been a trial, hunkered around the flickering fire with the more nervous members of the tribe -- "No, really, listen, what was THAT??" Religion and art may well originally have been invented as harmless distractions for these hypersensitive souls.

In particular, the discovery of anagrams, cryptograms, and the like seems to hint at a deep, hidden meaning lurking like a monster pike beneath the placid surface of language. But these are usually a form of madness made visible. The idea that, somehow, a code has been implanted into the very symbols we use to represent the sounds that come out of our mouths is clearly insane, but nonetheless seems more profound to many people than the idea that random patterns throw up random meaningless meanings. It is a madness with a very respectable pedigree. And, of course, cryptograms have been concealed in texts from time to time, though quite why is probably a matter for students of abnormal psychology.

So, what do you make of these frequently-cited "natural" anagrams?

George Bush = He bugs Gore
Year two thousand = A year to shut down
Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one

They're very neat, and that last one is fun (think about it), but it's clear none of them means anything beyond having a superficial resemblance to a hidden code. They're as accidental as a run of six sixes in a dice game. But what about this one?

"To be or not to be: that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ..."

Familiar words. But -- improbably, unbelievably, outrageously -- they are an anagram of:

"In one of the Bard's best-thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero Hamlet queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten ..."

This has to mean something, surely. But it doesn't. Other than the fact that (a) whoever worked it out had far too much time on their hands, and (b) these two sentences indisputably contain the same letters. As someone reflects in Thomas Pynchon's V: "Life's single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane." If nothing else, this constructed coincidence -- lying in wait for 400 years -- should persuade you not to let the hunters for hidden signatures and cryptograms convince you that anyone but The Stratford Man wrote the plays. William Shakespeare was William Shakespeare. That's mystery enough for anyone.

However. Today is my man Shakespeare's official birthday, so I thought I might share with any other Shakespeare enthusiasts my favourite piece of "extra-curricular" frisky Shakespeariana.

SHAKESPEARE'S PSALM:

It has been suggested that William Shakespeare may have helped with the wording and meter of the Book of Psalms in the King James Version of the Bible. So, just suppose that in 1610, when the Bible was within a year of publication, the members of the Committee of translators had
reason to thank and surprise him on his birthday. He was forty six years old, so let's just pretend he was invited to examine the translation of, oh, let's say Psalm 46.

Pretend further that he was prompted to count to the forty-sixth word from the beginning, and to the forty-sixth word from the end (ignoring the title and the "selahs" -- words signifying pauses or rests). Get a King James Bible, and count them for yourself, and you'll find in line three the word "shake" and in line nine the word "spear." In the way of these numerological things, if you then add the 4 and 6 of forty six, you get 10. The tenth word of the tenth line is "will". Curious, no?


It's all a complete coincidence, of course. But: quite some birthday present, even -- or maybe especially -- if unintended. Of course, it's a present Shakespeare might quietly have given to himself ...

Oh, and it is an interesting fact (allegedly -- I haven't had the opportunity to check for myself) that the KJV Bible on permanent display in Stratford church has been open at the pages containing Psalm 46 for as long as anyone can remember. Again, probably all a complete coincidence.

Happy 445th birthday, Will!


To me, fair friend, you never can be old;
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah! yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived.

For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

Sonnet 104





Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Material World

You would have thought that the whole point of publicly-funded higher education was to enable essentially unprofitable but highly desirable centres of excellence to exist. Exist, but maybe not flourish, or at least not in an ostentatious way: no-one expects the Malthusian Professor of Hierophantics to drive a Ferrari. However, every move of government in relation to higher education in recent times has emphasised, re-emphasised, double-underlined and highlighted in flourescent pink ink one single point: KNOWLEDGE IS A COMMODITY.

From that ill-advised, philistine point of view, every undesirable thing that has happened to our universities has flowed. It's been going on for so many years now we have come to think it is normal, an uncontestable, rational view. Universities themselves have internalised this poison so thoroughly that it has begun to seem like wisdom: KNOWLEDGE IS A COMMODITY. And we all know what happens to factories that produce commodities for which there is insufficient demand, don't we?

The latest victim of this cast of mind is the well-regarded, world-leading Textile Conservation Centre at my own university. Having devised a brilliant strategy for our institution which has led to massive overspends (not entirely by following the lead of our political masters -- there is still some scope for local folly, I'm glad to say) the university central management have been desperately looking for luxuries we can no longer afford, in order to cut costs. The TCC, it turns out, is going to be one of them. After all, the idiots were so busy repairing Freddie Mercury's trousers and polishing Henry VIII's football boots that they failed to fund themselves! It's their own fault!!

But, wait. How came it about that the TCC is Southampton's to dispense with? Founded in 1975, the Centre was a charitable trust based at Hampton Court until 1998. How did the Centre end up at Southampton's Winchester School of Art, in purpose-built accommodation? Indeed, what is the University of Southampton -- renowned worldwide for its eminence in engineering and computer science -- doing running an art school anyway, and one based in Winchester, which it absorbed in 1996? And why has the university changed its view so radically? I have my own, ill-informed answers to all these questions, but they are deeply cynical, and I value my continued employment, so I will simply point out: KNOWLEDGE IS A COMMODITY. The TCC was a failing enterprise, with an inadequate business plan. End of. We're running a business here, and times are tough.

The idea of honour (as in, "a matter of honour", "honouring a contract", etc.) is a very dated idea, and not one we see, um, honoured in public life any more. Ministers do not resign, financiers do not blush at their personal greed, and vice-chancellors whose visions have led educational institutions into financial dire straits continue to reap large financial returns from the public purse. After all, top flight universities are now not even embarrassed by no longer offering Physics or Classics as subjects of study (unprofitable!); why then should we blink at casting off into unemployment the entire staff of a tiny "centre of excellence" to whom reassuringly warm words of welcome were spoken just a decade ago?

It's tough all over, people, and it's time you looked up from your needlework or darning or whatever it is you do all day over there in Winchester, and learned the truth: KNOWLEDGE IS A COMMODITY. Listen: Have you considered starting a really top-drawer t-shirt business?

Some weasel words on the subject


Some angry words on the subject

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Radnor Redux

Some pictures from our week in a farmhouse near Llandegly, Radnorshire (or Powys, if you prefer the modern mega-county). We awoke to frost on our first morning, but the weather changed through clear sun to mist to steady rain over the course of the week -- exactly what you'd expect, and we wouldn't have had it any other way.


"Our" field


"Our" fence

The mid-Wales borders are perfect walking country, the ancient hills have eroded into smooth ups and downs, and tracks head off in all and any directions -- none of that brash young alpine stuff. The area has that feel of being in a time warp that seems to characterise borderlands. Even now, there are shops in the market towns where you step back into 1958 whenever you set the bell above the door tinking. Somehow, hill farmers seem to start out as normal youngsters and gradually mutate or erode into their forebears: we started visiting Wales at Easter in 1978, and this year's cloth-capped old boys leaning on gateposts were probably the young men modelling themselves on Kevin Keegan back then.


Castle Bank


Looking towards Gilwern

You can still get lost, though. Once the mist starts to come down, your map-reading had better be pretty good, or you'll find yourself in the wrong valley, up to your knees in boggy ground. Wherever you go, though, you walk with ghosts, and respect is due -- some of these tracks go back to before the Bronze Age, and you usually end up having a rest on the bank of a hillfort or Roman encampment, or out of the wind in the lee of a cairn or standing stone. Naturally, the area has been a magnet for several generations of people looking to live an alternative lifestyle. You may have trouble finding a replacement power cable for a Nintendo DS, but there's never any shortage of organic wholefoods or blissed-out amateur artwork.


Bryn-y-maen


Thursday, 16 April 2009

County of Contrasts

Welcome to Hampshire, county of contrasts. A couple of postcards from home while we're away.


St. Catherine's Hill, Winchester


West Quay underpass, Southampton


Tuesday, 14 April 2009

ITDA (It's That Dog Again)

Here's that dozing dog again, with more context. I think the trainers are there for the dog's entertainment.




Across the square, the Staff Club chairs are furnished in an oddly irridescent fabric. The dots are stuck on most of the plate glass windows on campus, primarily, I think, to stop absent-minded fools walking straight through them.


Sunday, 12 April 2009

Stick It In The Family Album Part II

I mentioned a while ago that I had been approached by a gallery in Innsbruck (from whom, btw, I have heard nothing since -- the ways of galleries are very strange ... Maybe it was someone's idea of a joke, after all?). Anyway, as I had recently inherited the family photo hoard, this prompted me to look out the album of snaps from our holidays in the Austrian Tyrol in 1965 and 1966.

What I found was interesting, in several ways. First, more of the photographs than I was expecting had been taken by me. Clearly so, as many were of my parents, or of the things I alone had found interesting (I had a thing about Austrian graveyards, with their elaborate wrought iron crosses and little photographs of the deceased), or of my parents standing in front of the things I had found interesting, or pointing at those interesting things, and relatively few were of me.

Now, it's true, there does seem to be a Law of Parenthood that decrees children are no longer considered photogenic after their 10th birthday. I've noticed it myself. It had become an annual ritual to gather together the twelve best shots of our kids to make up a yearly calendar for the grandparents. In the early years, I had an embarrassment of riches: smiling toddlers doing cute things were spread thick and deep and even across the year, and making a final cut was quite hard work. But in more recent years -- despite the sheer volume of my photographic activity -- the challenge was simply to find twelve decent photos of the kids, never mind the twelve "best" shots taken in appropriate months and/or weather. I could speculate why this is but, let's be honest, scowling tweenies and teenagers who howl or gurn grotesquely whenever a camera-toting parent hauls into view are best left to the professionals.


We're all looking forward to Wales next week!

The second interesting thing was that my reading of these familiar images has changed. My sister -- eight years older -- had recently flown the nest and, in retrospect, it's clear we had been profoundly unsettled by this. These were the first holidays taken without her, and her absence had deconstructed us from "a family" into what the photos now reveal to me: a tired and preoccupied middle-aged couple with a precocious and neurotic pre-adolescent boy in tow. It can take 40 odd years for plain old reality to shine through, sometimes. I felt a real pang of fellow feeling for those two, actually rather younger in those pictures than I am now.

The third thing was that I found quite a few commercially-produced duplicated slides, originally bought in packs at tourist spots. I had forgotten about this adjunct to the postcard racks, and I imagine it's an outlet for local professionals that has no contemporary equivalent. Does anyone now buy memory sticks or CDs with ready-made views of the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Roof in Innsbruck? Assuming the answer is No, it's an interesting question why this should be. Partly to do with the loss of control over copyright inherent in digital imaging, I imagine, and partly to do with the easy availability of stock imagery on the Web (which has seen a corresponding decline in income for professionals from stock photo agencies). But largely to do with the blessed decline in the holiday slide show session. It's curious how the expression "slide show" has survived into the digital age, and escaped its association with suburban tedium in a darkened room: the ker-shlik sound of a carousel has become as nostalgic (indeed, as skeuomorphic) as the racy whir of a motor drive. Actually, virtually no-one used to own a motor drive, but the sound became universally attached to "taking a photograph" because it made such a groovy sound on TV and film soundtracks.

These slides made me think about the difficulty of getting past the obvious, photographically, when visiting somewhere unfamiliar. The sheer talent of, say, a National Geographic or Magnum photographer, hitting the airport tarmac with a few weeks to produce world-class images of somewhere utterly foreign under less than ideal conditions is simply awe-inspiring. Any keen photographer knows the more usual arc -- the miraculous first few images of first contact are followed by the disappointing next few hundred, as you rediscover every cliche in the photo equivalent of "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." Most of us never get beyond this stage; it's one reason why postcards will still be selling in Lunar and Martian giftshops.

But the curious thing about family snapshots (and by extension that whole area of photographic interest known as vernacular or "found" photographs i.e. photos which have fallen out of their albums) is the way the repeated ritual meeting of camera and family occasion has generated sub-genres which are common to thousands of albums, the contents of which are as private but as similar to each other as bank accounts. Sitting in a deckchair; standing in an alcove being a statue; admiring a view, posed ironically like explorers; giggling over an icecream -- little pauses of self-consciousness in a holiday, when the camera came out, and everyone conceded to go on the record. One for the album.

People do change, though, like fashions. I think it used to be more common to develop and practice a social "camera" smile-- it was part of being well turned out. My father had a particularly wolfish toothy grin for the camera which I never saw him use in real life until the first time we went in a pub together, when he used it on the barman to useful effect. I then realised that we were being actors in a film from the 1940s.

My mother, on the other hand, hated being photographed and developed a particular frozen half-smile, coupled with a thousand yard stare, which I tried to avoid photographing and which I also never saw her use in real life until she was overtaken by dementia, and then her expression rarely changed to anything else. It was as if she had lost track of whether she was in front of a camera or not, and was keeping her face on just in case. Not being, at heart, a proper photographer, I never photographed her again from that point on, and destroyed any photographs well-meaning relatives sent me. The album was already complete, as far as I was concerned.


Grandmother & grandson, ca. 1993


Thursday, 9 April 2009

Mysterium Fascinosum

Someone working in the theatre on campus sometimes brings their dog into the office, which can often be seen dozing in the sun while they work. The reflections from outside overlay the inside scene like a doggy dream world. The image is almost a reverse Tarkovsky -- a dog sleeping on a perilously small blanket island, amidst a sea of cobbles where strange, predatory humans walk. The dog's resemblance to Scooby Doo (maybe Shaggy got a steady job in the theatre?) somehow reinforces the effect ...



During the same lunch hour, I encountered what looks like some kind of religious construction (behold how the shadows coincide on the Special Spot at the appointed hour!). In fact, it's an attempt to regenerate the grass in front of the Students' Union. However, the strong wind was whipping the barrier tapes like Tibetan prayer flags on a mountain top, and the scene had that numinous feeling -- an Easter-time combination of strong wind, bright light, cold air and the promise of rain -- which I find hard to resist, a species of the mysterium fascinosum. Next week we'll be in mid-Wales, where we will walk in the presence of old gods (and sheep, lots of sheep), and probably get very wet in the process.


Sunday, 5 April 2009

Songs Are Like Tattoos

I realise that Joni Mitchell is not everyone's cup of tea. She's not so much an acquired taste as a hard-wired taste: something you either like or you don't like. I own several copies of Blue in various formats, and have owned several more, simply because I have more than once made the offer: "Buy it, and if you don't love it, I promise I'll buy it off you." I now know that enough people don't like it to no longer make this foolish offer. I have quite enough spares, thanks.

I also realise it's more unusual for a man to have that wiring than a woman. I first heard Blue played by a friend's older sister in 1970, and have liked Joni Mitchell, in an on-again/off-again relationship, ever since. "Like" is a silly word to choose, really: I like salted peanuts, Greene King Abbot Ale, and the Welsh Borders. My appreciation of La Mitchell is on a different plane altogether. What word to choose for it? Love? Well, the feeling is rather less than the love I might feel for a real person (come on, I've never met the woman, or even seen her perform live -- for all I know, she's really a collective of bearded yodelling counter-tenors living on a farm in Bavaria), but definitely includes some of the exasperation and devotion, dedication and repulsion that love might involve.


In truth, long ago I did have a sort of channelled affair with Joni Mitchell through the medium of a friend to whom I was once very close, and who was also a Mitchell devotee. We met through mutual friends at our schools, and clapped together like two magnets. To me, she was the most exotic person I'd ever met. In our town -- in effect, one enormous council estate -- a teacher was regarded as the epitome of professional achievement. Sandie's father was a dentist, however, and they lived out of town, in one of the satellite villages of North Hertfordshire, which the progressive professional middle classes (Orwell's "sandal-wearing vegetarians") had long ago made their own. Before visiting their house, I'd never seen a duvet, or eaten muesli, or -- on a memorable occasion I will never forget -- drunk fresh orange juice, in a litre carton cold from the fridge, on a hot summer's day. Small things perhaps, but a vision of another world.

When she went away to university a year before me, we would write frequent long letters to each other which riffed on JM themes. I would often visit her at weekends, either alone or with our little gang of friends. Those were joyful but also strange and sometimes dark times, when drugs and androgyny had slipped their aristocratic-bohemian leash and gone mainstream, perfectly recalled by the mood of For The Roses, and also David Bowie's Hunky Dory ("Bewlay Brothers" is an overlooked masterpiece, I think). I think I had always known Sandie was unhappy, that at some level she nursed a deep hurt, but it was dismaying that it seemed to get worse, not better, as time went by.  Any number of Joni Mitchell songs express quite precisely the complexity of those conflicted, compacted emotions she struggled with.

Then she and I travelled in Europe together in the summer of 1973, through Paris, Rome and Athens, and ended up on Ios, deep in the Greek Islands. It felt as if Ladies of The Canyon and Blue had come to life, although the original party had passed through some years before. Although we didn't rent us a grand piano in Rome, we did crash in a Greek pop star's flat in Athens, who insisted on repeatedly playing us Tubular Bells, that summer's sensation. We also held a drunken ceremony of sorts in the rain on the beach at Rapallo for Shelley's drowned shade. There was an outbreak of cholera that summer in Southern Europe, but we had taken the precaution of getting inoculation certificates and sailed for Greece on a half-empty ferry, so self-obsessed that we barely noticed that a military coup was taking place.

On the (then) remote Mylopotas beach on Ios we slept on the sand, and -- in one of those astounding moments that prove everything and nothing -- encountered another travelling pair from our home town traipsing along the waterline, the red-haired male half wearing his partner's long red dress, due to extreme all-over sunburn.  "Carey, get out your cane..."  I kept a journal, convinced, as only an idiotic 19-year old can be, that my biographer would be amused by the cunning way I'd woven together lyrics from Blue with Keats and Shelley. (My biographer?? 'Fraid so).  I discovered it recently, and found large chunks of this adventure had vanished from my memory, like blackouts.



Then off I went to university myself. Court and Spark came out, an album I have never much liked, and it somehow broke the spell. Sandie and I drifted onto separate tracks. Joni Mitchell sat out the following years, as I went upbeat and cynical with Steely Dan. I discovered political protest and a swathe of new, even more exotic soulmates, while she, mystifyingly, seemed set on a self-destructive course, with her sights set no higher than waiting tables in the trendiest restaurant in town. I think we both felt obscurely angry with each other, culminating in a bizarre argument at an after hours "lock in" drinks session at her latest waitressing gig, which ended with me physically ejected onto the street by the owners.

As to the music, boringly, I like the albums everyone else likes: everything (except Court and Spark) up to and including Hejira in 1977, particularly what has come to be know as Joni's "Blue Period". There followed that big gap when she became entranced by jazz-lite sounds and lost touch, lyrically and emotionally, with the Zeitgeist and her original fanbase. As we fans faltered, broke stride, and hit the sofa or the bottle (ideally both), swapping our shining nights for disposable nappies and kids' TV, Joni glided far overhead, still serenely self-obsessed, "everything first class..."  Her late return to form with Night Flight Home got me back in the fold, but I'm afraid the slow decline into mannerism as her vocal range declines with age and cigarette smoke hasn't yet delivered a classic Late Period to compare with that Blue Period, for me at any rate.

Given how sublime so many of her songs are, it's interesting how little covered they have been.   Other than a couple of early hits, Mitchell covers are both infrequent and usually unsuccessful.   Other singer-songwriters have written songs which others can perform, often better -- even great stylists in their own right, like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen -- but JM is almost literally inimitable.

The main, obvious reason is her voice. Her unique range and style -- full of grace notes and octave-swooping decoration -- are integral to her tunes, her phrasing inseparable from the lyrics. It's almost impossible to sing a JM song without a degree of mimicry amounting to parody. You can't cut them loose from that voice. The estimable K.D. Lang has one of the best and most distinctive voices in popular music, and her album of covers of Canadian songwriters, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, is one of my favourite albums. But even she fails to own and recast the two Mitchell songs she covers.

There is also the accompaniment. She has evolved a dizzying repertoire of guitar tunings, and a unique notation system to help her remember them. As with the voice, the resonance of certain open-tuned chords is somehow built into the songs. Then there is her piano playing. There is a kind of dark, hanging, unresolved chord that she uses, that you hear nowhere else in popular music. Add to that her intensely personal and private range of reference -- her songs can be like reading someone else's diary (or perhaps it's that our diaries have come to resemble JM songs) -- and you have a uniquely expressive body of work, which is so much "of a piece" that it's virtually impossible to disentangle any single song and reinterpret it without damage.



Kids today are awash in music, and perhaps undervalue it. It's become a disposable, free commodity. But at the time I fell under Joni Mitchell's spell, I must have owned ten LP records, tops. When Sandie gave me her copy of Song For A Seagull not long after we met, it was a powerful, definitive gesture. Music is important, music is a declaration of allegiance, a tribal tattoo. As I sit here surrounded by clattering heaps of CDs, it's easy to forget how precious it can be when you're young.

Youth, of course, is famously wasted on the young. You're free to lay waste your brain cells or rampage on the streets or simply idle away the time, with nothing yet to offer the world beyond youthfulness and promise, innocently unaware of the stake you already have in what you are kicking against. Songwriters like Joni Mitchell may be the thoughtful side of rock and pop, but are still limited in the range of emotions and issues they can address unless they can escape the confines of an essentially youthful, essentially innocent artform. JM's use of jazz inflections in that "middle period" never quite shifted her songwriting into adult territory, but later work like "Two Grey Rooms" or "Nothing Can Be Done" is fully grown-up music, I think. At her best now, she inhabits the territory of those who have finally understood but not quite reconciled themselves to the cycle whereby certain kinds of reward and regard always go to the young, never to the old. Not surprising, given "The Circle Game" was one of her earliest and most enduring hits.

But, for me (and perhaps for you, too, if you've had a similar journey) Joni Mitchell is now an infrequent indulgence, and almost unbearably poignant. I can hardly listen to, say, "A Case Of You", "The Last Time I saw Richard", "Emilia", or "Cold Blue Steel & Sweet Fire": they all reduce me to tears or brown study introspection. This can be very enjoyable, but is not something you want to do in front of the kids.

In the end, the terrible, boring truth is that we seem to be fated to become those socially-compromised characters we despised in the songs we loved when we were young.

There's a man who's sent a letter
And he's waiting for reply
He has asked her of her travels
Since the day they said goodbye
He writes "Wish you were beside me
We can make it if we try"
He has seen her at the office
With her name on all his papers
Thru the sharing of the profits
He will find it hard to shake her
From his memory
And she's so busy being free.

"The Cactus Tree"
But songs are like tattoos, and I've still got a few on my arm -- faded blue reminders that I, too, once had a Blue Period.

i.m. Sandie G., 1954 - 2005