Sunday, 12 December 2010

Hats Off to Christopher

One of the odd things about getting older is the way old enthusiasms suddenly resurface, like submarines returning from some long-forgotten mission. Two of these popped up in my life in recent weeks, and they're not unconnected.

First up was Roy Harper. It was the snow that did it, I think. I associate listening to Roy Harper with those snowy winters of the early 70s, sitting in my bedroom in our council flat, doing homework or simply gazing at the view over a snow-covered recreation ground towards the motorway, with Flat Baroque and Berserk or Lifemask playing on the Dansette.

Perhaps it was also thinking about an old friend from way back, an habitual fabulist, whose postcards back from his ever more lengthy trips into the land of the fairies could be instructive, alarming, and enchanting by turns. A very Roy Harper kind of guy. "Whatever happened to Roy Harper?", I found myself thinking. As he shared with John Martyn the distinction of having fallen off his stool at a gig I once attended, utterly wasted, the answer seemed fairly obvious.

It turns out he's a survivor, however; alive and well, and taking control of his legacy from Ireland. He has an informative website, where you can buy all his records, which he has wrestled back from the recording companies. Way to go, Roy. If you don't know his albums, and you want to hear some of the best work of Jimmy Page, Dave Gilmour, and other giants of British rock, what better place to start?

There was one side of one Harper album that I particularly wanted to hear: the 22 minute epic "The Lord's Prayer" from Lifemask. At college, I used to inflict this track on friends late at night, when they were too stoned to move or protest, really the best state in which to listen to it. I was doing them a favour, really. It's a wonderful audioscape which is an early and sophisticated use of the electronic resources of a studio, a meditation on the nature of humanity's journey from the Stone Age to the present day, largely in the form of a long series of 100 or so repetitive attributes,

whose message is must
whose excuses are holy
who passed it down to me
whose enemies are landmarks
whose fear is himself
whose hope is just
My LP copy mysteriously vanished years ago -- I suspect someone took direct action against having to hear it again -- and I hadn't heard it since. A chance to buy it again direct from the Harper Encampment was too good to miss.

"The Lord's Prayer" in turn caused the second resurfacing. Those frequent immersions in its hypnotic repetitions had pre-prepared me for an encounter in my college studies with the poem Jubilate Agno ("Rejoice in the Lamb"), the demented but spell-binding work by Christopher Smart. On cue, up it duly bobbed again.

Only 32 pages of the manuscript survive -- written by Smart between 1758 and 1763, while confined in a lunatic asylum -- but they shine with a mad light that is both very funny and deeply moving.
Most lines in one lot of the surviving pages begin with the word "Let" and most lines on other pages begin with "For." Quite a few link "Let" and "For" lines neatly together thematically, and there was clearly intended to be a sort of call and response structure:
Let Zurishaddai with the Polish Cock rejoice -- The Lord restore peace to Europe. For I meditate the peace of Europe amongst family bickerings and domestic jars.
Let Hagar rejoice with Gnesion, who is the right sort of eagle, and towers the highest. For I bless God in the rising generation, which is on my side.
Let Libni rejoice with the Redshank, who migrates not but is translated to the upper regions. For I have translated in the charity, which makes things better and I shall be translated myself at the last.
The bathos of such connections between the obscure and the everyday, the sublime and the ridiculous is somehow the source of the poem's power. It is as if someone had slipped Edward Casaubon a tab of LSD. The poem is most famous for a section contemplating Smart's cat, which lacks any "Let" lines:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.

This, and a selection of other lines, forms the basis of Benjamin Britten's choral work, "Rejoice in the Lamb" which (in the way of these synchronicitous things) someone happened to mention on the radio yesterday morning. There are several online texts available, for example here.

Who knows why these connections should appear, and whether there is any purpose to them? It gives me something to think about, I suppose, and a certain factitious coherence to my life. After 30 years, it must be getting a little crowded down there in my subconscious mind. By next week, those submarine voyagers could have submerged again for another 30-odd years. If so, I hope I'm still around when they break surface again.


Huw Hitchin said...

Those are remarkable trees. Furry, almost.

Mike C. said...


Yes, that was on our walk this afternoon on St. Catherine's Hill, Winchester -- the light was already going, but the trees down by the river looked good against the sunset. Having an image-stabilised long lens literally in your pocket is a big plus of the Panasonic GF1 ...

If you mean the trunks, that is ivy, of course.


Dave Leeke said...

Bless you Mike for mentioning all things Harper.

Over the years I have seen him live a few times - including a wonderful handful of gigs in the early '80s at Hitchin Folk Club before I moved away from the area.

However, I cannot forget the fact that the first time I was ever allowed to go to a gig on my own (despite my ridiculously young age) was to Hyde Park to see a Pink Floyd free concert. This was 1970 and I was all of about 14. Several of your compadres took me under their wing (it was unusual in those days for a minor - 14 for god's sake - to be allowed up to London on their own)but particularly Ronnie Baker et al were very kind. I don't think you were there but Time is a thief. Roy Harper was one of the real stars of the show. I'd never seen or heard such an eloquent intelligence let loose on an audience ( my live experiences by this time were such acts as The Black and White Minstrel Show - I kid you not!).

My iPod seems to regularly play such gems as "Cricketer", "12 Hours of Sunset" and all the stuff he recorded with Kate Bush (again, I kid you not - check out "You")so Roy's stuff always seems relevant to me.

Given Christopher Smart's incarceration in an Asylum, are you aware of the fact that Harper had had ECT treatment to allow himself to get out of the army? Evidently it explains a lot (although Lou Reed also claims this, I believe).

Still, it could be thee or it could be me, or it could be the sting in the tale . . .

Mike C. said...

There's something curiously resonant about the juxtaposition of Roy Harper and the Black and White Minstrels... ("I Hate the White Man"?) I'll have to go away and think about that one.